Mallory Ward

When giving advice to people early in their career, I often say to go work on a losing political campaign. This is often met with surprise. Isn’t the point winning? But there is so much to learn from working for the underdog on a scrappy campaign that doesn’t have the resources or talent of their competitors. Here are five things I learned from my first job— a statewide campaign in New York where the candidate ended up dropping out before the primary.

1. Focus on Your Path to Victory

Even longshot candidates need to spend time thinking about how they win. Who is their base? How do they expand it? What motivates these voters? How do we reach them and energize them?

For underdog campaigns, this often involves creative thinking and a Hail Mary pass or two. For our team, charting a path and understanding all of the small steps that could lead us to victory made the impossible seem possible to staff and supporters. It instilled confidence and kept us focused.

By nature, campaigns are messy with lots of distractions. It takes discipline to stay focused, push out your message and connect with the voters you need to turn out for you.

2. Step Up and Fill the Gap

On an underfunded and understaffed campaign, there are lots of opportunities to raise your hand and take on a new assignment – organize volunteers, knock doors in an unfamiliar neighborhood or staff the candidate. But perhaps more importantly, it’s an environment where you learn to step up – without being asked – to fill the gaps and find a way forward.

Without someone telling you exactly what to do and how to do it every step of the way, you’re forced to problem solve on a daily basis. These are great opportunities to stretch yourself and think creatively, especially since the stakes are low and any effort you make is going to be appreciated. Getting in the habit of just doing what needs to be done—and building the muscle to do it instinctively—is an invaluable asset that will serve you well in any future career.

3. Learn from the Missteps

You get a lot of opportunities to make a mistake – there isn’t training, you probably don’t really know what you are doing and it’s a fast paced environment.

In my first week as a campaign scheduler, I made a big mistake. I didn’t realize there were two airports in New York City and sent the candidate to the wrong one. While I was enjoying a day off, he almost missed the state nominating convention.

But in the process, I learned you can’t assume that things will run smoothly and the importance of actively managing projects. I’ll also never forget that LaGuardia and JFK are two very different airports.

4. Work Hard and Smart

Even after putting in 16-hour days seven days a week, my first campaign job ended before the primary. But all of that hard work didn’t take place in a vacuum – the other campaigns saw what we were able to accomplish with limited resources and a number of other challenges. I ended up getting a job working for the winning candidate.

Hard work is a requirement for campaigns, but showing you can work smart at the same time is a differentiator.

5. Take Time to Appreciate the People Around You

In my first job, I had the chance to be in rooms and learn from people with years of experience. With a small staff, the line between recent college graduate and seasoned political consultant just wasn’t as sharp. This allowed me to hear how our consultants approached an issue, formulated a message and managed the candidate. I still think back on some of their advice when confronted with a tricky situation.

Campaigns give you the opportunity to meet and work alongside really smart and talented people. You always learn something – and in the process can make lifelong friends.