Think small for big career growth

If you’re just getting started in the work world, I recommend finding work in a small shop instead of a large organization.

My first job was on Capitol Hill working for a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. I had the good fortune of working for a truly kind and smart man who cared about his employees and his responsibility to his constituents. He served as an excellent mentor, which is clutch to find early on in your work life. (If you’re choosing between job options, go for the one that offers the best potential for finding a great mentor. Pay and benefits and prestige and even the level of responsibility in your job pale compared to the quality of leadership in an organization as you’re searching for a good fit early in your career.)

Members of the U.S. House have relatively small staffs. There were just around ten of us in the D.C. office when I was there. And, because there were so few of us, we all got to know the boss well, and we all got to do a little bit of everything. My peers who worked for U.S. Senators had a completely different experience. Senate staffs are much larger because the Senator represents a whole state. Many of the Senate staffers I knew had never even had a substantive conversation with their boss. One Senator famously instructed his staff to keep their hands in their pockets as he greeted guests at receptions so he would know they were his employee and not be embarrassed by introducing himself publicly to his own staff member. And Senate staffers had narrower fields of expertise and more clearly defined daily tasks because there were so many in their office.

While it might have seemed more prestigious to work on the Senate side, only a handful of staffers in each office got the quality of experience that everyone on a House member’s staff did. If you do work in a big organization, you may have to be more intentional about getting your hands on projects that interest you and connecting with potential mentors.*

One way to guarantee substantive work no matter where you end up is to create your own side hustle. Set up you own little business or create a web site or publish your own book or make that film you’ve been imagining. That’s the ultimate small shop, and you can’t help but learn a lot by trying to bring a project to life by yourself.


*Orbiting The Giant Hairball is a terrific book for anyone trying to thrive creatively in a large, bureaucratic organization. The author was a creative maverick at Hallmark Cards and  shares wonderful insights about navigating big companies with your soul intact.