It was early 2017, and the phones in the halls of Congress wouldn’t stop ringing. Working in Congress meant answering the phone dozens of times a day, listening to our constituents’ often conflicting, sometimes indecipherable, opinions. It also meant paying attention to the most tedious, important details, and for me, drinking five cups of coffee a day just to have energy to do everything I was asked to do.
“Do me a favor,” my boss said from behind her desk as she put down the phone. “Can you make some new labels for our file folders?”
“Sure,” I replied. I had a more glamorous idea of what my internship in Congress would be like, but hey. I would get to do some of that stuff, too. “Of course.”
Besides, I had plenty of experience making labels. In my first job out of college, I was a research assistant in a science lab, which had a secret goldmine of office supplies. My fellow RAs and I occasionally visited the stash to “collect” different things we might need. Back then, in the mid-2000s, I kept a binder of my important work because there was no such thing as cloud storage—we kept hard copies. So, I created different dividers for each different topic in my binder, writing the label names in my best handwriting.
Thinking back to my old life as a handwritten file folder labeler, I replied with a counter-request. “I have good penmanship. I can just write these file folder labels by hand. They’ll look really nice.”
“No, we need them to be printed,” my boss explained. “They have to look professional.”
Apparently, in the digital information age, writing by hand was now poor etiquette. Who’d have guessed?
Not to mention, Congressional offices have a level of formality that I had never experienced before. In my past life as a neuroscience researcher, I often wore jeans to the laboratory. In grad school, my fellow scientists arrived to the lab in party outfits, ready to hit the club after wrapping up.
I had never seen any Congressional staffers wearing jeans, except maybe on Casual Fridays. In fact, nobody wore jeans, not even the people who visited our office. Lobbyists, of course, did not wear jeans, but neither did the everyday people visiting us to talk about why we need to support their different causes.
Now that I couldn’t use my freehand and had to instead wrangle with the Congressional office’s printer, I was a lot less enthusiastic about accepting the task. I had already not had a great run with the printer, which either failed to print my files or printed excessive copies of other staffers’ files, leaving us all high and dry. I often walked to the printer, next to which was a TV blasting the day’s important legislative events, making small talk with the people in this other part of the office. “Do you know who Al Franken is?” I asked my fellow interns, all of whom were at least 10 years younger than me, when he appeared on the screen. “He used to be on Saturday Night Live.”
My younger colleagues, stationed in front of phones to answer calls from our constituents, did not respond. Do they already know who Al Franken is, or do they just find me extremely weird? Maybe they didn’t hear me? I thought to myself as I walked back to my desk.
I had driven all the way from Oklahoma for this internship. Begrudgingly, I sat down at one of the cubicles in our office, and opened Microsoft Word. It loaded just as reluctantly as I felt.
These were the early days of the Trump administration, and our office phones had been ringing off the hook, with constituents weighing in on policies much more than usual. I had survived the barrage of calls regarding the travel ban, the confirmation of Trump appointees, but today my groundbreaking political agenda was to print office labels. And somehow, this felt daunting. Impossible, even.
Then, I asked for help from one of the younger interns. We couldn’t figure it out. We enlisted someone else’s help. One by one, the interns banded together, trying every button on the machine and every command on the computer. . I don’t remember the exact details anymore, but one thing led to another, and finally! We printed them out.
I walked over to my boss’s desk, and dropped off the labels. Done!
I still have no idea why we needed printed labels when freehand would do just fine. Or why I was chosen for this particular task, from a sea of willing interns. But I’d like to think it’s because I know how to get stuff done, even when I don’t feel like I do or don’t want to.
My lessons from working in Congress are not about how government functions, or how to write legislation, or how to better serve constituents. What I learned is that no matter how big or small a task might be, and no matter how confusing the logistics, I can always figure it out. Even when I feel like giving up, I can still get the job done. And that’s helped me tons.