My move to Washington was a fluke.
A few months before graduating from a small college near Boston, MA I was scrambling to find a job.
I had no idea what I wanted to do, and was shocked that spraying my resume across the entire Northeast region of the United States had netted me absolutely nothing.
I had no direction. But I did know one thing– I couldn’t stay in Boston or anywhere else in Massachusetts for that matter. Nothing against my hometown, it just wasn’t for me.
But where would I go? Again, I had no idea. So I did what any fresh college grad does when making a major life decision. I asked my friends.
A group of us met up, pulled out a map, and started calling out options. My parents had always been over protective, so I wanted something that wasn’t too far away but just far enough.
Pennsylvania, suggested one friend.
No to that too.
What about Washington, DC?
Now we’re talking.
And thus, my journey to Washington began. (Seriously, this is not a drill. My decision to move to Washington was based entirely on my friends yelling out suggestions. Thanks guys!)
(Sidenote: I don’t say this enough, but I am forever grateful to the CBCF for the work they do. Because of them, young professionals of color like me, who otherwise could not afford to come to an expensive city like Washington, D.C., are afforded an opportunity to do so.)
Among the many lessons I’ve learned is that Washington (and ultimately life) is what you make it. Opportunities abound. So soak it all up, do the things that interest you, and never stop being curious.
I’ve been here ten years now and it already feels like a lifetime.
On the anniversary of my 10th year in Washington, these are the 10 things I wish I knew before I moved to Washington, D.C:
1. It Gets Cold Here
Call me naive, but when I first moved to Washington from the backwoods of Massachusetts, I was told D.C. is the “south”.
As such, I expected “south-like” weather. What I got was Snowmageddon and a city with no experience properly removing snow. If you’re moving here during the winter, pack your coat (and a hat, gloves, and snow boots for that matter). Because trust me, you’ll need it.
2. Networking is a Sport
And for good reason. Ten years later I can confirm that building your network and nurturing relationships is the single most important thing you’ll do here.
The professional connections you make when you first arrive can pay dividends forever. And networking doesn’t have to be icky. There are genuine people here who genuinely want to help you. Just make sure you are a genuine person who genuinely wants to help. No matter where someone is in their professional journey, they have something to offer. Respect what everyone brings to the table and what you bring to the table will be that much more respected.
3. Everyone Leaves
The friends you make when you first arrive as an intern or young professional may very well be gone just a few years later. If you expect it, maybe it won’t hurt so much.
Making friends as an adult is hard enough. But in a transient city like Washington, DC it can sometimes feel unattainable. After the hard work of making friends starts to settle, you may not be prepared to watch those same friendships dissolve as people move away.
The people here are ambitious. And with ambition comes relocations to far away countries with the State Department. Or offers to join major companies in Silicon Valley.
Focus on nurturing your own ambition and never stop adding new people to your circle. If the friendship is meant to last forever, the relationship will remain intact.
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4. Inequality is Everywhere
Like most major metropolitan areas in the United States, the very wealthy walk among us as mere mortals. You’d never know. But it makes sense. Washington is an information economy where the smartest people on the planet congregate in hopes of changing the world. And according to a recent study, Washington is on a list of cities with the most millionaires per capita.
Unlike New York though, where wealth is more obvious, wealth is casual here.
As the cost of living continues to rise, entire communities are being squeezed out. Neighborhoods are separated along color lines. And while some areas are flourishing with new development, $3000 studio apartments, and top public services, others see ever higher crime and crumbling infrastructure.
5. Changing the World Takes Time
We all come here bright eyed, bushy-tailed, and ready to pound the pavement. And thank goodness for the energy of youth, because our world and our politics, need us. But change– especially in Washington– takes time.
Some find the bureaucracy suffocating and quit too soon. Whatever you’re looking to change, be prepared for the long haul. But as long as young people keep pushing, keep voting, and keep speaking out, change will come.
6. Drinking Culture Runs Deep
The only culture that exists in Washington is a heavy drinking culture. Happy hour literally keeps the lights on around here.
But just because alcohol is everywhere and everyone is drinking, doesn’t mean you have to. As I write this, I am on an alcohol cleanse. And boy do I need it.
Can you survive in Wasington without drinking? Absolutely. Don’t mention you’re not drinking and there will be no one to push back. Go to the happy hours et al. Fill your cup with water or soda and reap the rewards of mingling while giving your liver a break.
7. You Can Find Love Here
Dating in Washington is fun. In a sarcastic, why-does-this-date-feel-like-a-job-interview, and did-he-just-ask-to-go-dutch kind of way.
I love hearing all of the dating horror stories and coffee meetups gone horribly wrong. But fear not, the glass is half full.
The people who have the worst luck are the ones who refuse to get out of their small circle of friends. You have to venture out. And sometimes you have to go alone. Play a game of pickup volleyball or make a point of introducing yourself to someone new.
Once you’ve found a great person, it’s safe to say you can stop looking. Washington isn’t that big. And good luck rarely strikes twice.
8. You Need a ‘Project’
Washington is known for the age old question: what do you do? Many have come to resent that question. But I choose to see it as an opportunity to create the life I want. It’s easy to feel stressed when someone asks that question because not all of us are doing something. But if ever there was a time to fake it till you make it, this is it.
Word of advice: whether you’re doing something or not, just pick something. It can be a new business, a side hustle, a new project at work, or a charity you’re passionate about. Before you know it, you’ll find people willing and able to help get you get where you want to go.
9. Happiness is Relative
In a city with so many ambitious people, the competition can be stiff. As your peers get promoted, get married, and buy homes, it’s so easy to feel left behind. To boot, Instagram has us convinced every one else’s life is so much better than ours. But in the rushing around to make more money, get a better title, and generally take over the world, time flies.
When I used to work on Capitol Hill, I’d always stop and take a breath when passing the Capital building on my way home at night. Something about seeing it all lit up in the night sky put me in awe.
In that moment, remembering how far I’d come, I’d feel content.
Working hard is great. But ten years from now, when you finally look up, make sure your relationships and character are intact. If you remember to look up, they will be.
10. There Are Lots of Power Hungry People. But They Never Win.
You will be betrayed. Maybe if I give you a heads up, it won’t hurt so much.
But along the way, you’ll meet people who want to use you for your connections. They want to take but never give. Maybe there will be a coworker who throws you under the bus. Or a boss who thinks leading people means treating them like trash. You’ll find it all here. But those people never win.
The very misdeeds they used to get to where they are will be the ones that take them down.
So work hard and play even harder. There is still much work to do.
Here’s to higher standards,