Project Wonderful

Monday, July 23, 2012

Everything I Need to Know About Dating I Learned As a Field Organizer

I was recently on the phone with a fellow Political Operative mining him for career advice and catching up on life in general. When the conversation turned to our love lives I remarked, "That's how I am. I either don't care or I care a hundred and crazy makes me great at campaigns and horrible at dating."

I do think there's some truth to that. I can make any event happen, recruit any number of volunteers or raise any amount of money through what is more or less sheer force of will. I set a goal, I make a plan, and I achieve it. The great disappointment of my adult life has been that dating does not work this way. No matter how hard you try, no matter what you do or say, you cannot organize your way to finding your soul mate. From what I understand, these things tend to happen when you're not trying at all, which can be maddening to the organizing mind.

Reflecting on my latest romantic misadventures, I realized I’m learning the same lessons I learned years ago as an organizer, only this time in my personal life. I’ve often written here as if campaigns were my primary romantic interest and I have to own that it’s easier that way. When it comes to campaigns, I know what I’m doing. Although, walk lists are notoriously bad kissers.

I’m always hesitant when I post something so personal. Curse words and innuendo notwithstanding, this is a professional blog. God knows who could be reading this. However, as my blog becomes more popular, I endeavor for this to be first and foremost a resource that I wish someone had created for me. Plus, I like rules, and like all advice columnists before me this is as much about figuring my own stuff out as it is helping anyone else. So without further ado, seven things I know about field organizing that I am still learning about relationships:

1) It's a numbers game. When you have a string of crappy phone calls, it is tempting to give up, call it a night and pour yourself a beer. Instead, you double down on your recruitment efforts because you know you’ll have to make that many more phone calls to meet your goal. When I think about my very deserving single friends, one of the main barriers to their romantic success is that they don’t meet new people. It becomes increasingly difficult and frustrating to make new friends after college, and I’m certainly finding that life in the big city doesn’t forge the same bonds as 14 hours workdays in the wilderness. Campaign people know better than anyone just how mind numbingly average the average person can be. Getting out there, even non-romantically, can be frustrating and draining. It’s tempting to spend your evenings on your own or with people you already know you like and who like you, but you’re certainly not going to meet anyone sitting alone on your couch.

2) If they're not going to vote for you because you called them during dinner, they weren't going to vote for you in the first place. When a relationship doesn’t go my way, I almost want it to be my fault. I want to be able to pinpoint exactly what I said or did to shoot myself in the foot so that I can be sure not to make that same mistake again. The flip side is that it can leave me replaying conversations over and over in my head wondering what I could have done differently. In both relationships and campaigns, outside of violence and affairs, if things were going to work out there is no one action that will mess the whole thing up. It’s convenient when we’re breaking up for both parties to have a concrete excuse as to why it didn’t work…it absolves the breaker of blame and it gives the breakee a sense of closure. The truth is, if someone was going to be there for you, they would be there regardless of the grammar you used in your text message or the way you asked them to call you again.

3) Make your expectations clear. Every good organizer knows that if you want your volunteers to finish their packets, you need to set goals. “Most people do about 80 calls per shift” or “It’s important that you finish your packet.” Sure, volunteers may or may not live up to your expectations, but they are a lot more likely to disappoint if they don’t know what you need from them ahead of time. The same goes for relationships. I’m never afraid of coming off as needy or demanding by stating my expectations in a professional context, yet I crumble when it comes to my personal life. We’re so afraid of being rejected that we don't ask for what we want and in the end we end up living with both the fear and the disappointment. As one of my friends pointed out recently, needy isn’t saying “If you’re going to be late, it would make me feel better if you called me” needy is not telling someone what you need and then getting angry when he doesn’t do it.

4) Think about what you have to offer. When we’re recruiting volunteers we want them to come in and help us meet our goals, but (except in the cases of very special volunteers) we don’t call someone up and say “Hi, I need you to help me with my job.” We focus on what we have to offer them, whether it be the excitement of a campaign office, an internship opportunity, or the feeling of fulfillment one gets from being part of a greater effort. Though I’m not suggesting you need to market yourself to your future someone, I have learned that it’s best to focus on how you can enrich each other, rather than how that someone can fill a need in your life. As Bob Proctor, puts it “you want to leave everyone you come in contact with with the impression of increase.” As a friend put it, “we spend all this time looking for someone to complete us, but ultimately when we find someone we wind up completing them.” It turns out all the cliché advice that you need to love yourself before you can love someone else and that you’ll only find someone when you’re comfortable being alone is true. (See also, rule number 7.)

5) People are selfish liars. It’s not necessarily bad, so much as it’s just true. People act in their own self-interest and do not often think about how their actions impact other people. This is one of the basic truths you learn about humanity in the course of being a field organizer. Volunteers make a commitment and decide not to show. I have to say this drives me crazy even in a professional setting. I’ve listened to this song on repeat after many a disappointing canvass. My personal pet peeve is people wasting my time. Maybe they forgot, maybe they had something more appealing to do, or maybe they just said yes to get you off the phone. I guarantee you they don’t consider the time you spent the night before cutting turf and map-questing directions so that they could have a walk packet. When a someone stops calling or a boyfriend breaks a promise, we have a tendency to feel tricked. Our first (and oft recurring) thought is “how could they do this to me?” The truth is, they probably weren’t even thinking about you. Maybe they became overwhelmed at work, maybe they just weren’t feeling it anymore, maybe they had something else going on entirely. Very rarely is someone engaging in an evil plot to break your heart just for the fun of it. Like volunteers, you make your expectations clear but in the end you have to accept that people can only give what they are capable of at any given point in time.

6) Learn from failures, predict success. Sometimes (and you won’t hear me admit this often) I do make mistakes…like failing to follow rules 3 and 4 or printing out a walk packet with the wrong script on it. Part of the Type A, pitta, field organizing personality is that I tend to be my own worst critic, which I suppose also makes me guilty of breaking rule number 2. It’s natural to beat ourselves up, especially when we care passionately about something, but it’s so much easier for me to forgive myself at work than in my personal life. I’ve never sent my field team the wrong list, snapped at an organizer or for that matter lost and thought “I ruined the campaign!!!” or “I’ll never have a shot at winning a campaign again.” In the first place, it’s ridiculous and in the second place, it’s not productive. I think “that was a mistake and I’m embarrassed” then I do what I can to rectify it and vow to use better judgment next time. I can tell you in my ripe old age of 27 that even when you think you should know better, it doesn’t mean you do. Sometimes you need to shock your system into knowing emotionally or instinctively what you already knew intellectually. And then you learn it, and then you move on. As Oprah says “when you know better, you do better.” Rather than dwell on the past, better to learn from it and move confidently into the future.

7) Wisdom is wisdom for a reason. I get a lot of messages on my tumblr about baby organizers trying to reinvent the wheel. “Sure I’ve only been doing this for five years but you tell me how to recruit volunteers/raise money/build for an event.” Classic methods like calltime are classic because they work, even if they’re a tough pill to swallow. I’m a big believer that asking for advice when you need it is a sign of strength, not weakness. People who know are more than willing to share. Heck, I’ve made a blog out of it. In my ongoing quest to become a non-campaign-nomadic adult, I’ve become insatiably hungry for advice. Sure there’s a lot of crappy and conflicting advice out there when it comes to dating, but the basics “you need to love yourself first,” “it always happens when you’re not looking,” “the right one won’t make you cry” always seem to rear their ugly heads…I just might not want to hear them at the time. I’ve come to realize that that’s exactly when I need to hear them the most.

Obviously, there are some key differences between dating and volunteer recruitment. I’m not suggesting that you phone bank someone until they fall madly in love with you. When it comes to recruitment the goal is to get as many volunteers as possible, quality is nice but it’s not a prerequisite. When it comes to love exactly the opposite is true. However, if we release ourselves from the clawing suspicion that we have one chance and we blew it, the way we do at work, we free ourselves to accept our limitations and ultimately be more resilient.

There you have it! Who thinks I could be the Carrie Bradshaw of field organizing?

Hoping to leave you with the impression of increase,



  1. Thank you! I love my followers!

  2. Thank you for this, Nancy.

    I've had various campaign positions since 2006: intern, volunteer, paid field organizer.

    I recently decided I will never date a broworker again, and probably no other campaign-dude. I dated a fellow FO on the last campaign, and he approached dating the same way he approached organizing. As in, if I said no to something, he kept on asking in a different way until I'd hang up on him. He's probably the sort of person who no matter how negative a call goes, he'd still circle a 3 instead of a 5.

    So there's a thought for a future blog: the pitfalls of dating an organizer.

    Thanks again!

  3. <3 I feel you!! Getting hurt by your friend and broworker is the worst because it's so hard to separate how you feel about him from how you feel about your you have a ton of people in common.

    I've often thought about writing an article of that nature. However, when you're in the middle of nowhere working campaign hours, who else are you going to date? What I know to be true is that the right guy will treat you how you deserve and that even organizing boys have the ability to grow up. Conversely, plenty of non-campaign guys are capable of hurting you.

    I've definitely felt that way, and had a period when I swore off campaign boys, but what I've come to realize is that dating is just HARD and will be hard no matter what rules we create for ourselves. That dude owns responsibility for hurting you, not campaigns.

    But again, I have been there and it blows.


  4. Well I'm a townie campaigner and he was not, so it actually wasn't that bad as far as career or friends (They're mine. Not his.).

    As for you question about who else you would superpower is the ability to go for long stretches with no sexual or romantic relationships ;-) That's actually part of why I've been staying in government and not pursuing a career on the campaign side, because I would like to have a life (and be a good aunt to my baby nieces and nephew).

  5. Ah now THAT I could write a blog post on...stay tuned!

  6. Thank you for this post. It was a great read and I definitely relate to a lot that you said.

  7. You're so welcome! It makes me feel wonderful to know that my experience and advice is useful to those who are or have been in my place.

  8. Number four... we call it, "You're not asking them a favor- you're offering them an opportunity!"

  9. Love it! I'll have to start using that!