If you think your job is stressful, you should listen to Alyssa Mastromonaco talk about hers. That is, her former job. During the Obama administration, Mastromonaco worked at the White House as assistant to the president, director of scheduling and advance, and deputy chief of staff for operations. Mastromonaco recently published a book about her time in D.C. called Who Thought This Was A Good Idea? And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House, which, according to Publishers Weekly, is "full of enjoyable storytelling intended as encouragement for women of her generation and younger."
Mastromonaco started working for Obama in her twenties, and at the White House when she was thirty-three. Her impressive responsibilities there included overseeing the research, selection, nomination, interview, and confirmation process for Cabinet secretaries and political appointees; overseeing the 3,000 mostly military personnel who work for the White House Military Office, which provides military, medical, food, and transportation services for the White House; overseeing the maintenance and operation of Air Force One and Marine One; overseeing the scheduling and advance operation of the president's daily schedule, long-term schedule, and foreign travel schedule; and overseeing "basically anything involving the First Family and the Secret Service."
Although an important one, Mastromonaco’s job was anything but glamorous. For one thing, she had to sleep on the floor of Air Force One during long flights and had to share the two tiny bathrooms aboard the plane with several other staffers ("… you get up, everyone's brushing their teeth, washing their face, and there's a line for the bathroom, and Valerie [Valerie Jarrett, the former senior advisor to the president] and I were always quick to be the first two to wake up so we'd have the bathroom in a fresh state.").
Mastromonaco's job was also, as you can imagine, a lot of work. And sleep wasn’t something she did much of while at the White House. Here she is speaking about how she found out the hard way that it was time to leave her job.
About the end of 2012, I was in my office with David Plouffe, and I was typing while I was talking to him 'cause I can do that. And he said, 'Alyssa, what are you doing?' And I'm like, 'What do you mean?' He's like, 'None of the words on your computer screen are words.' And I looked and it was just, like, gibberish, basically. And I realized that I wasn't quite right, that something was off. I thought about it. I had been forgetting things a lot lately. Like, not big things but the things that are easy, like I'm in the car halfway to work and I couldn't remember if I had fed my cat. And it turned out—they give me a gross neurological exam—that I was basically functioning on like 50 percent of my capacity and that I was very sleep deprived. And so that was actually when they said, 'Look, you've got to start going to bed at 10 …'
And after about three weeks, I took the test again and I was up to, like, 85 percent. And so I was on the right track. But it was a sign that I was probably coming to the end of my time, and that I was so lucky to have had such incredible experiences. Maybe it was time for someone with fresh legs to take over and have the same experiences that I did …
My ideas just weren't flowing. I was becoming the person who sat at the table and when someone had an idea, I'd be the one who said, 'We did that, it didn't work. We did that in 2011.' I had too much memory. I'd been there too long. And so I decided that it was time for me to go because I wanted to leave on a high note. I never wanted to be that person that people are secretly meeting about about how to get them to realize their time has come so that they go. And so I was glad to sort of decide on my own terms that it was time to go. And it was a really nice send off.
Mastromonaco points out two very important things here that aren’t always related. One, the experience she describes underscores how severe job stress—and overworking and lack of sleep caused by severe job stress—can have an extremely detrimental effect on your health, not to mention your ability to do your job. And, she seems to be saying, no matter how important your job is, or seems to be, the importance of your job is likely not a good reason to stay in it if your health will be severely negatively impacted.
Two, she points out the signs to look for when it might be time to leave your job, when you've become too experienced, when experience has jaded you in some way. In Mastromonaco's case, stress and too much experience were related. However, they don't have to be. That is, you can be stressed out and overworked without being jaded and over-experienced, and you can be jaded and over-experienced without being stressed out and overworked. What’s important is to be self-aware enough to know if and when either (or both) of these situations applies to you.
In the case of stress, if you're feeling that you might be pushing yourself too hard at work, it's important to ask yourself, 'Am I finding that I'm often being forgetful? Is my work unclear and jumbled? Are others pointing this out to me?' And in the case of being jaded and over-experienced, you might ask yourself, 'Am I shutting down coworkers' ideas too quickly? Am I being more negative than positive in meetings and at work in general? Am I finding that I'm not having any creative solutions to problems I'm facing at work?'
In any case, Mastromonaco's experience serves as a good reminder that we should be asking ourselves questions like these more often. In addition, her experience teaches us that if we do get stressed out and/or jaded and need to leave our jobs or even change careers, it's very possible that we'll land somewhere else quite smoothly.
Three years after leaving the White House, Mastromonaco is now an executive at A&E Networks and a contributing editor at Marie Claire, as well as a published author.
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