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Passion and pain on Capitol Hill

By Jared Polis, Special to CNN
  • Rep. Jared Polis says he has learned four lessons in his first year
  • He says it's key to focus efforts and master the details of the causes you champion
  • He says networking with colleagues is crucial for effectiveness
  • Showing passion for what you believe in is likely to help your cause, he says

Editor's note: Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat, represents Colorado's 2nd Congressional District and is appearing in's "Freshman Year " series along with Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah.

Washington (CNN) -- It is hard to believe that it has been an entire year since Jason Chaffetz and I undertook a project with CNN to chronicle, in video and in prose, our first year. Both of us have grown a lot along the way and learned many lessons, and I hope that our readers and viewers have a notion, as we now do, of what it is like to serve in Congress.

A winding labyrinth of tunnels

And of plots and intrigue

Passion and pain

Reflecting on the last year, there are four important lessons I've learned that are critical for success in Congress and are also applicable to many other pursuits.

These lessons are:

Focus, network, knowledge and passion.

Focus: Using the limited time of the human condition in the highest leverage areas. To have impact, it is important to go deep rather than have wide breadth.

Each area of this complex world is a unique system in and of itself, and it's hard enough to truly understand and impact, say, agriculture policy, no less every single policy area in government. One of the most important lessons I've learned is focus. There is so much going on here on campus, and the world is such a complex place.

Were I to focus exclusively on one of hundreds of topics, like monetary policy or roads and bridges, I could easily spend all my time. But to be effective here, I've learned that while you need to have a legislative focus, you also need to be flexible enough to work on the issues of the day. For this year, health care has taken up the majority of our legislative time, but I have succeeded in carving out a niche and focus for myself in charter schools, start-up visas and other areas.

Network: Building relationships of mutual trust and respect takes effort and skill. Forging both formal and informal networks at the member and staff levels is critical to being successful. It's important to be earnest and honest to garner the trust of colleagues.

We have little time to socialize in Washington, but I have made a point of traveling to the districts of several colleagues to see them in their own home turf. I've also raised money nationally for friends who face tough races. Finally, I have learned to make the most of our visits to the floor of the House of Representative (two or three times a day for votes) and am usually trying to get co-sponsors on bills or to circulate letters.

Given the diverse, and at times divided, nature of Congress, social relationships are the glue that hold us together. Jason and I differ on many issues, but the friendship we have made, working on this CNN project, allows us to put aside our differences and work together on the issues we share.

Knowledge: Use your access to information to become an expert in your focus areas. Know the topics, their history and all the arguments inside and out.

One of the best things about this job is the access it gives to experts around the country. When we need information about a topic, not only is the Library of Congress at our disposal, but I also can call upon academics and experts around the country, most of whom see helping a member of Congress get information as a civic duty and are more than happy to do it.

In putting together my start-up visa legislation, I've talked to professors at famous universities, political scientists, economists and foreign businessmen, all of whom are happy to help. Making the most of access to captains of industry and government bureaucrats alike is an important part of making the most of serving in Congress.

Passion: The contagious passion of your convictions is a critical asset. Backed with knowledge, showing interest, engagement and passion is critical.

When I discuss immigration, I see the face of young hopeful would-be Americans I know from Colorado and it adds fire to my words. As politicians, people share their stories with us. And those stories, of suffering, of pain, of hope, inspire us to have passion for our positions. To debate from a place of passion adds earnestness and urgency to the words. I have learned to respect the passion of others and deploy my own on behalf of my policy priorities.

Focus, network, knowledge and passion

In the next year, I hope to deploy what I learned to be an even more effective representative.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jared Polis.