The Dirty Secret Behind Your Success

There’s a dirty little secret that took me a long time to accept…then embrace.

I did it grudgingly, but came to see it made all the difference in reaching my goals.

For some, however, it’s so hateful, so loathsome, that they refuse to believe it. Then, they suffer as a result.

I reveal the secret by telling a quick tale.

Back when I was running a nonprofit I joined an association of organizations around the state. We banded together to connect with funders, lobby state government, and engage the media.

Together we had a whole lot of power. Together, we got heard. Together, we got things done.

I hated this group.

The people got on my nerves. They whined about their staff, ruminated about their personal lives, and bickered about why their organization was the best in town.

These people were not my friends – not people I would ever choose to be around.

Yet our group got results.

And so each month, as I made my way to our meeting, I took a deep breath, swallowed my disdain, and promised myself that I would manage the situation well.

I would speak professionally, be engaging, and get what I needed from the group. And I did.

In the end, it was all about politics.


For many it’s a dirty word. The fact that politics are everywhere is a dirty secret.

The fact that we can and should use politics for our own greater good is a ludicrous notion to many.

I get it.

  • We associate politics with the goings on in Washington – with ever widening budget gaps and legislators who stubbornly stick to their sides.
  • We watch as certain projects get funded while other, more important ones go astray.
  • We cringe as we hear about the latest politician caught in the latest scandal, and wonder how they possibly thought they’d get away with it.

Yes, these examples are maddening. But politics don’t just live on Capitol Hill. They exist everywhere.


  • They exist when you attend a networking lunch and all you want to do is whine about how tired you are — but instead you ask the guy next to you all about his kids’ soccer tournament.
  • They exist when you try to convince the broker to finance your mortgage — and you go in there with your credit information put together just so, your pitch at the ready, and your charm turned way, way up.
  • They exist when you want to return that ill-fitting sweater but you’ve trashed the receipt – and you know that if you just smile sweetly enough the cashier will let you do it.

Politics are a universal part of life.  They are a part of just about everything we do. They are everywhere: our office, our gym, our sister’s house.

Don’t believe me? I recently looked up the definition and — once I got past the stuff about the systemic setting up of government — I got to this one:

“The aggregate of relationships of people in society,

especially those relationships involving authority or power.”

Unless you are the king or dictator of a faraway country, many people have power over you. Many have what you want.

In addition, there are people who surround you who you need to get things done.

  • People you need to sign off on your recently completed project
  • People you need to watch your kids on date night
  • People you need to buy raffle tickets on behalf of your favorite nonprofit

Each of these requires a functional, meaningful relationship.

Yet each person is different. Which means it’s up to you to figure out what makes each one unique, what makes each one tick, and how you can adapt and engage with each one.

Embracing politics means carefully managing every relationship so that you can get what you want and need out of life.

It’s the key to a successful life. A happy life.  

Once you believe this, once you embrace it, you are on your way to bigger things, greater heights.

Because the people in these relationships — the ones you’ve convinced to respect you, the ones you’ve shown how likeable you are — they will be there for you in all kinds of ways.

They will help you get your next job, stick by you as a close friend, hook you up on the best blind date you’ve ever had.

And, if they’ve done it right, you will do the same for them.

Politics are everything because relationships are everything.

So what does embracing politics mean, exactly?  It means…

  • Understanding what’s important to the people in your life, and using it to create a meaningful relationship.  That’s politics.
  • Knowing what each person is interested in and sensitive to before you speak to them. Then engaging them accordingly.  That’s politics.
  • Stepping carefully around personal jokes, opinions about global warming and what you really think about Mel Gibson. That’s politics.

It means knowing your audience, relating to your audience and — dare I say it — charming your audience. Every time.

Now, what politics does not mean is being a big fake.

Instead, it’s managing each relationship while still remaining true to who you are.

I practice this regularly:  

  • I only surround myself with people who I know will accept me for being me. Then I figure out how strong to make my personality based on what I know about each one.
  • I only conduct projects for clients I know I believe in and whose goals I know I can make. Then I do those projects well.
  • I only join groups of people who I know I can relate to in some way or where we have a common goal. Then I treat each individual with respect.

I know that I can’t have the same discussions, use the same level of aggression or carry myself exactly the same way with all people. And so I manage each relationship as appropriate.

Say it with me. That’s politics.

This week, I challenge you to think about politics differently, how they play into your life and – let’s be real – how much of it you’re already doing to help you reach your goals. Then figure out how you can embrace politics even more, to take you even further.

Then, maybe, you’ll find that politics really isn’t a dirty word after all.

Now, go do good…and do it well.




5 responses to “The Dirty Secret Behind Your Success”

  1. Mary Gross Avatar

    Great post. You’re right it is everywhere, it’s something you can’t control, but you can manage how you react to it. It’s nicer to watch politics in action than to feel like you’ve been “politicked!” Thanks, Deirdre.

  2. Carol Lease Avatar

    Good work !! Very thoughtful and helpful. Your leadership in that group is a big reason so much got done and it was so successful.

  3. Patty Costa Avatar
    Patty Costa

    Thank you Deirdre. Never thought of some of my own interactions with people as “politics” but putting a label on it really helps. I try to meet people more where they are at and less than where I am at. Great insight!

  4. Michele R. Brown Avatar

    I so enjoyed reading this – from our family to work to our neighbors we are surrounded by politics! I referred my college aged nieces to your blog – it’s so important to realize this as soon as possible. Mistakes are costly and doing well in this arena makes a huge difference – thank you for your insightful advice.

  5. Laura Ann Fernea Avatar

    This was really interesting, Deirdre. I kept thinking about how women are supposed to be more relationship oriented than men, but men are somehow better at politics! It’s an interesting conundrum, because you’re pointing out that politics IS relationships. I think it can be partially explained by the fact that there are still way more men in politics and it’s easier for men to relate to other men than to women? That’s one possibility, also politics is about knowing the system (all the systems) as well as developing the relationships and since men have been in the system (government) longer, they know it better. I know there are many other factors, these are just my speculations right now. I really liked your emphasis on meeting people where they are at, as opposed to thinking about ourselves first. thanks for an interesting article!