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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Why Taking Risks Could Make Your Career, According to a Former FBI Agent

Here’s something to think about: If you aren’t passionate about your work, if you simply tolerate that which pays the bills but have a super fulfilling life and world outside of it, is that enough? Is it an acceptable way to live? Or does it suggest settling?

Recently, I broached this hot topic with LaRae Quy, a retired FBI Special Agent and author. Although I was ostensibly interviewing Quy for an article about determination and how that plays out in job searching, transitioning careers, or attempting to figure out what kind of job to go after, I was—and am—curious about the idea of whether or not you need to love your career. And if you don’t (and you aren’t actively trying to find something you care deeply about in the career spectrum), does it mean you have untapped potential?

These are big questions, but they didn’t phase Quy, who spoke with the experience of someone who has had her share of highs and lows and took risks and explored multiple career paths before finding her sweet spot. Her call: We all deserve to find work that excites us.

“Are you sure?” I prodded. “Maybe not everyone needs that excitement in the workplace.” Isn’t it fair to assume that some people are really totally OK working a job that pays the bills if they can look forward to weekends and holidays and vacations? Let’s face it: Even those of us who love our jobs often anxiously await our days off with baited breath.

Those people that punch a clock, who exist only for out-of-office hours, Quy said, “are settling for mediocrity. They have not tapped into their potential or asked themselves the hard questions.” She went on, “The only difference between a rut and a coffin are the dimensions.”

Clearly this is something the department store-buyer turned FBI agent feels strongly about. As the former, Quy was miserable. Despite the fact her position as a buyer sounded glamorous (and perhaps was), it didn’t meet her needs. Though she had no idea what was next, Quy worried that if she didn’t make a move, she’d face a lifetime of regret.

Quy was, to put it simply, determined. Finding what one’s meant to do requires digging deep, she acknowledges. It doesn’t just happen. Determination isn’t a trait you’re born with. It needs to be fed and fostered, sought out. Finding your career path involves experimenting, trying different opportunities, and, most importantly, not being afraid to fail.

Through informational meetings, Quy eventually began to feel something. She calls it a fire in her belly, and stoking this fire is something Quy feels is necessary. It’s OK to be in a job, be unhappy, and not have a fire to stoke—so if that’s you right now, not to worry. In time, though, if you don’t make an effort to move on and find whatever it is that gets you pumped to get out of bed each morning, you might come to have major regret.

It comes as no surprise that the long-time FBI agent uses words like grit, mental toughness, and self-discipline when she talks about career advancement. Opportunity, she says, isn’t going to come knocking—though that much you’ve probably figured out.

Once I felt like I understood what determination meant to Quy, I asked her to talk to me about goals. This word, goal, gets tossed around with increasing regularity, and it’s one that Quy embraces—at least in connection with having a career vision. She explained that, “If you have a vision, then you must create goals to get to that vision, but constantly check the vision.”

While asking yourself what you want out of life is never easy—conjuring a vision first, and then setting goals related to it is actually doable. First, break it down into specific questions about where you see yourself in five years: Are you in the same city or town or in another state or abroad? Do you have a wife or husband? Children? A house in the ’burbs? A cottage in the mountains? What kind of role would you like to be in? Managing a large team of people? Owning a business? Starting a company with a friend? Working flexible freelance hours?

In other words, the vision isn’t “I want to earn $30 million by the time I’m 45;” rather, it would be, “I want to be a powerful person,” and in order to obtain that position of power, perhaps you strive for financial success and set goals that’ll help get you there.

By the end of our conversation, I’d like to say that I’m 100% on board with Quy in that you must strive to find work you’re passionate about, but I’m not quite there. I feel tremendously fortunate to be doing work that I feel strongly about, but I suppose I’m lucky that I didn’t have to dig super deep to figure out what I wanted to do.

I believe in taking risks, sure, but what if you can’t break away from your less-than-fulfilling mundane job? Can you choose to enhance it, maybe even be the poster child for how to be the best in that field? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know and believe that Quy would agree you’re not going to get anywhere twiddling your thumbs. And, you’re certainly not going to find a fire in your belly to stoke if you’re miserable and don’t try to do anything about it.

As Quy says, “Face your problems head on. It isn’t your problems that define you—it’s how you react and recover from them. Your problems are not going away unless you do something about them.”

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