From 2010 to 2012, I was an Intelligence Analyst with the FBI in New York City. As a 21-year old, showing up to work the first day was as intimidating as it was exciting. I was quickly introduced to a team of 15 special agents and a senior analyst that would be a professional family of mine for the next two years.
These two years provided special insights into the minds of brilliant people, both in the intelligence community and those committing crimes. It was a delicate cat-and-mouse game, with information being our form of ammunition. My team consisted of accountants, lawyers, financial professionals, and the stereotypical ex-military badasses you would expect.
The atmosphere was entrepreneurial in the sense that creativity and craftiness were two daily used skill sets. We had performance targets to hit and deadlines. Oftentimes, like an entrepreneur, we had to ask ourselves how to make something big with something small.
These two years provided an amazing learning experience and a few key takeaways that I still value today. Here are three takeaways that can be applied to other journeys:
1. The Concept of a “Second Career”
The best piece of advice I got while at the FBI was from a former Wall Street trader turned special agent. He advised me to go out, take risks, try something entrepreneurial, and then come back to the FBI when I need stability. He called the bureau the best second career you could have. It provided amazing benefits, prestige, and interesting work. It just didn’t pay well.
This is important as more people are lost in life and unsure about what to pursue. The big takeaway is that this is completely normal. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average person will have 12 different jobs throughout their career. Take risks. Try new things. You can likely always go back to what you were doing before.
The day I resigned, I remember thinking about this advice and thinking about the chance to come back to the FBI one day. I knew it would be difficult in reality, but looking at it from a positive perspective helped immensely. When you make a leap of faith, keep this in mind. Just like there are many paths to entrepreneurship, there are many ways to re-enter an industry or job.
2. External Glamour Can Be Misrepresentative
Contrary to what popular shows like White Collar show you, there was no floor-to-ceiling glass window and modern decor. Our cubicles were built by prisoners, each flaunting some unique design flaw that let you know the assembler was not a machine.
On the weekends, central air conditioning was turned off to save the government money. It was not uncommon to see people roaming around the quiet halls shirtless in the middle of Manhattan’s steamy summer. Glamour is glamour for a reason. It attracts interest and talent in tough industries like banking, consulting, or three-letter agencies.
Thankfully, these were all minor aesthetic differences and did not impact the overall experience. It made me realize everything in the media and Hollywood is glamorized in a way that appeals to people. The way you sift through this is by being extremely diligent in your research process of a new job or business opportunity. Find people doing the same thing and level with them. Get the raw scoop and curb your expectations.
3. The Importance of Having a Greater Mission
People at the FBI were there because they believed in a mission greater than themselves. It was a mission to serve a country and protect it. When you can align people under the same mission where they identify themselves with it, you have successfully built a company culture.
At the FBI, we could easily know what someone was making as it was public information based on their government rank. Money was never a factor, which created a different set of competitive dynamics around output and impact. This common motivation was very contagious and created a sense of common unity across the organization.
For people working in the private sector, this motivation can be as simple as serving your customers and improving their lives. Try to find the silver lining in what you do. If you still can’t find this greater mission, leverage the resources your current job gives you to make an impact outside of work. Find people with common interests and tackle a tough problem.