Imagine the following. You meet a representative of a very powerful organization who makes you a highly unusual proposal: Completely remake yourself – change name, language, culture and personal history. In a few words, change everything that was you and present yourself to the world as somebody who in reality does not exist. To add risk and danger to the scenario, if you are ever found out to be a fraud, the price to pay will be jail. The organization pitching this proposal has watched you for some time, and they have determined that you are one of the few individuals who might be able to pull this off. Your first thought is likely to be “that is impossible”, but then a soft voice from deep inside, the voice that represents the ambitious rebellious contrarian within you, chimes in “but what a challenge and what an adventure!!!”
This is the thought process I went through before deciding to join the KGB and attempt the impossible: remake this born German into a bona fide American. To be sure, I was a hardcore communist at the time and I wanted to do my part to speed up the world revolution, yet without the lure of the exciting and the unknown, I would have decided to continue with my career as a college professor. But the KGB offer evoked in me the vision of a communist James Bond, a conquering hero who would do amazing things, would never get caught, drink vodka only straight and super cooled and would definitely be a hit with the ladies. How could I say no to that?
Of course, the James Bond dream drowned in the boredom of the everyday life of a spy. But the crazy risk was always with me. To deal successfully with that risk there had to be controls to prevent my mission from ending up like a Japanese kamikaze pilot. Those controls were created in four plus years of hard work, more hard work, and even more hard work.
Studying to Be a Spy
First,, I spent four to five hours a day studying the English language. I also acquired a deep knowledge of American history and the American political system. To the extent I could, I familiarized myself with the American culture. And most importantly, I applied myself with a vengeance to the perfection of various elements of spy craft, such as cryptography, Morse code, secret writing and countersurveillance.
The mastery of those subjects served as real controls in this adventure. In addition, the knowledge that I was as well-prepared as possible provided me with a strong psychological foundation. I simply could not, would not fail. It is a well-established psychological fact that a positive attitude towards a tough task is more likely to result in success, and that negative thinking is often a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Finally, there was the ultimate backstop which is applied to the worst-case scenario – in my case, prison. This backstop was the highly credible promise by my KGB lead officers to make every effort to get me out of jail as soon as possible. That promise was critical for my acceptance of the massive risk.
To Succeed as a Spy or Employee, You Need to Embrace the Adventure
Advance time by 15 years. I had severed my ties with the KGB and now focused on a corporate career. Of course, during 15 years of work in espionage I developed a number of character traits that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Some of these traits could be considered quirks, but others have been a great asset. One of those assets was and still is the “Well Controlled Inclination to Adventure”.
As the result of a three-party merger, the company I worked for had just entered a rather chaotic phase. Structures were torn down and rebuilt, senior staff was reshuffled and somewere let go. The result: A number of unstable departments and a workforce that looked into the future with trepidation. Voluntary turnover was unacceptably high, and critical functions had little or no support. Desperate situations require unorthodox measures, and so one day my new boss called me into his office and said: “Jack, I want you to go to Minneapolis and save the IT infrastructure group from collapse. You know that the very existence of our company rests on the IT infrastructure foundation. We tried two experienced managers already, they made things worse. I believe you have what it takes to succeed”.
I was startled. This was going to be my very first job managing staff, and I was to do that which two experienced managers failed to accomplish? When I consulted with my best friend he blurted out: “Jack, they are setting you up for failure – they are looking for a scapegoat, don’t do it!” I slept on it and chose to ignore the warning. Here was another high-risk adventure, something I could not say no to. The control? I had already successfully tackled much bigger. The worst case scenario? I could lose my job – so what, I’d get another one.
So, I packed my bags and moved to Minneapolis for six months. I did not know the city, I did not know power structure in this part of the company, and I did not know the staff or the technology to be managed. In essence, I showed up for war without a weapon. Regardless, I threw myself into this venture without fear. I just knew that I was going to succeed. Very quickly I discovered yet another control which would become very important throughout my career – my ability to read and influence people. Within six months my group was back on a sound footing and was recognized throughout the company as an excellent provider of infrastructure services. I was very happy to be able to leave this icebox of a city in in early February.
For the remainder of my career, I had four more jobs at four different companies in two different industries. Each of these assignments was another adventure, another exercise in successful turnaround/crisis management. This made work life very interesting and rewarding. I would not have wanted it any other way – boredom is one of my worst fears.
Not Taking a Risk May Be the Greatest Career Risk of All
How does all of this apply to me, you may ask yourself? Perhaps you think: “I was never asked to be a spy, and I did not start my career in business with a high risk assignment. I don’t like to take on too much risk anyway. I just want to have a steady job where I can contribute to the success of the organization; a job that pays well and allows me and my family to have a good life. I do like some excitement, but I need guardrails to keep me from running off the road.”
First, I am sure you are familiar with the phrase “I could have been a contender.” You get to go around in this world only once. When it is time to retire, what will you look back at? What is your legacy? What have you accomplished, and what will you proudly relate to your children and grandchildren?
It all starts with trying something new, something outside of your comfort zone, something challenging. As long as you have the right controls in place, and as long as you have identified the worst case scenario and you feel that you can deal with it, go for it. You might like it.Chances are that you will succeed where others failed, and that may lead you to take on another challenge and so on. And rather than having to rely on office politics you will be able to build a career on real achievements, and when you are all done you can proudly say “I earned it”.
When I went back to my birth place in Germany some forty years after I left there, I found that the majority of my friends and classmates were still there. They had not dared to venture out into the world. Many of them were just as smart and energetic as I am, but they shied away from the risk associated with moving away. Perhaps, if they had tried just once, their lives could have been much more interesting.
Americans are not much different from my German friends. Among the respondents to a Pew Research Center survey, 57% said they have not lived in the U.S. outside their current state: 37% have never left their hometown, and 20% have left their hometown (or native country) but not lived outside their current state. One of my favorite sayings is “You got to know when it is time to go,” and that applies to your residence as well as your job.
One last thought: Many people harbor the mistaken belief that status quo means safety. That is patently wrong. Risk is a part of life – you cannot get away from it. There is risk in doing, and there is risk in not doing. The difference is that by “not doing” you relinquish the opportunity to manage risk, and you hand the controls of your life to others. I remember the quick changes in information technology, away from the mainframe and towards the personal computer and the internet. And I remember that a portion of my coworkers clung to the status quo of the mainframe. They wound up underpaid or unemployable dinosaurs. Don’t make the same mistake! Go out and do something. Better yet, do something new and risky. That way you will one day be able to proudly look back at your life stating, “I was indeed a contender.”