Two years ago I made the acquaintance of a fellow who served many years as a field agent for U.S. Naval Intelligence. You might imagine that when two ex-operatives meet, the conversation goes on and on. Pretty soon we found out that, in spite of having worked on opposing sides during the Cold War, and in spite of the fact that we had been trained by two different organizations who had their very own way of training agents, we have a lot in common.
One of the themes that came up over and over again was the need for an agent to present himself to the world as somebody other than who he really is. Most of the time these false pretenses are only for a short duration, but in some cases they are for life.
The latter was true for my switch from legal German to illegal American, which had to be radical and long lasting. In order to pretend to be somebody who does not exist, I had to change language, culture, heritage and many other things that define a person. It became a multi-year process during which I managed to avoid stepping on countless land mines that were scattered along the way. The first strong indication that I was on the right path manifested itself in the world of dreams – I started dreaming exclusively in English just about one year after coming to the United States. But perhaps more indicative of my transformation was the fact that in 1980, while on “vacation” in my old home country, East Germany, I often turned on AFN (American Forces Network) radio to find out how the Yankees were doing in the American League Championship series.
Besides this major transformation there were countless fictional characters, mostly West Germans and Canadians, which I assumed while traveling from New York to Moscow and back, always on elaborate routes crossing several borders, with forged passports. Every one of those inventions required a logically consistent back story with enough facts to withstand a cursory interview at the various borders.
My last major transformation was from enemy spy to law-abiding U.S. citizen. That took quite some time, but the time was well worth it. I finally was able to unite what was left over from all the assumed IDs with my original self. The one thing I took with me from my undercover past was the ability and willingness to take the risk of re-invention in order to allow me to take on different roles inside corporate America. Compared to the high risk inherent in my life as an undercover agent, those periodic re-inventions were rather low risk for me. After all, the worst consequence of failure would have been termination from the job, not termination, period. Of course, for many of my colleagues who grew up in a well-protected environment those changes were rather scary.
To me this type of job/career change was not much more than changing chairs at the dinner table. Witness the list of paying jobs I had during my working life.
- College Professor
- Undercover Agent
- Bicycle Messenger
- Mainframe Programmer – Database Designer
- PC Programmer
- Systems Integrator
- UNIX / Database Manager
- VP of Human Resource Systems
- Chief Information Officer (two companies)
- Director of Development
- Public Speaker
Today, life is much more dynamic than it has ever been in the history of man. Change occurs more rapidly than the world has seen in the past. There is no road that can be taken to bypass an encounter with change. It as it has become a companion throughout our journey through life. Only those who can re-invent themselves over and over again, sometimes just for the moment, and sometimes more permanently, only those will be successful and will be able to enjoy life rather than complaining about being left out and left behind.
To effectively deal with the perceived or real threat of change requires mental and emotional readiness to become a new version of self and a willingness to tackle something untried and new. Clinging to the toolset that was the foundation of yesterday’s success may result in today’s stagnation and tomorrow’s failure. I have personally witnessed this painful regression in the field of information technology that was my professional home for 35 years. As mainframes were rapidly replaced with personal computers and ultimately web-based platforms. those who refused to re-invent themselves were mercilessly downgraded or even discarded from organizations that had no more use for the excellent tools of yesteryear. To avoid being victimized in a similar fashion, consider adopting some of the behaviors outlined below.
1. Take a Self Inventory
Take a comprehensive inventory of self with a focus on talents and abilities regardless of whether you ever used them to earn a living. You might surprise yourself. A college buddy of mine spent most of his life as a chemistry professor. He is now a successful painter and sculptor. A good friend of mine went the opposite route, from designer and sculptor all the way to senior executive at a major healthcare company. And as for me, I found out that I had more in me than just computer programming . I became an ace crisis manager, and today I am earning a living with writing and public speaking.
2. Find a way to conquer your fear of change.
Stop being afraid! Playing defense is a losing strategy. It behooves us all to remember FDR’s famous: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” If you go through life playing fearful defense, you will end up a defeated old man / woman who mourns the missed opportunities and wishes they could start over again.
3. Be Cautious About Comfort
If something is to truly be feared, it is that what makes you comfortable. Where there is comfort, stagnation and complacency are often nearby. During my time in corporate America I witnessed the same tragedy over and over again: Coworkers, bosses, and executives were being blindsided by layoffs and had no contingency plan ready to go. It was a sad spectacle to watch bright successful people become dysfunctional and deeply depressed.
4. Keep up with developments in your industry.
Make use of every opportunity your company offers to learn something new, regardless of whether the acquired knowledge has direct relevance to your current job or not.
5. Don’t just go to work and do a good job.
That is rarely a guarantee to be safe. I was laid off from one of my jobs after I got an A+ performance review and the highest performance-based bonus in my entire work life. Pay attention to what is going on in your company, such as a change in the business model, restructuring, financial performance, and changes in upper management. Changes in upper management almost invariably produce a ripple effect through the entire organization. Newly appointed executives feel compelled to make radical changes to justify to the world and themselves that they were indeed a good choice to replace their predecessor.
6. Network, network, network.
Your network is your safety net. But not all networks are equal. In the day and age of social media it is easy to bask in the illusion that 1,000 connections on LinkedIn and just as many friends on Facebook constitute a good network. As a safety net, that virtual network has huge holes and is not likely to catch you when you are falling. It is quality, not quantity that counts in this game. And a quality network requires face to face encounters without which bonds and friendships are difficult if not impossible to form. I used to belong to a network of CIOs whose primary goal was to assist others. This resulted in situations where more than one member of that network competed for the same job. Now that is a quality network!
7. Join Professional Organizations
One way of networking and keeping up with industry developments is to join a professional organization in your field. It is great if your company pays the annual dues, but if you have to pay for those yourself, it is well worth it. This should not be considered an expense but rather an investment in the future.
8. Work on your soft skills
Outside of highly specialized technical jobs, soft skills are key to your career. At a time when an increasing number of tasks are subject to automation, softs skills are becoming more and more important. In addition, in an environment dominated by change, soft skills are largely transferable across jobs, companies and even industries. I was able to jump from one company to another, from one industry to another, and from one technology to another because I had the soft skills to work with my new teams, colleagues, and customers to ease the transition to the new environment.
9. Power is having options
Finally, always have a viable Plan B that can be activated on rather short notice.
Modern life is an adventure that that can be both challenging and fulfilling. The challenges appear in front of us whether we like it or not. The fulfillment lies in the ability to overcome those challenges, and that requires an attitude of life long learning and a willingness to periodically shed the old skin and step into a new self. Take it from an ex undercover agent who used those skills and attitudes to survive and thrive all the way into retirement. Good luck!