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4 things you need to know if you want to be successful

What goes into a successful career? Longtime FBI agent LaRae Quy offers her perspective.

9 min read


Career growth


Both parents and teachers extol the virtue of good grades if you want to be successful in business and life. The premise goes something like this: Good grades mean you’re smarter and will be offered better career opportunities.

If you want to be successful, however, it takes more than intellect. It takes lots of self-awareness mixed in with a generous helping of spunk and grit.

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business management. Fashion sounded like an exciting career, so I interviewed with a large department store chain. They hired me and soon promoted me to a buyer position. A dream job? Maybe, but not for me. I would never be a success because I hated my job.

I had misinterpreted the barometers of meaning and worth in my life. Here are 4 things you need to know if you want to be successful:

1. Choose good values

I asked myself why I hated retail so much, and one day it hit me: My job sucked because my success was measured by whether women bought polka dots or stripes. That was my contribution to society — the reason I got up every morning and drove to work. If this was to be the meaning of my life, just shoot me and get it over with.

I had been lured by a very poor value: the illusion of glamour. There are other poor values out there, and they can entice and derail us at any point in our career.

Poor values are superficial, selfish and dependent on external events. They lie outside of our control, which means we continually struggle to attain them. Material success, the need for adoration and our desire to be popular are examples of how poor values can influence our behavior in negative ways. As a result, we set low standards for ourselves.

Good values are honest, considerate of the greater good and controllable. They are achieved internally and not dependent upon anyone else. When we choose good values, we choose good things to pursue. We encounter good problems and will work harder because the things we pursue provide value and meaning for us.

How to make it work for you: It’s never too late to assess your values. Don’t lower your standard and ask yourself, “What gives me pleasure?” Instead, ask yourself, “How can I be a better person?” The answer to this question will help you make priorities in your life.

2. Start the important work

I didn’t care about the clothes that women chose to buy in our stores. It wasn’t important work to me because it didn’t improve my sense of self worth or generate happiness. When I later became an FBI agent, the important work landed on my desk the first day in the office. The FBI is charged with upholding federal law in the US, and I felt honored to be a part of a venerable organization. Internally, the FBI stands for Fidelity, Bravery, and Integrity — values that I held important.

Important work starts when we pursue projects that hit our sweet spot. We make time for what matters to us. We decide what we want to be good at and make our priorities a reality.

If you want to be successful, it will take more than tricks, hacks or tips on how to get ahead. There are no shortcuts, despite the forums and webinars that promise instant success. As a result, we’re drowning in mediocrity and garbage advice.

If you want to be successful, you’ll need the mental toughness to commit to what is important to you. You will need to put your shoulder into the work, even when you want to stop, because if your goal is important enough then quitting is never an option.

Too often, we associate our brain with thinking only, but our brain is also where we experience emotions and process feelings. Research conducted by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi has shown that when we are truly engaged in what we are doing, and experience feelings of fulfillment, large patches of our prefrontal cortex are deactivated. These regions of our brain silence our inner critic and leave us less inhibited and much more open to unique experiences.

When we are engaged in work that has value and meaning, our brain releases dopamine which stimulates excitement, curiosity, and motivation.

How to make it work for you: Our brain keeps growing until 25, by which time we develop a more mature sense of long-term planning and critical thinking. As a result, adults become afraid of the unknown. To get past that, relive the best part of your childhood. Go back and remember the fun things you liked to do as a child and young adult. They gave you autonomy, purpose and a sense of fulfillment. This doesn’t mean you have to quit your job, but it does require that you take a critical look at:

What you are doing, and which aspects of your job allow you to work on things that are important to you?

“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” ~ G.K. Chesterton

3. Forge solid relationships

While I met lots of great people during my three years in retail, I never forged solid relationships with any of them. The community spirit was weak. It never moved beyond the point of where the community was seen to exist for the sole benefit of the individual. It’s selfish but is common in most communities, both in business and life.

Conversely, a strong psychological thread developed during our four months of training at the FBI Academy. We were not allowed to leave the Academy for the first several weeks. As a result, we looked at one another as members of a special tribe. To this day, the concept of “FBI family” still exists and employees will close ranks around one of their own if the individual is targeted or harmed in some way.

As Sebastian Junger wrote in his book “Tribe,” “We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding — ‘tribes.’ This tribal connection has been largely lost in modern society, but regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival.”

Lydia Sohn asked 90-somethings what they had learned in life. She found out that they didn’t crave a longer list of accomplishments, but more quality moments with their loved ones. This included family as well as friends.

In a pair of studies involving nearly 280,000 people, William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, found that both family and friend relationships were linked to better health and happiness overall, but only friendships became a stronger predictor of health and happiness at advanced ages.

Chopik stated that, over time, we keep the friends we like and make us feel good and discard the rest. Family relationships are often enjoyable too, but sometimes they involve negative interactions.

How to make it work for you: Find your tribe. Whether it’s your biological family or your adoptive one from work, school or church, find people who give you the sense of security and connectivity.

4. Make do with the hand you’re dealt

The FBI Academy was hard for me. I received the bottom scores in about every defensive tactic exercise. I’m not an athlete and never will be, but I had to find a way to get enough points to graduate from the Academy. I struggled, suffered, and endured physical and emotional pain. I was tempted to blame my instructors and accuse them of trying to oust me out of the Academy.

After one particular dark night of the soul I came to grips with the fact that if I wanted to graduate, I’d need to take responsibility for my situation. I couldn’t expect someone else to fight my battles.

Mental toughness is believing you will prevail in your circumstances rather than believing your circumstances will change. Once you accept this, you realize that no one gets a free pass in this thing called life. We all end up with scars.

The current media has hobbled our culture by encouraging people to be outraged and offended by even the smallest incidents. Victimhood has become de rigeur and somehow represents the modern point of view. Everyone is a victim these days. Anyone who is offended about anything can claim to be a victim.

As long as whimps who call themselves victims are allowed a voice, self-righteousness will continue to be a menace. The biggest problem with whimps is that they take attention away from people who really are victims of their circumstances.

How to make it work for you: Stuff happens. Life is hard. Pain is inevitable. Growth is optional. Grow up and make do with the hand you’re dealt.


LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the US government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.

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