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A former FBI agent shares 8 qualities of resilient people

What makes someone resilient? Let's find out.

7 min read


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FBI agents need to be resilient so they can solve cases that have no easy or obvious solution. They go to where they are needed, not to where they feel comfortable.

As an FBI agent, I was assigned investigations where I had no idea how to solve them, but this was my thinking: Drop me in the middle of any squad or any situation, anywhere, anytime. I will not be scared, nor will I give up. If I’m knocked down, I’ll drag myself back up and keep at it until I solve the case.

This is the mindset of a survivor — a person who is resilient enough to bounce back from the trauma of everyday life.

As business leaders and entrepreneurs, you know that success requires the resilience to keep moving ahead even when confronted with obstacles and roadblocks. You have a willingness to swim upstream and not give up simply because the tide is against you.

Resilient people are successful because they possess these 8 qualities; they:

1. Take responsibility for their actions

I quickly learned that the FBI would not tolerate whining and complaining when my circumstances were less than ideal. Instead, they drilled into me the need to take personal control and responsibility for the direction life was taking me.

Resilient leaders do not seek out happiness by relying on others, nor do they blame others for their situation.

How to make it work for you: Stop whining, blaming others and pointing fingers if you don’t get what you want.

2. Develop good daily habits

Research by Karl E. Weick, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Michigan, shows that when people are under stress, they regress to deeply embedded habits.

The way we train ourselves to think, feel and behave during our regular daily life is exactly the way we will respond when hit with hard times.

How to make it work for you: Take the time to develop good daily habits that become so ingrained into your thinking that you respond in ways that set you up for success when you’re confronted with the unknown.

3. Focus on possibilities

Resilient people are always asking this question: What can I do to change my situation? When they focus on the possibilities that lie before them, they make their own luck. They do what they can with the hand they’ve been dealt, and in doing so, they take control of their life.

In his book “The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity,” Michael Marmot explains how clerks and secretaries are more likely to die of heart attacks than senior executives.

Even taking into consideration other variables such as smoking and poor nutrition, his research team concluded that those in lower-category jobs had less control over their life, and they were more likely to suffer from heart disease.

How to make it work for you: Believe you can control the important events in your life. Often this will mean you will need to be flexible in the way that you approach your goals and agile in the way in which you overcome obstacles.

4. Are positive thinkers

There is a big difference between being an optimist and being a positive thinker. Positive thinkers are not necessarily happy or optimistic.

Instead, positive thinkers are blunt realists who look misery right in the eye and confront the most brutal facts of their day without expecting things to change. They adapt to their circumstances without ever losing hope.

As FBI agents, we planned arrests by giving priority to what could go wrong. We were not optimists who hoped everything would go according to plan. We weighed the possibility of a negative outcome with equal heft as the possibility of a positive outcome.

How to make it work for you: Hunt the good stuff and find five positive thoughts to counter each negative thought. When confronted with something that feels overwhelming, you will need to find five positive thoughts to counter each one negative thought that comes to mind.

5. Prioritize what is important

Squad briefings were a great way to help agents get over a hurdle in one of their investigations. When an agent briefed the squad on a case, white boards were created with priorities listed from most important to least.

Prioritizing information is a useful resilience tool because forces your brain to interact with information rather than simply react to it. Lists are an excellent way of forcing different parts of the brain to interact with each other. This also prevents different parts of our brain from fighting against each another for attention and energy.

How to make it work for you: Writing down your priority list helps you to visualize, so keep paper and pen handy. Typing your list out on a computer does not satisfy the brain’s need for visualization.

6. Manage emotions

You are a wimp if you run away from a negative emotion or deny unpleasant thoughts and feelings. You don’t think you’re strong enough to handle the hard stuff.

Too often, people pretend negative emotions and feelings don’t exist. Ignoring negative feelings is not healthy; nor is wallowing in them. Resilient people hurt when life hands them a rough time, but they never forget that they still have control over their attitude.

How to make it work for you: Identify your emotions, and then call them, or label them, for what they really are. If the emotion is pride, envy, or anger, own up to it. Although most people expect labeling emotions to increase their occurrence, when you label your fear or anxiety you actually lessen your discomfort. It’s important, however, to keep the label to one or two words because, if you open up dialogue about it, you will only increase the emotion.

7. Reframe negative events

Setbacks are a natural part of life. Resilience requires mental toughness because it is the ability to recover quickly from adversity, no matter your situation.

Nip negative emotions and reactions in the bud when they first appear. This is when they are the weakest.

Cold cases are those in which the leads have grown cold, but nothing motivates an FBI case agent as much as looking into the face of an innocent victim who trusts and expects them to find the answer. Quit is not a word used in FBI investigations.

How to make it work for you: Reframing is a fancy word for changing the way you look at adversity or a negative situation. Reframing can provide you with different ways of interpreting your less than perfect situation so you can expand the possibilities and overcome the adversity.

8. Find their tribe

Friendships are important: they can lift you up, provide security, and prevent slip-ups in both business and life.

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.”

A strong psychological thread developed during our training as special agents is the concept of the “FBI family.” FBI employees will close ranks around one of their own if the individual is targeted or harmed in some way.

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.


LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. LaRae 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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