7 Ways Leaders Can Hack Into Their Own Life: Tips From A Former FBI Counterintelligence Agent

Hacking Your Mind

As an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent, I spent twenty-four years investigating people. But the most important life I ever investigated was my own.

When I sleuthed out my own story, I could begin to pinpoint patterns in the way my mental toughness was developed over the years—the times I’d persevered in business and life, and won.

Just as importantly, the times I’d given up and sold myself short.

Hacking Into Your Own Story

You can do the same by hacking into your own story so you can apply the same knowledge to understanding your behaviors, traits, and strengths. You learn which ones move you forward in business and life, and also identify the ones that hold you back.

In my book, Secrets of A Strong Mind, I discuss many ways to hack into your own life.

Here are 7 ways:

1. Take Ownership. FBI new agents spend a great deal of time defining their strengths, talents, and skills so they can quickly lean into them when confronted with risk, uncertainty, and discomfort. The secret to strong living in both business and life is being able to repeat instances of success again and again.

Hack tip: Train yourself to recognize your strengths by recalling a time when you reacted to adversity in a way that moved you forward in the direction you wanted to go. Chances are good that you responded from a place of strength, so take ownership of it by acknowledging it.

2. Strut Your Stuff. It is not uncommon for FBI agents to move assignments several times in their career. Over time, they will settle in one area of expertise that has been defined, in large part, by their strengths, talents, and skills.

Hack tip: Keep your strengths easily accessible by constantly working to develop them so you can call them into action when you need them. When you use your strengths, you’re in the zone where the right decisions come to you. You feel challenged in the way you like to be challenged.

3. Admit you’re not perfect. Survival in hostile and volatile environments often requires an honest assessment of talents and skills. A small but agile FBI agent may be a good choice for a SWAT assignment; a brawny but empathic agent might be used in sensitive interviews. The most competent agents are those who have identified their weaknesses so they can navigate their career in ways that allow them to minimize exposure to areas where they lack proficiency.

Hack tip: Do not worry about what was left out; instead, develop what was left in.  It is the mark of a strong and wise mind to respect your weaknesses so you can anticipate your response and minimize their impact. Read Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham.

4. Keep moving. FBI agents are placed in a variety of fast-moving situations. There is no time to let a self-limiting barrier keep them from confronting an adversary or pushing ahead in an interrogation. Constant training throughout their career allows agents to continually move though barriers, because the closer they get to them the more they can educate ourselves about them.

Hack tip: Break your barriers by continually pushing beyond the the limits you have set for yourself. You do not need total clarity to move forward. Many times, the steps to follow and actions to take will not reveal themselves to you until you have moved closer to the very thing that creates fear inside you.

5. Get emotional. FBI agents know that emotions like fear and anger are OK. It’s complacency that will kill them. A little emotion keeps them on their toes. Agents understand that an emotion like fear is their early warning system in fast-moving situations. Their awareness of the fear doesn’t mean they back away from the unknown because they don’t know what they’ll find; instead, they move forward with caution and strategy.

Hack tip: Acknowledge your emotions for what they are rather than let them lead you towards poor judgments and irrational behavior. Learn how your brain recruits your body to express emotion. Understand what you’re feeling when you’re feeling it. Emotions are often a pacifying system to deal with stress, and as such, can be excellent indicators of a change in our environment.

6. Put yourself under surveillance. FBI agents routinely place the target of their investigation under surveillance to uncover patterns in their behavior. It is an essential first step in an FBI investigation. A surveillance log is kept, and once a target’s normal routine is established, it’s much easier to recognize aberrant behavior.

Hack tip: Keep a log of everyday activities so you can pinpoint situations that influence your attitude or behavior. Rather than reviewing your daily activities as a linear recitation of facts and figures, scan them so you can identify highlights: specific experiences that produced a reaction or moved you in some way. Once those experiences have been identified, you can drill down further to see whether you responded the same way on other days or in different circumstances.

7. Scare yourself. Much of the training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia involves moving new agents out of their comfort zone. If instructors aren’t challenging new agents physically, intellectually, and emotionally, they aren’t doing their job. It’s not a bad thing to be alert and uncomfortable. Training does not encourage agents to become paranoid, but a little discomfort keeps a person from becoming too comfortable with past or current success.

Hack tip: To gain a better awareness of your behavior in situations of risk, uncertainty, and discomfort, go out of your way to place yourself in uncomfortable situations. Expose yourself to activities that you might ordinary avoid because you’re worried about the downside. Your awareness of your reaction to risk, uncertainty, and discomfort is more acute and focused when you purposely place yourself in these situations. Use them as a learning tool so you can anticipate your responses when confronted with the real thing.

What tips would you add on how to hack into your life?


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LaRae Quy
LaRae Quy is former FBI Agent and Founder at Empowering the Leader in You
She helps clients explore the unknown and discover the hidden truth in self & others
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook | Web | Blog | Book

Image Sources: planet10tech.com

L2L Contributing Author


  1. Alexsys Thompson on April 22, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    LaRae, great post, I love how strengths are woven in and it is easy for the reader to see how important it is.

    • LaRae Quy on April 22, 2013 at 5:41 pm

      Thanks, Alexsys. I appreciate your comment and love your name!

  2. Doug Ramsey on April 22, 2013 at 5:04 pm


    Again, let me thank you for your service to our country. I very cool piece with great insights and action steps. I particularly resonate with 6 and 7. If I were to add something, it would be around self and shadow work. Interior areas that I believe receive less attention than external behavioral improvements. Good stuff, thanks for the learnings… Doug

    • LaRae Quy on April 22, 2013 at 5:39 pm

      Hi Doug

      Good to hear from you. I agree that interior areas receive less attention . . . I think it would be worthy of an entire article on it’s own. Placing ourselves under surveillance is the first step so we can become more aware of those shadow areas in our life. It might be a good follow up!


  3. Rich Bishop on April 23, 2013 at 4:48 am

    Great work on this, and best of luck with your book! Leaders are challenged to know themselves better than anyone else, and that requires a great deal of reflection. You did a great job of breaking down exactly how to do that and what it means. I especially like “Get Emotional”. I can be a fiery guy, and it’s amazing how that emotion can push you over the edge to get something completed when you haven’t been making progress.


    • LaRae Quy on April 23, 2013 at 8:42 am

      Hi Rich

      I know what you mean about getting emotional. As leaders, we don’t exploit our emotional responses enough. We try to tamp them down, and while that is good, it’s also important to recognize the context in which they surface. It’s rarely a good thing to make a decision while our “bird brain” rules . . . that is the small but powerful limbic brain system and it can hijack our logical, reasoning cerebral brain.

      Awareness of how these two brains work can be tremendously helpful so we can recognize an emotional like fear and then put it aside as we rely on the thinking brain to make our decisions. I’ll be writing more about this topic in the future . . . it’s actually the core of positive thinking used by Special Forces and FBI agents.

      Great notice on your part!

  4. Terry on April 23, 2013 at 8:35 am

    As a retired police officer and leader, I think this was an excellent post! Great job breaking this down!

    • LaRae Quy on April 23, 2013 at 8:54 am

      As a retired police officer, you recognize many of the same FBI scenarios in the article! Thanks for your kind and encouraging words. Have a great day.

      LaRae Quy 415.609.0608 visit my blog at http://www.LaRaeQuy.com/blog

      Author of “Secrets of A Strong Mind” available on Amazon.

      Society of Retired FBI Special Agents

  5. Gabriel Montadaro on April 26, 2013 at 11:08 am

    Reblogged this on gabrielmontadaro and commented:
    A mind blowing article …

    • LaRae Quy on April 26, 2013 at 12:53 pm

      Thanks, Gabriel . . . I appreciate your kind words!

      LaRae Quy 415.609.0608 visit my blog at http://www.LaRaeQuy.com/blog

      Author of “Secrets of A Strong Mind” available on Amazon.

      Society of Retired FBI Special Agents