As an FBI counterintelligence agent, my job was to identify and recruit Russian spies to work for the U.S. government. Little did they know that the most powerful gift given to me and my colleagues by the Russian government was a toxic system filled with corruption, suffering and stagnation. The desire to take over their own destiny was, and remains, the surest way to get a spy’s attention and drive them into the arms of the FBI.
U.S. and allied intelligence services give foreign spies a way to make a difference in their life. It allows us to pierce the tender underbelly of a person who is fed up with supporting a system that doesn’t represent their values or goals.
One doesn’t need to be a foreign spy to experience these same feelings. Our most basic instinct is the desire to take over our own destiny — it explains why potty training gets easier as we move from diapers to toddlers. It also explains why we begin to ask more from our life as we age and yearn to understand what it actually means to take over our own destiny.
At some point, we’re no longer content with vague answers that turn into clouds of mediocrity.
People seek to find satisfaction and fulfillment but often come up empty if they’ve not made simple, good choices about the kind of person they want to be. After all, age and wisdom do not travel in pairs; sometimes, age shows up all by itself.
(It can take a strong mind to stay the course when confronted with obstacles. Are you mentally tough? Take this evidence-based, free Mental Toughness Assessment.)
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s use of intimidation, repression and greed relies on blind loyalty; it will backfire because it has done nothing but provide brave people with incentives to act against him. It’s a ripe world for those recruiting Russian spies because many are brave enough to jump ship.
The same is true in our corporate and private lives. You don’t realize how brave you can be until you make the simple choice to change your life for the better.
Let’s take a closer look.
1. Choose your moral framework
Our moral framework guides us through split-second decisions. It guides our actions in times of stress so that we respond in a way that is consistent with who we are as individuals.
What’s the point of trying to be a better person if, when faced with a stressful situation, we lash out in negative and unproductive ways?
To follow a moral path requires that we honestly take stock of what is appropriate and what is not. And folks, if you think it’s always all about you, good luck when feces hit rotating blades because your default reaction will be at the expense of others. If you have no conscience, you’ll feel no guilt. You’ll also find yourself alone when it most matters in life.
A moral framework determines our ethics, which are standards of right and wrong that guide people on what they should do in society.
We also have our own personal ethics that need to be examined regularly to ensure they’re reasonable and well-founded. If left unchecked, they can morph into something that leaves us unmoored when life knocks us off course — a divorce, loss of a job, death of a loved one, or personal tragedy. Instead of responding in a way that takes the moral high ground, we devolve into ruthlessness, lack of respect for others, and selfishness.
How to make it work for you: A moral framework holds a healthy tension between compassion and courage. Make a simple choice that can change your life for the better by asking, “What does my moral framework allow me to do in this situation?”
2. Choose good values
It’s not enough for me to say, “Stick to your values.” After all, Adolf Hitler stuck to his values as he murdered millions of people. His values were sick and debauched. So, no, it’s not enough to say “stick to your values” if they are selfish and destructive. Achieving success in life is not nearly as important as how we define success.
Good values are how we measure a meaningful life, which can be described as a successful one. Good is a subjective term, but when we make a simple choice to live by good values, we begin to define what a better person is and how we can become one.
Many of us say we want good values but fail to put in the hard work to live by them. This becomes a problem because our values are a fundamental component of our identity. We are defined by what we choose to make important in our life. If you have crap for values, your life will look and feel like crap.
One way to understand how our personal values are developed is to look back to our younger years and identify what we felt was missing from our life. Since I lived on a remote cattle ranch in Wyoming, I never had the chance to travel anywhere outside the state. For many, travel is a hobby or a form of entertainment. But from my void in childhood arose a yearning to travel, which has become a personal value for me.
As a kid, I was surrounded by strong-minded people who made me bend to their will. I had very little opportunity to develop my own priorities or make sense of the world according to my point of view. From this void came the need to be my own person and create my own identity.
From those voids came the values that have kept me focused as an adult.
How to make it work for you: You can make a simple choice and change your life for the better if you don’t value things that can harm others or yourself. Bad values are the ones you can’t control, like money, the stock market, the weather, your genetic makeup, etc. Good values are those things we can control; otherwise, our values control us.
Start by listing 15 values you feel are important to you at work. For the next few days, pare the list down to five. You may want to add a value at some point, and that’s OK but be sure to strike one off.
Once you’ve identified your top work values, it’s easier to see how or where you can fit into your work environment—or not. Do the same for other areas of your life.
3. Choose the right goals
Your values drive your perceptions, decisions, actions and feelings. Your true values are specific to you, as unique as your retinal pattern. Too often, we settle for the values of people around us, like parents, teachers, politicians and activists.
There’s nothing wrong with those people or their values, except they aren’t ours. We begin to live in a world of “should” and “ought” because others (people we admire!) do those things. Instead, we need to discover values that nourish our innermost being.
We should all aspire to lofty values like integrity, compassion, honesty and gratitude, to name a few. We can share those values with partners, lovers, friends and family. However, each one of us have another set of values that are unique to us.
For example, not too many were raised in the wilds of Wyoming, where summer vacations and travel were a joke because cattle need to be tended, fences fixed, and hay fields mowed and baled. My unique values aren’t the same as others, nor do they need to be. I am the only one who can look into my heart and mind to discover what is truly important to me.
You can read all the self-help books you want and attend all the motivational seminars you can afford, but in the end, your job is take a master class in self-awareness so you know what makes you tick. No one else is going to do it for you.
Another example: In my first job out of college, I worked for a fancy department store. After that, I began to value how clothes and appearance can make a huge difference in how people responded to me. So yes, I understand how the way I come across to others builds respect, and that is a value to me.
I was born and raised on a cattle ranch. I valued the care and feeding of animals. So yes, animal rescue is a value for me today.
How to make it work for you: Once you’ve identified your values, the next step to change your life for the better is to align your goals to them. People who live extraordinary lives not only live by their values, they also set goals that will ensure they remain aligned to those values.
My values guide my goals to this day. I work hard to stay in shape and wear clothes that express my personality, and I volunteer at a horse rescue once a week. These are the personal values that are unique to me and have changed my life for the better.
What are your lofty values that you can control?
What are values that are unique to you?
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. Get Quy’s new book, “Secrets of a Strong Mind (second edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles” as well as “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.