Why I Quit the FBI and Moved Abroad: My Story and Top 10 Takeaways

October 16, 2009

URGENT–FBI Interview Invitation

Congratulations! You have been selected as an invited candidate for the FBI job postings (RCO) for which you submitted your resume. Interviews will take place at Liberal Arts Career Services facility (FAC 18) on Oct. 29th and 30th. First interviews will begin at 8:30am and the last one will begin at 4:15pm…

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This is where the story begins: With a ‘holy shit’, both at the surprise of being selected, and the unnecessary yet comically applicable URGENT tagged in the email subject line. I had just followed crippling phone interviews with Google and Facebook, one crumbling after a young, prissy and entitled recruiter, probably from an Ivy League school, asked me how I would describe the “internet” to a fourth grader. I replied confidently with “a giant library where kids can pick out any book to learn about any subject they want”. Booyah bitch! As I waited and waited it became obvious by the sound of her breathing that my answer would not good enough to continue the interview. Victim of the classic tech brainteaser. Coincidentally, big brother came knocking on my door.

I was both happy and nervous about the FBI interview. It was fresh and I could walk around with my head held high around all of my fellow business school classmates who were stoned on Red Bull prepping for robotic case studies and financial modelling assessments. Truth is, I managed to weasel my way into that interview by enrolling as a dual major in the Liberal Arts College (which I never intended on completing), granting me access as the only business major interviewing for the FBI, who only recruited from the Liberal Arts College; a critical and early experience on the importance of thinking outside of the box to undercut competition. The anticipation began. Should I wear an all black suit with a white tie? Do I smile or act like a badass? What would happen?

I will tell you exactly what happened. For starters, the agent interviewing me was named Starrunner and his best lady was an intelligence analyst who literally sat there for 90 minutes without saying a word and never losing eye contact with me. I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried. Even if I wanted to exaggerate or lie, I had this lady glaring into the deepest depths of my conscience and soul, anticipating any slight twitch or crack in my voice as a lapse in my better judgment. Somehow, I fumbled through the interview and was flown out to D.C. a few weeks later for the second round.

Pause. Remember Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) in the Godfather Trilogy? You know, head drooped, mumbled like a teenager coming out of a hit of laughing gas following a deep root dental procedure, eyes halfway closed. Imagine that image on my face as I sat in front of one of the Special Agents in Charge of the Counter Terrorism Division at the FBI’s D.C. headquarters. Some of you might be thinking, oh Jerry boy you should have laid off the booze the night before, but this was the evolution of a gradual flu that was eating away my immune system like Kobayashi demolishes hotdogs in Coney Island (if you don’t get this reference, you are missing out on the greatest eater on the face of the earth).

Don Corleone aka me during the interview

As I struggled through the interview, the extremely understanding and surprisingly patient lady asked me randomly why I thought young new hires always initiated conflict with older, more traditional employees. My answer: due to a false sense of entitlement. As much as I wanted to redeem myself with another internal “booyah bitch”, I refrained since this lady was not only nice, but had her Glock situated on the desk, clearly showing who had the balls and power in this interview. This time, there would be no awkward breathing….EXACTLY! “No more questions, you are hired, I am putting in a good word. Go get some rest”. True story and that was how I was hired by the FBI at 21 years old.

*Fast forward six months of background checks, lie detector tests, my neighbors’ in-laws being interviewed about my nightly bedroom light habits, drug tests, and one rapid relocation to New York City.*

Another day at the office

Being the youngest employee at the FBI’s Flagship office (a nickname coined to represent the largest field office and general pride of New Yorkers) was a thrill in and of its own. Here I was a 21-year-old fresh grad sitting in on a squad meeting with 15 special agents and a few supervisors providing analytical findings and current updates on investigations. I asked stupid questions like if the Velcro black strap on one agent’s ankle was an ankle weight since I knew he liked basketball. “Nah dude, I am packing heat”. We all had a good laugh on that one. It was a dream job. We were given billfold badges with ‘FBI’ plastered across the top, serious business, unless you and a your fellow twenty somethings go out for a night in Soho and use them to bypass long lines of creative types glaring at you as you walk in like a motherfuckin boss…not that I or anyone I know ever did that, of course.

During these nights out, we had to come up with fake career professions and commonly said we worked for a non-profit, Four Brothers Incorporated (F.B.I.), just to see who would break face. It was a perfect first year, better than I ever expected. Granted the money wasn’t great and I busted my ass making ends meet in New York on a government salary, but it was hard to compare the work life balance and prestige with all of the corporate drones working 100 hour weeks near Wall Street a few blocks away, especially when we raided their asses and witnessed their egos melt as the sad realization hit that money could not buy them out of this one.

So you are probably asking yourself a few questions right now. A) Well this is a pretty self-centered article, what is the point? B) Why do you curse? C) What went wrong with this awesome job?

A) The point will be explained at the end of the article in the form of bullet points. Feel free to skip below.

B) Why do Italians wear sunglasses inside all of the time? Because they can and they like to, same reason.

C) For starters, routine set in, plain and simple. They say variety is the spice of life and even with new cases and new coworkers, the physical act of walking the same route to work everyday after a grueling commute and fairly similar tasks on each case was becoming rather dull. I tried to take things in my own hands to combat this. I applied to an assignment in Afghanistan, enrolled into a post-grad program at Columbia University, worked weekends to build leave time for extended weekends, and even took different paths to work every few days to “spice it up”. New York City was not the issue, nor was it the job, it was simply I was scared beyond belief of being molded into a lifelong government type, a product of the system. Let me explain.

I went into the FBI knowing my retirement date and salary for the next 35 years. Everyday when 4 P.M. hit, the same government zombies (typically support employees) would lift their heads past the jail-made cubicles and walk out of the door. Every. Single. Day. I used to daydream of them moaning and fingernails falling off as they hobbled out of the door. Frankly, it started to depress me as my mind raced late at night. The agents who did it the right way, meaning made money first or started the bureau later in life, always told me the FBI was the best second career anyone could have. When you want stability, benefits, and responsibility, there was no better place.

I started to become restless. My screen saver changed from James Bond to the coast of Taormina, Sicily. I wanted to travel, live abroad, step out of the NYC rat race, live, breathe, explore, dream, and just be free. I was young and I was trapped by the perfect job at the wrong time, or so I thought…

My screensaver became my reality. Pic taken 2013.

Long story short, in the middle of a 10 week training for a rather opportune promotion, I received an email from one of the grad schools I casually applied to a few months before. It was a classic French institution in the heart of Paris, where Hemingway and other artists mingled. I never responded to the acceptance request and for some reason they reached out to me again and asked if I was interested (French bureaucracy actually worked in someone’s favor this time). At the time, I remember being trapped in an airless mobile building down in Virginia and going outside to where the sun hit me skin and instantly reminded me of the beaches in Barcelona. The fresh dew on the grass met the blinding sun and birds were chirping, the setting was perfect. Right then and there, the realization hit me…I managed to forget what nature was like over the past two years being jammed in a stuffy office in an even more congested New York City.

This is what it felt to be free, the simple act of siting on a rock in a quiet place in the middle of the day enjoying the simple things in life. I was hooked and wanted more. That day, I called my boss, resigned from the FBI, and one month later was in Paris, where I would live the next two years getting a master’s degree at 75% less than the same degree in the United States, surrounded by the children of Europe’s elite, in a dream world filled with access, parties, endless travels, and mouth-watering food (another post will follow on that topic). Sounds simple, but easily the biggest decision I have ever made and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified as I dialed my boss’s number.

All in all, this experience changed my life and rerouted my path, values, and goals. As you go about life, you will face similar decisions, tough ones, that flow in completely separate decisions and will ultimately challenge your personal beliefs and test you with every external influence you could ever imagine. As you frolic along the ever twisted and often confusing paths, keep these tips in mind: 1) It is YOUR decision:
In life there are critical times when being selfish is a necessity. If you are the type of introvert with a strong analytical side capable of producing a well-reasoned decision, take it. If you are more spontaneous and impulsive, listen to your “gut”. Do not let anyone, including family, tell you what is best for you. Be ready for the challenges and even consequences that will come from your decision, but if it will truly make you happy, go for it with confidence. By acting this way, if something does go wrong, you can only blame yourself and work to fix the issue. The plus is that the same people that you ignored will probably be the firs to help you. Resentment is a dangerous thing, especially when it involves people you care about, and as much as I think regrets should not be a staple of anyone’s life, they sure can be managed better than a deep lingering resentment against someone.

2) Sometimes the WORST things come in the best packages: That new job you got sounds great right? Singing bonus, corner desk with a view, rapid career development, not bad for most people. Oh wow, Angela bakes cookies for everyone every second Thursday! When events like this become the enjoyment in your life or work week, it is probably a good sign to reevaluate your situation. There is a reason why companies give signing bonuses and tend to promote third year employees- that is precisely when the burn-out rate sets in and companies rejuvenate those employees with an increased salary and title, keeping them locked in for more time.

My advice: always keep multiple options open, whether in career, education, or even in travel. It never hurts to be ambitious and to be seeking bigger and better. Plan ahead, stay ahead of the curve, and keep doors open. If you find yourself bored, fired, or stagnant, you will have a greater motivation to act on those sentiments if you already have a head start. Imagine how much easier it would be to land that awesome start-up job if you have been emailing one of the founders for months as opposed to applying online through the abyss known as Taleo or whatever fucking computerized joke of a recruiting system large companies resort to nowadays.

3) Appreciate the good times and maintain positivity: Cliché right? Read this 1,000 times around the web right? Seriously, take a minute and reread this statement. Even if you are in the most miserable of jobs or cities or relationships, turn those negative external emotions and surroundings and flip them into a conscious internal realization. Example: your job or crazy girlfriend could easily be the brunt of all of your complaints and often times people love to resort to this cop-out. Instead, make it about YOU! If it does not serve you or if you think you can do better, then those are better reasons and stimuli than dragging the negative around and blaming other circumstances.

People tend to have selective memories, typically leaning towards remembering the good times of an experience unless the negatives were extraordinary. Five years down the line will you remember the McDonald’s in Madrid that served you a rotten sandwich causing a few hours of uncontrollable hurling or the dinner later that night served by two local hosts in their quint traditional abode while being serenaded by classic Spanish music and tip-top Spanish wine? All about perspective here.

In my case, I would never do over the FBI experience I had. Truly amazing people, responsibility, managers, opportunities, leadership, and overall mission. 10/10. The problem was I was just a young, inexperienced and dreamy-eyed kid whose vision of reality greatly exceeded the possibilities laying in between those confined office walls.

4) Big decisions are great stepping-stones to personal growth After making a life altering decision, you gain a new-found confidence and comfort trusting the unknown or what lies ahead. You are no longer scared of making these types of decisions. You trust yourself more and trust that to some extent you have a certain control over your life. Obviously, the big man upstairs has the final word on everything, but in general your decision-making and reasoning can have a huge impact on where you end up and what situation you are in.

After resigning from the FBI, I have accepted and resigned from two positions in the early stages after listening to my gut and more importantly having the confidence in that feeling to step away. One company ended up closing six months after my proposed start date and the result of me not taking this position ended with a three month train trip around Europe which once again changed my life for the better.

5) What is the worst that can happen? Tricky question that can vary based on cultures, socioeconomic standing, health, family matters, etc. For your particular situation, identify it, and if it won’t kill you or doesn’t scare you, then just take the leap of faith.

Mine was a fortunate worst case- find myself in some student loan debt, broke, back home, which in the grand scheme of things is not a bad set-up given there are people around the world unsure of where their next meal will come from. Be thankful for what you have and if the basic necessities in life will be available for you in the toughest of times, take chances and do it! (whatever it is, just do it…hope Nike doesn’t sue me for that one).

6) KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) Complexity is riveting. It will drive us, intrigue us, and often lead us to act in ways we never thought possible. When going through times of transition, it is best to keep everything simple. What do you mean, you might ask. Goes back to a certain mentality and directly correlates with point #5.

First, if you wake up, it is a good day, simple as that. You are alive and living, a blessing. Second, identify your basic necessities and locate how to obtain them. If you have these things, what else do you really need in a purely utopian world? If you can manage to wake up and have those necessities then you are stabilized and can concentrate on more elaborate goals or desires.

For me, this will include a space to exercise or think, access to healthy food, a decent sleeping situation, and a warm shower. Not too demanding, but these things incorporated into my daily life are enough to stay healthy, positive, and clean- the necessities.

7) Some people will always judge or criticize First off, what is for you might not be for the next guy. We are all different people with different preferences but I will be damned if I will let someone else tell me what is best for me. The key is to keeping an open mind and finding some light at the end of the tunnel to maintain relationships and friendships. I am not saying to ignore advice, especially from peers and mentors, but stay true to yourself.

People who feel envy will probably question your decision and offer some type of bullshit scare tactic to sway you or make you second guess yourself. Just remember, this is probably going to be the same person doing the same thing everyday and nothing will change, including their knack for breaking balls. Second time I have mentioned balls in this post, pure coincidence, I assure you.

In my case, I heard everything from “Why the fuck would you go to France?” to “You are throwing your life away”. Most people were supportive but with a reasonable amount of self-respect and patience you can put some effort into persuading some of these Debbie downers with a glimpse into your reasoning. If they persist, kill them with a smile, and make sure to send them a postcard from one of your exotic getaways.

8) Leave on good terms or at least fake it until you make it Simple concept. If you quit a job, end a relationship, go a different path, try your best to leave on a good note. You never know if that same job might be desirable later or maybe you will be better equipped for it in the future. If you are hit with resistance or conflict, try a soft let down by being the bigger person. A soft tone and calm confident demeanor will go a long way.

If you have to fake it, fake it. I knew my decision to leave the FBI two weeks shy of completing a promotion would be detrimental to any potential future return so I hedged the destruction by keeping an emphasis on the scholarship I would be receiving and flipped it on my supervisors. I asked them how they would react if they were handed a full scholarship (in reality I got half) to move to a beautiful foreign city for two years to earn a master’s degree from a reputable institution. Literally every single supervisor said, quote, “If I were in your shoes I would take it in a heartbeat”. Much easier to leave when you are clear on why and help other people sympathize in your decision.

9) Timing will never be perfect, avoid excuses I will do it when this happens. I am waiting for that. Blah Blah Blah. In life, the timing will rarely, if ever, be ideal, especially when you really need it to be. How many times have you missed an opportunity because you were a day too late? How many girls or guys did you meet on short notice and wish to get to know better only to have them move home or finish university right when things were picking up?

Human psychology defaults us into taking the path of least resistance, meaning the “easy way out”. The easiest form of executing this plague of a mindset is by setting excuses and adding unnecessary variables. Realistic timelines are a different story but the easiest trap is to get into is waiting and waiting. We never know what the future holds. If you have the window and the means to take advantage of an opportunity, even if it means a few sacrifices or headaches, go for it! Take that job abroad, quit and become a freelancer, travel the world with your Vespa…you get the point.

10) Find your Buddha It could be in the form of a fat Asian prophet or a massive joint with some top quality mary jane. I won’t judge and neither should you. Music could be the outlet or maybe photography is the creative outlet that will keep you level-headed. The point is that life is tough, decision-making will never cease, but at the end of the day if we are killing ourselves worrying or stressed in the process, what good will it do?

Find a creative place, outlet, mindset, or activity that will allow you to get lost and to realize that things will work out. Secret time: 9/10 times things do tend to work out, even with some rough patches along the way. If you travel, you are likely to encounter more zen minded people on the travel circuit than anywhere near your hometown. Pick up on some of those vibes, stay sharp, stay prepared, and enjoy the ride.

Originally published at jaredpolites.com.