Good things happen when you let people do their own thing. When we choose how to respond, we create our own circumstances.

My first performance rating as an FBI agent was a disaster. And I was shocked because I’d followed all the rules and guidelines hammered into me during my four months at the FBI Academy in Quantico. Fifteen cases had been assigned to me and I walked into my supervisor’s office that day very confident. Each case had been “papered” with either a memo or communication to FBIHQ in Washington D.C. to show progress.

My supervisor looked at me with a combination of sorrow and disappointment. I knew right then he wondered if I had what it takes to be a good FBI Agent. He laid down his pen and imparted wise words that stayed with me the rest of my professional career:

“The cases don’t come to you—you have to get out there and make it happen. And you can’t do that by sitting in the office with a finger in a manual.”

I realized that while the FBI Academy had taught me procedure, it had left out a very important ingredient—initiative. The FBI structures its New Agent application and selection process so those candidates who exhibit the most self-motivation and self-direction are the ones who surface to the top—so, though crushed by my first performance rating, I also knew the initiative that got me hired was buried somewhere under the volumes of federal law and FBI manuals drilled into me during those four months.

Let People Do their Own Thing

We experience more enjoyment and fulfillment in our job when we’re allowed to work with autonomy. As it turns out, we’re also more motivated when we’re allowed to do our own thing. In Dan Ariely’s new book, “The Upside of Irrationality,” he summarizes the results of a study at MIT that challenges the traditional leadership model that says: Reward positive behavior and get more good behavior; punish negative behavior and get less bad behavior.

The MIT study concluded that incentives only work when tasks are mechanical, simple and straightforward. Surprisingly, when the task requires even rudimentary cognitive skill (i.e. thinking), larger incentives actually led to poorer performance.

The study also found that better performance is nurtured by a whole other set of motivators, the most important being autonomy. This is true no matter who we are or what we do—not just FBI agents who are more motivated when they’re allowed to work independently and use their initiative to solve problems.

Don’t Let Your Fingers Do the Walking

My supervisor’s advice about keeping my finger out of the manual helped me to understand that I needed to take initiative if I wanted to rise above mediocrity.

The physical fitness training at the FBI Academy taught me how to develop muscles. We can also develop our mental muscles through training. Although your initiative muscle may be dormant, you can get it into shape. I can watch demonstrations on the perfect push-up all day, but at some point, I’m going to have to jump in and do it myself.

The same principle applies to the way we look at things: Dormant thinking is passive while initiative takes inventive thinking.

TIP #1

For a full day, listen to your language because it’s a good indicator of whether your thinking is passive or inventive. Here are some examples:

Passive Thinking

There’s nothing I can do.

I can’t do anything else

It’s always been this way

I don’t know any other way

I can’t

I must

If only

I’m not responsible


Inventive Thinking

What are your other alternatives?

I can choose a different approach

I can try something new

I choose to learn another way

I choose

I prefer

I will

I can choose my response

Decode whether you’re a passive or inventive thinker.

TIP #2

Theory is useful only when you put it into practice.

Identify a situation you’ll encounter in the next few days.

Based on your previous experience, how will you react?

Will it be with passive or inventive thinking?

What would you like to change?

Take a few moments and determine how you can take the initiative and respond with inventive thinking in the upcoming situation.

“Most people spend more time planning their grocery shopping than designing their future. The basic difference between people who live their dreams and those who only dream about how they would live, is their ability to generate new ideas and their ability to take action.” Unknown.

What is the difference between positive thinking and initiative? Can initiative be a learned skill? What has been most helpful to you in taking the initiative in difficult situations?



LaRae Quy is a former FBI and founder of Your Best Adventure. She writes and speaks about what she learned as an FBI agent catching Russian spies in Silicon Valley. Follow her adventures at 
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