I couldn’t get a job … until I finally got hired by the CIA.

Facing rejection? Dealing with a string of disappointments? Not sure what you are supposed to be doing in life? I was there and I made it out—You will too.

After I graduated from college, I could not get a job, no matter how hard I tried. I was fresh out of school with a bachelor’s degree in political science working in a place that should have been perfect for me: Washington, D.C. But man, talk about competition. If I was smart, there were a thousand people smarter than me. If I was accomplished, there were a thousand people more accomplished than I was. Talk about depressing. It’s hard to hold your head up when you face rejection after rejection. Many of us have been in that position: wondering whether we have any marketable skills, unsure whether we’ll ever find our place in the world. So we do what everyone tells us: knock on a lot of doors, send out hundreds of resumes, network, tell everyone we know that we are job-hunting, etc.

Then one miraculous day, a door opened and I got an administrative assistant job at a well-respected humanitarian agency on Capitol Hill. I was thrilled. It might not have been the dream job, but let’s be honest, any job at that point was a dream. I needed an income. I needed experience. I might have gotten paid at a level that hovered right around the poverty level, but it put food on the table.

The Best Lessons – What You Can’t Do:

Even though working at the NGO was an incredibly valuable experience, that job did not propel me into greatness. More than anything, it showed me what I was not good at. Unlike everyone else in the organization, I could not write USAID proposals, manage the reporting aspects of humanitarian programs, or track the foreign aid authorization bill. Proposals, tons of paperwork, and number crunching? That sounds like a jail sentence, not a job to me. Oh. My. Goodness. I was terrible at it. And because I was not like the rest of the staff, I thought there was something tragically wrong with me. Everyone else could do it, why couldn’t I? Maybe I wasn’t smart enough. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough. Maybe I didn’t have the right amount of discipline.

The only part of the job I excelled in was when I had to schedule appointments for our staff on the Hill so they could conduct advocacy-related activities—no easy task when Capitol hill staffers have the busiest schedules and everyone on the planet is vying for their limited time. But I was able to talk them into taking the appointments. I didn’t realize that skill would form the core of my future career—the ability to use my interpersonal skills to gain people’s trust and achieve my objectives.

After several years living and working in Washington, D.C., I still had no idea what I was supposed to do with my life. All the other Young Turks were surging ahead, finding success left and right: helping run administrations, writing legislation, and passing bills. They were amazing, and I was still clueless.

Heed That Intuition – One Step at a Time:

But thankfully, I was not completely lacking in direction. At 24 years old, I did what I had always done: I listened to that voice deep down inside of me–Call it a gut feeling, call it God, call it intuition. (It’s probably a wonderful mixture of all three.) I knew that voice well because it had never led me astray, so I listened to it. I applied to Georgetown University to study the Arab World. My family was skeptical, “What can you do with a degree like that?” I wasn’t sure. Two feet in front of me? I had no idea. But the step I was to take at that moment in time? That was all that I knew.

Everyone else my age had his/her five and ten year plans all brilliantly mapped out. Not me. Every time I tried to create a nice little template for my life those efforts never bore fruit. Even my partially-constructed plans met a quick demise. Opportunities always came to me from strange corners; things I never saw coming but recognized immediately when they showed up. Alternatively, the jobs I wasn’t supposed to have eluded me to no end. Nothing I tried could bust open those doors. God had sealed them tight. No amount of pulling, pushing, or prodding could open them.

While in graduate school, I applied to the CIA on a whim and had been offered an amazing job as an analyst. I was supposed to start work a month after I graduated from Georgetown with a master’s degree in Contemporary Arab Studies. But for reasons unknown to me at the time, I lost that job before it ever started. (That was a shocking and terrible rejection letter from out of left field. It came in the mail just two weeks before I was to begin my career as an analyst at the Agency.)

That was one of the most difficult periods of my life. There I was again– jobless and aimless. Suffice it to say I was pretty much at the end of my rope. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t figure out how to jumpstart my career. Eventually, I found a temporary job that paid the bills. It didn’t match my gifts whatsoever, but it kept me both fed and occupied.

The Perfect Opportunity Presents Itself at the Right Time:

Meanwhile, I learned about the other side of the CIA (I didn’t know there were different sides!) That was the covert side—the people who conducted the actual operations. These weren’t the people who analyzed the information but the people who collected the intelligence. So, once again, I applied to the Agency. I spent the next year of my life moving through the numerous steps of the hellish hiring process. I had to sneak around behind my employer’s back to take calls from the CIA’s hiring specialists who quizzed me on foreign relations and asked me a bunch of questions to explore my suitability as a candidate. I had to find a phone in that building where no one would hear me answering those very strange interview questions. I missed a lot of work to attend a CIA hiring drive, get drug tested, take a physical, complete numerous polygraphs, meet with psychologists, etc. I repeatedly lied to my colleagues as I snuck around and tried to cover up what I was really doing. Weirdly enough, you have to start acting like a spy before you ever actually get the job.

At the tail end of the recruitment, hiring and vetting processes, I was informed that I would be joining the next class of clandestine hires slotted to begin training January 2002. Could this be true? Could I have finally found my place in the world? The answer to that question came just days later when two planes hit the World Trade Center, one hit the Pentagon, and another crashed in Shanksville, PA. While I was standing there in shock trying to process what was happening to our great nation, I had one of those profound moments where I realized it had finally all come together. All of the confusion, all of the self-doubt, all of the questions about my life’s calling suddenly vanished. Despite the long string of disappointments I had endured, I had kept the faith and followed my intuition one tiny step at a time. Now, I was exactly where I was supposed to be at that critical moment in time. I had studied Arab politics, culture, and religion. I wrote papers about terrorism. I had traveled extensively to the Middle East, and now our country was being attacked by Arab terrorists. Coincidence? Nope. Amazing chess moves by a great God? YES.

All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the CIA or any other U.S. Government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying U.S. Government authentication of information or Agency endorsement of the author’s views. This material has been reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information.

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Categories: Women's Issues + Awareness

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Michele Rigby Assad

After obtaining a masters degree in Arab Studies at Georgetown University, Michele applied—along with hundreds of others from the university--to work for the CIA. After a long and grueling hiring process and a year of intensive training, she became an intelligence officer for the National Clandestine Service, the covert (operational) arm of the Agency. Serving for a decade as a counterterrorism officer, Michele worked in all of the awful places you hope you’ll never visit, including Iraq during the height of the war. To date, Michele has traveled to 45 countries, lived in six of those, and has a lot of crazy stories to tell about life overseas. While working for the CIA, Michele initially decried the traits that made her different from senior male officers, but later realized that these traits were what made her a great intelligence officer (empathy, intuition, strong interpersonal skills). Now she’s on a mission to show women that they have the elements to be a Femme Fatale—the incredibly intelligent and operationally astute woman that gets stuff done. After years of service to her country, Michele has left the undercover life behind and now works as an international management consultant focused on Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. She has a more “normal” life now and a lot more time to do the things she loves: writing, cooking, traveling for pleasure, walking on the beach—and most of all, inspiring others!

One Comment
  1. The 9/11 attacks were “Amazing chess moves by a great God”? I’m sure Mohamed Atta would agree. Your article somehow manages to reek of both the self-interested war profiteering accused of post-9/11 government employees AND the misguided Insha’Allah mentality of the people from whom you were supposedly employed to protect Americans. An impressive feat, congratulations. Glad to see you viewed the deaths of thousands of Americans (and countless more in Iraq and Afghanistan) as some God looking out for your personal interests.

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