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When I graduated from CIA tradecraft training, the course designed to teach us how to serve as clandestine intelligence officers, one of my instructors gifted me with a framed copy of Robert Frost’s much-loved poem, “The Road Not Taken.” My favorite section is this:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

As I look back on my life, I am so glad that despite fear, uncertainty–and a huge dose of Imposter Syndrome–I always chose unconventional paths. I wanted to do what everyone else thought was too hard, scary or just weird.

When others were celebrating high school graduation, I left for a month-long mission trip to do manual labor in an Egyptian orphanage. When others were partying in college, I chose to travel to Egypt for a semester abroad and led mission trips to Russia and Ukraine. When others took “sensible” jobs, I took a job for which I had no real understanding. I had no idea whether I would flunk out or find my way—I joined the CIA and trained to become an undercover officer.

None of these paths were easy and I spent a lot of time and mental energy doubting myself. Yet, I learned over time how well-suited I was to these activities. I found a depth of purpose that I couldn’t have imagined.

I didn’t know it then, but I know it now—I have a high tolerance for risk.

Even when I didn’t think I was endowed with the right skills for the task, I learned that I had every gift and strength I needed to be really good at each endeavor. It turns out that the bigger and the scarier the tasks, the more I have found myself moving in meaning and operating in my ultimate zones of purpose.

  • Traveling to the former Soviet Union after the fall of communism, distributing Bibles and acting as a student ambassador to Ukrainian schoolchildren was hard but oh, so fulfilling.
  • Spackling, sanding and painting hundreds of children’s beds in the extreme Egyptian summer heat was beyond physically exhausting, yet, our student group felt such purpose in giving to these orphans.
  • Serving ten years in the Middle East for the CIA was hard, hard, hard. But in the process, we wrapped up many terrorists, identified car bombs before they were detonated, unearthed improvised explosive devices (IEDs) before they exploded, and prevented hundreds of terror attacks from occurring. There was an extreme level of purpose and meaning in that job. It was in the war zone that I discovered I was gifted at dealing with bad guys (who knew?!) and extremely skilled at vetting people and information.
  • Leaving the CIA was scary, but now I am able to use all the hardship and difficulties we experienced there to educate and inspire others.

The question I have for you is this: What is your level of risk tolerance? Do you shrink from a challenge? Do you say “no” if you feel scared or intimated? Maybe it’s time to challenge yourself to try something new, to reach down inside and pull out the courage that is waiting to be deployed. You can’t find the meaning if you’re not willing to do the hard stuff—so let’s get going! Trust me: You will be surprised with the results.

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Michele Rigby Assad is an international corporate advisor and keynote speaker. She is the author of Breaking Cover: My Secret Life in the CIA and What It Taught Me About What’s Worth Fighting For.

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