Part One | The Battle Begins…
During the pandemic, we turned down a lot of work, simply because I didn’t think brands should be researching ‘a new normal’ that didn’t even exist yet. Instead, I suddenly had the luxury of interviewing outside of projects and their subjects, talking to people just because I could. It doesn’t happen often and it didn’t last long [we ended up working on a project around the Future of Creativity instead], but it did mean that there were two men I had discussions with that no brand would [probably] ever pay me to talk to. The first is an ex-CIA operative who appears on myriad podcasts and TV shows.
After it, I felt a bit like I’d been in a fight, probably because I was talking to a man trained by the American government to destabilize the person he was in conversation with. Indeed, he even answers my first question with a question, something he later explains as a way to control the conversation from the off. Holding the conversation was alarming at times, irritating at others, but - and I hope you'll agree - interesting.
We start the series of excerpts with a look at how he came to understand humans through his training at The Agency [later referred to as “Langley”]... As I said, this is the first in a four-part series, let’s begin…
My wife was at The Agency with me…
Ruby: Are those your kids’ stickers on your shirt? It’s like they branded you.
Agent: Have you heard of the term alpha female?
Ruby: What? [Laughs] Uh yes, of course….
Agent: You have? Alpha female?
Ruby: Yes, I’m assuming you’re telling me this because your wife is an alpha female…
Agent: Yeah, she is, she was at the Agency with me. The whole branding/claiming culture is very much alive in our family. It brings comfort to people. It brings comfort to the kids to put their stickers on me and it brings comfort to me to spend the money that we make on them.
Ruby: Okay, well, I don’t think I'm an alpha female. I know you’re interested in the Myers Briggs personality types and I’m an INFJ, so I’m not sure how I could be Alpha. I’ve just got three brothers, which is why I’m not massively feminine, having grown up with males…
Agent: I assume you’ve read a lot about your personality type…
Ruby: I have. I read about it because I grew up thinking I was an extroverted introvert, which is quite the oxymoron. I never understood the introversion/extroversion thing until Meyers-Briggs, so yeah, I’ve read about it.
You think you’re a worthless piece of shit.
Agent: Your specific type code is the one that I try to avoid the most.
Ruby: Okay… um.
Agent: I’m an ENTP [what sociopaths typically tend to be - RP] but the thing is, your code of being an INFJ is destined to suffer your whole life. INFJs are a suffering, suffering people.
Ruby: [I look up from my notes at this point, head cocked to the side, somewhat alarmed]
Agent: It has nothing to do with the ‘I’ but instead the relationship between the N and the J.
Ruby: Intuitive and judging?
Agent: Yeah. All you’re doing is judging yourself all the time, and how do you determine if you’re worthy or not worthy? It falls on the F, so it’s all feeling. If you’re feeling good, you’re like, ‘Oh wow I’m doing a great job’. But if you’re not feeling so good, you think you’re a worthless piece of shit.
Ruby: That’s funny because Ruby isn’t even my real name, I trade under Ruby which is how most people know me. When people go, ‘You’ve done really well!’, I think, ‘Well, no, Ruby has done really well.’
If I piss you off, fine.
Agent: One of my best friends is an INFJ. He was such a sad guy. Super successful guy, who owned and sold multiple businesses in his lifetime but never sold for like millions of dollars. He would sell for hundreds of thousands instead simply because he liked the guy he was selling to, who often wasn’t paying the largest amount…
Ruby: …I did bet myself that a CIA agent would be an ENTP. I think it’s funny that you said I’m going to have a life of suffering as your opener…
Agent: I’m not passing judgement on you. I’m trying to sympathize with you. You can judge yourself all day long because once we hang this phone up, you never have to talk to me again. If I piss you off, fine.
A subjective lens of feelings and emotions…
Ruby: Right… So now you’ve got ‘I avoid people like you and I’m never going to talk to you again’ out the way, I’ll get to my first question… Part of what I do is study humans, right? And I think it’s interesting how little people tend to know about themselves. We all drive cars, but many people couldn’t say how the engine works. I feel like it can often be the same for us as humans….
Agent: It’s not that people don’t want to know about themselves, it’s just that your typical person, your common Western person, they think they already do. There’s a series of awareness levels we talk about at The Agency, not situational awareness, but personal awareness. There’s a term “problem aware, solution unaware,” and most people are probably “problem-unaware” about themselves, because they’re assuming, ‘Of course, I know me. I live in my shoes every day. There’s nothing to learn.’
Ruby: They think they truly know and understand themselves already…
Agent: They think they understand themselves, but they don’t recognise that they only understand themselves through a subjective lens of feelings and emotions. Most people don’t understand that there is a whole objective reality, a whole objective lens that they can study themselves through if they bother to take the time. Some of the personality tests that we are talking about are one of those tools to objectively learn about yourself.
Ruby: Yet people don’t always take the time…
Agent: At The Agency, one of the things they teach you is that people are driven by emotion. That school of thought is well known to entertainers, salespeople etc. - people are driven by emotion. Once you understand that, the next logical step is to understand how to drive emotion. Once you can drive emotion, you can drive their behaviours.
Ruby: Do you consider fear to be one of those emotions?
Agent: Yes, of course.
There’s a system to dying, people!
Ruby: I feel like fear is one of the defining emotions that drives people. I don’t mean “fear of missing out”, but fear of what other people think of them or of not finding their dreams or being fearful of not doing things right.
Agent: There’s a handful of emotions that everything boils down to, but what you’re specifically talking about is a term in the intelligence world called “foundational fear.” Everybody has a foundational fear, and it’s not the same from person to person but we all have it. That foundational fear is the single deep-rooted fear that you have and don’t share with anybody, but that shapes every decision you make.
Ruby: Interestingly, I do know my greatest fear actually. It’s of dying alone, but my head is like, ‘I’ll be dead, so I won’t remember it.’ That’s how I reconciled my own fear. I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s going to suck if it happens - dying alone - but then I’ll be in a box and I won’t remember it anyway…’
Agent: There’s a system to dying, people! And once you’re dead, you’re dead. You can have faith in that system… When you understand your foundational fear, there’s a certain level of acceptance that comes with that.
Ruby: So what’s your fear?
Agent: My personal foundational fear is not seeing my children grow up and I can pinpoint why I’m afraid of not seeing my children grow up, and I’m okay with that being my foundational fear. What’s scary to me is all the people who don’t understand what their foundational fear is. Those are all the people who are making decisions, and they are lying to themselves about why they’re making them. Purchasing decisions, marrying decisions, job decisions, travel decisions, fitness, and entertainment decisions; Everything is being done because of core values they don’t even understand are there.
Everybody wants someone who can lift them up…
Ruby: In your role as an operative, how did you play off people’s fear? Or wasn’t that the main emotion that you played off?
Agent: When you’re building an artificial relationship - which is what we were all building to create an asset, you’re building a simulated personal relationship that the other person believed was real. When you’re dealing with that person, your goal is to identify two things: what motivates them and what manipulates them. You want both sides of the coin: how can you manipulate them, but also how can you motivate them?
Ruby: And how do you do that?
Agent: Everybody wants to be around somebody who can lift them up and who can make them feel good, so 90% of your time is spent making that person feel good. 90% of your time is spent making a human asset feel good: listening to what they care about, validating their fears, concerns and worries… If they hate whiskey, you hate whiskey; if they like the losing baseball team, you like the losing baseball team.
Hunting to identify people’s foundational fear…
Ruby: So fake-identifying and pseudo-connecting…
Agent: You want to make them feel like you’re kindred spirits. There’s still that 10% though, where you’re hunting to identify their foundational fear. Then, once you identify that foundational fear, you’ve done two things. They trust you inherently because you make them feel good, so they always want you around. You have this trust, but also, you have this lever you can use to drive their decisions.
Ruby: So you’re trading with fear…
Agent: Fear isn’t the emotion that we most pivot off of, it’s that validation, that feeling like we belong to the same tribe. We want them to feel safe with us first and foremost so that we can tap into that fear.
Ruby: You’ve trapped the asset…
Agent: But they don’t ever feel threatened, angry, or hurt. If you start talking to a stranger and picking on them for what they’re afraid of, they are gonna see you as a threat and they’re never going to trust you. But if your best friend starts talking about the thing you’re most vulnerable about, you’re just gonna love that person even more for understanding you.
Ruby: So if someone makes you feel good, you keep them around and they make you feel secure.
Agent: Exactly. Exactly right.
Part Two “I feel like this is going to be an insult..."