As a grad student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (c. 2011)
Imagine every night at midnight, you meet a clone of yourself from 24 hours ago. Your task is to fight your clone to the death. If you have done even one thing better than you did the day before, then you will successfully overcome your clone.
What have you done to kill your clone today? These are the words of Ethan Suplee, an actor who recently launched a podcast called American Glutton to share his incredible weight loss journey. In order to lose a whopping 200 pounds, Suplee didn’t just strengthen his body—he had to strengthen his overall mindset.
Strength begins with resolve
When I was in my early twenties trying to break into the Israeli security community, every day was clone-killing day for me. I didn’t always win. On the days that my yesterday-clone ate me alive, it was usually because I didn’t understand the nature of the battle I was fighting. What I came to realize is that overcoming challenges is for the most part psychological and in your control. Meaning, if you know how to transform your personality in response to challenge, you will be able to accomplish things you never imagined possible.
The Hardest Job I Ever Took Was Many Jobs in One
One of the hardest jobs I ever had lasted over two years. It’s not something I want you to see on my resume. It’s not something I thought I should be proud of at the time. In fact, it would take several years before I realized the supreme value of this difficult era in my life, particularly in how it defined my resilience and overall character.
I was a freelancer.
Back in 2011, just before I became a freelancer, I was a student finishing up my master’s degree in security intelligence in Jerusalem. I wanted to break into the Israeli security field and I didn’t want just any job: I wanted to be included in the elite, the baddest of bad asses, the cream of the crop (in Hebrew, we refer to it as “the whipped cream”). After completing my degree with excellent scores and an impressive portfolio, I was sure I would nail an awesome job within three months.
Oh boy, was I wrong. I had enough rejection letters piled up in my kitchen to dry my dishes for months.
Lucky for me, one of the hallmarks of Israeli culture is a total lack of sugarcoating, which means I was bluntly informed early on what was wrong with my resume: lack of military service. In a country with a mandatory draft, this was practically considered a sin in my chosen profession. So, at the age of twenty-six, I was committed to getting into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). I was considered laughably old at this point for military service—at least according to Israeli standards. But I didn’t care. It took me over two years of networking, cajoling, and arguing with the military establishment to convince them to finally let me in.
In order to survive financially in this gap period between grad school and the army, I needed a job. Upon recommendation by a more seasoned security professional, I chose freelancing because it would not only provide me with enough flexibility to aggressively pursue military recruitment on the side; it would also rapidly expand my skill set and my network. I sorely needed both if I was going to climb the rungs of my chosen competitive career ladder.
But becoming a freelancer so abruptly after being a student was no easy matter. It’s not like I had an existing reputation in my industry or a network of clients to call on. So, what was I supposed to do?
Basically, I had to reinvent myself overnight. I had to kill off my clone from the day before so I could become the kind of person others wanted to hire on the spot. I could no longer be Jessica the Nerdy Semi-Bashful Student. I had to become Jessica the Bad Ass You Want to Hire.
Here’s how I went about it:
Lesson #1: When you’re a newbie, you’re going to need to fake an unbelievable amount of confidence to convince people to hire you.
In other words, fake it ‘til you make it. I quickly learned that when I showed up to an interview with a potential client all smiles and eager to accommodate (this was very American of me, by the way), I got kicked around like a beanbag on a Tel Aviv beach. Upon the advice of a wise Israeli neighbor, I quickly changed my tune and started showing up to these meetings with my nose slightly up in the air. I let people know I was busy and would consider taking them on as a client if I thought it was a good match. I pitched a high price so that they would know I was worth it.
It didn’t matter if I was so nervous that I almost dropped a cup of coffee on my lap during several of these meetings. If I didn’t give off an air of confidence to these potential clients, then why should they have any confidence in the value I brought to the marketplace?
Lesson #2: Recognize the value you bring to the marketplace, then maximize it.
I had to be aware of my environment, aware of my own value, and creative enough to recognize what a recent grad student like myself had to offer to more senior professionals. Mainly, it came down to two things: I could write and I had a foreigner’s perspective. And I wasn’t just any foreigner: I was a native English speaker and an American.
Why was this so important for the Israeli marketplace? First, many Israelis, whether it was the government or private security, were interacting with an international clientele. Being able to communicate well in English, especially through writing, turned out to be a skill that was in high demand. The fact that I had an advanced academic background meant I could conduct interviews, write speeches, and produce articles, policy papers, and even books.
One of the perks of being a freelancer: I got to interview IDF Colonel Danny Tirza, the architect of Israel’s life-saving security barrier (Beit Jala, Israel, c. 2012)
As an American, it was easier for me to blend in with said international clientele. It was also easier for me to see things from their point of view and communicate these perspectives to my Israeli clients. Whether it was the Government Press Office or a private security consulting firm, I knew how to advertise and maximize my skills according to the context.
Lesson #3: Know how to sell yourself and where to go about it.
Since writing was one of the skills I could offer in the marketplace, I made sure to showcase it by starting a blog—not my current blog, by the way, but a blog about the “expertise” I had developed in grad school, which was asymmetric warfare and national security policy. That was my jam. And I splashed that jam all over LinkedIn, at conferences, on friends’ larger media followings as a guest blogger—you name it.
Showcasing my portfolio online this way gave me an aura of being more advanced in professional years than I was in actual years. It even led to an invitation to write for the New York Times.
In order to generate leads, I pursued invites to conferences, political lectures, fancy people parties, and any networking event that offered promise. It was exhausting, but it was worth it if it put me in front of the right people.
Lesson #4: There may be a lot of things you don’t have control over, but you have control over yourself.
Even more than the uncertainty of freelancing, what really got under my skin was the feeling of having no control over my surroundings. Aside from the occasional exciting book deal or other oddball consulting gig, most of the jobs I received were short-lived, the clients unpredictable, and the paycheck intermittent. In the midst of all this, I also had no idea if I was actually going to get accepted into the army, despite my best efforts.
You do your best, then hope for the best
I couldn’t control many of the things that happened to me, but I could control my reaction. If a networking event was a dud (sometimes I gave in to shyness and just couldn’t “perform”), I could decide to either give myself a hard time over it or just get over it. If a client was too rough or dishonest with me, I could refuse to continue working with them, even if meant giving up a lucrative gig on occasion.
Maybe these were small decisions, but reminding myself that I had control over my own actions and emotions kept me somewhat sane during my freelancing days. Sometimes it even proved that I was a lot stronger than I initially gave myself credit for.
The Personal Rewards of Taking the Hard Path
When I first finished grad school with no job, I saw myself as a loser with poor career prospects. Taking the difficult role of freelancer proved that I had more abilities and gumption than I initially thought. It was a side of myself that I would have never discovered if I had failed to adapt or otherwise given up at the beginning.
Challenging situations are ultimately opportunities for us to rise to the challenge. It’s the actions we take during times of chaos that define our own strength.
When you’re aiming high, sometimes you’re going to get kicked down. You might even have days where you outright fail, whether it’s against your “clone” or even forces beyond your control. But if you keep going, chances are you’re going to rise to the challenge and win the battle. And when you do, it’s going to be glorious because you earned it.
* * *
About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, filmmakers, CIA officers, journalists, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.