Stressed about job-hunting? Former CIA officer tells Morristown group to do what secret agents do


If you think being unemployed is stressful, imagine working a fake job for the CIA and juggling disguises, personas and long periods in dangerous places isolated from loved ones.

Al Brockwell knows something about that clandestine world, and he thinks ordinary people in transition can learn some valuable coping skills from secret agents.

“They have a positive attitude. They’re skilled at maintaining networks. They stay active. They focus their energy on achieving their mission,” said Al, a psychologist who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency from 1989 to 1994.

al brockwell
IS THIS THE REAL AL BROCKWELL? It's hard to say; the psychologist formerly worked with disguise experts at the CIA. He shared stress management tips Monday with the Morris County Career Network at St. Peter's Church in Morristown. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

On Monday he shared stress management tips with the Morris County Career Network, a group of professionals seeking to rebound from corporate downsizing. Networking occurs twice a month at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

Al’s consulting business, Elite Performance Strategies in Valhalla, N.Y., draws on techniques honed by sports and business psychologists, special forces branches of the military, and the CIA, where he screened candidates for undercover missions and worked closely with disguise experts.

Hollywood has nothing on the CIA, he said. “It’s more impressive than anything you can imagine.”  Just how impressive, he won’t say. Because he would have to kill you, of course.

(For an accurate glimpse into espionage, he recommends the bonus DVD footage on “The Recruit,” a 2003 spy yarn starring Al Pacino.)

At the Agency, Al Brockwell vetted candidates who were both trustworthy and capable of “convincing others to commit treason.”

He also worked with teams researching new ways to detect lying, and ran “identity transformation” drills in which agents had to change personas, chameleon-style, within seconds. On occasion, he said, he traveled under a false identity.

All of which can be pretty stressful.

The formula for managing that stress — or the stress of finding work in a rotten economy– is not complicated, Al said. Mostly, it boils down to establishing a healthy routine, and sticking to it. People revert to ingrained behaviors in times of duress,  so it’s crucial to develop good habits.

Al, who plays goalie in a men’s hockey program, likened this to the “muscle memory” that enables great athletes, after years of practice, to excel in clutch situations as if on auto-pilot.

Exercise, diet, and sleep are essential for a positive attitude–whether you’re James Bond or a bond trader.

“If you think, I’ll never get a job, no jobs are out there, it sets you up for a downward spiral,” said Al. “Successful operators–whether in the CIA, or in transition–maintain a mission focus. They say, ‘This is where I’m going,’ and if they get blocked here, they find another way around.”

He showed the Morris County group some deep-breathing and visualization techniques, and mental exercises to refute negative thoughts. His fitness message resonated with George Ganter, 58, a former fund manager now setting his sights on the renewable energy business.

“I need to do roadwork to get in shape again,” George said. “I liked his point about physical fitness giving you a better base to operate from.”

One might think that unemployment leaves lots of time for exercise, he said, but job hunting is all-consuming and distractions abound. “It’s hard to schedule time effectively,” he said.

Barbara Acciardi, who aims for a new career in employee relations after 25 years in human resources, has recorded daily entries in a “positive journal”–no negative events!– to keep her spirits high through a six-month job search. She welcomed Al’s demonstration of self-hypnosis and relaxation exercises.

“If your body is stressed, your mind is stressed. I had never really realized the connection,” Barbara said. “If you control your mind and look at the positive things going on, your body will relax. And if your body’s relaxed, it will help you deal with what’s going on in your mind.”

Al knows how hard it can be to practice what he preaches. He was laid off by the CIA, worked for a New York ad agency, and  got downsized in 2008 by an environmental engineering firm. So he considers himself in transition, too, and he craves some comfort food now and then.

The key is doing McDonald’s or pizza in moderation.

“Hold it out as a reward,” Al advised.

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  1. Great article, great speaker and great networking group to be a part of. Come join us if you are in transition, looking for the next opportunity, on the 2nd and 4th Monday of each month at St. Peter’s, 70 Maple Ave., Morristown, NJ from 9:00-11:00am.