Carmen Medina

Spent 32 years within CIA trying to make sense of the world; hoping to have better luck now that I’m out, and in any case enjoying looking more at the positive and less at the negative.

Most notable rebel experience?

That’s a hard one to pick; there are so many. I remember with some fondness but also a little prickliness the long line of more senior people who kept telling me that if I wanted to be successful at the CIA, I needed to mute my critique. But I think my favorite must be the young graduate intern who spent the summer with my group when I was a mid-level manager. Toward the end he said to me, Carmen, I notice that you’re always thinking about how things could be better and making suggestions. I said, Yes. He asked Do you that because it’s career-enhancing? I paused one tick and said slowly…”Noooooooooooo…”

When did you first realize that you are a rebel?

Actually my first memory really involves when I first realized I was a careful rebel. It was when I was asked, when I was a junior in high school, if I wanted to write for the underground newspaper. And although I agreed with many of the causes they were arguing for and several of the undergrounders were friends of mine, I pretty quickly said no. My analysis was that they were not going to last long enough to achieve anything and so I didn’t think it was worth the trouble I would get into. That’s a calculating rebel.

What advice do you wish someone had given you earlier in your career?

Don’t think a smooth meeting means that you’ve had a good meeting. If you’re discussing something important and difficult, the meeting should be difficult. That’s a good thing.

What are your favorite rebel characteristics?

Asking questions and exploring all the nooks and crannies of issues. Most policy initiatives (all?) are like English Muffins, full of holes and empty spaces. I love to ask very simple questions that usually get at the heart of what you’re trying to achieve.

What’s your favorite question?

My favorite question is some version of What’s your Theory of how this will work?

What tells you that you’re effecting change?

When I hear ideas I’ve been talking about for years eventually be advocated by the conventional leaders of the organization. Sometimes I could track 15 years back to when I and other rebels first began talking about an issue. Rebels are often the ones who chip away at the wall long before anyone else even knows the wall exists.

What do you think is most important for people to understand about rebels?

Most of us love the organization and want it to succeed just as much as you do. We’re like the Tough Love people.

What’s your best advice for rebels?

The best thing God made was one day after the other. (My grandmother used to tell me that.)

What’s your best advice for non-rebels?

Pull together all the known rebels in your organization and go have pizza and beer with them. This, I guarantee, will work miracles.

Where do you think rebels are most needed today?


Who is your favorite rebel from the past 100 years?

I’ll name two. Billy Mitchell, the Army officer who argued after WWI for the importance of air power.  And Louise Michel, a French anarchist of the 19th century. She died in 1905 so maybe she doesn’t qualify but I think all people need to learn her story. A remarkably courageous and principled woman. I don’t agree with everything she stood for, but she was an awesome example of living your passion. (If she doesn’t qualify, Ingrid Bergman.)

What’s the one thing you should never say to a rebel?

If you continue to speak your mind, you will ruin your career.