You Gotta Have Passion

I spoke with an aspiring FSO earlier this week.  She was smart (PhD, former college professor) and funny and very personable.  But there was something that didn’t click in our conversation.  Admittedly, it was just a 20-minute telephone call, but still it was almost immediately evident that she was missing what is perhap. s the most important thing for people who want to pass the Foreign Service Exam, especially the Oral Assessment.

She didn’t have any passion.  Not for the work, not for the career track, and not for the FS as a career.

Don’t misunderstand me.  There are some FSOs who don’t have passion for their work.  That’s too bad because I’m convinced they joined the Foreign Service with a great deal of zeal.  But over the years have lost that mysterious ingredient locked into a job because of the health, education and other benefit s.

Be honest with yourself.  If you’re not excited about the Foreign Service, living overseas and working for the U.S. Government, don’t waste your time.  The prep for the exams and the wait to get in are ridiculously long.

But what if you do have the zest and the passion to join the Foreign Service and live and work overseas, but you can’t pass the test.   Say you take it four or five times, but you still don’t pass.  What are the alternatives?  I’ll discuss that in a future post.





  1. I think that living abroad requires a special skill set. I have met so many people who came to Korea to work and just never figured out how to live abroad or work with people with different cultures and backgrounds. Things are different abroad and not everyone shares the same culture and values. So many foreign teachers miss this point and waste a year (or more) living here.

    • Patrick–

      Thanks for the comment.

      I agree. A lot of people want a foreign country to be like America, and are frustrated, even angry, when there are differences. For those who don’t want to forego U.S. culture and thinking, embassy life does mirror the United States, for better or worse!

      Best, Bill

  2. Hello.

    Very insightful thoughts of your experience as an FSO.

    I’ve actually been living in Korea for over a decade mostly as a student straight out of high school from the states.

    It wasn’t easy adopting to life with Koreans but now it’s like my second home and my studies in international relations have helped me understand much of the diplomatic issues in this region.

    My question is over the security clearance and background check assuming that I passed the FSOT.

    Would they consider me a better candidate due to my education and experience abroad? (I’ve been here since undergrad and now am in a PhD program)

    I ask this because the CIA website says that I should i apply if I’m physically living outside the US.

    Also would this question the validity of my loyalty to the US since I’ve been here so long?

    Thank you.

    • Daniel–

      Good questions.

      I think your experience in Korea would stand you in good stead with the State Department. Depending on you skill with Korean — one of the Department’s priority “hard” languages — it might give you a bump during testing and if you get in a “hard-language bonus” in your paycheck every two weeks.

      Yes, the security investigators will probably take longer to vet simply because you’ve been out of the United States for so long. Again, it’s less that you’re a new Manchurian Candidate than to run down folks in Korea who’ve known you over the past decade. Typically the investigators will call on the Regional Security Officer to assist in your background check, review of police records, etc.

      Good luck,


  3. Bill,

    A wonderful blog, thank you for taking the time and making this contribution to future FSO generations. It’s important that any potential candidate have a fair grasp as to what they can expect in the life of a FSO, both professionally and personally.

    In regards to your last comment, “Say you take it four or five times, but you still don’t pass. What are the alternatives? I’ll discuss that in a future post.” – very excited to read this post! Till then, thank you!

    • Katie–

      Yes, I will answer the “what do I do if I don’t pass the Foreign Service exam.” But it’s a bit daunting, if only because there are so many international careers out there. There are far more opportunities for working overseas in a satisfying, reasonably well-paying job than by joining the Foreign Service. There are Private Voluntary Organizations (PVOs), like the U.S. Red Cross, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Organization for Migration, etc. There are thousands of international and local Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) around the world, ranging from huge Beltway Bandits, like Chemonics, Population Services International and AECOM to indigenous groups in just about every country in the world. Don’t forget about the United Nations, either, with its multittude of different agencies — UNDP, UNFPA, UNHCR, etc. If you think the State Department is bureaucratic, spend some time in the United Nations and you will learn what a ‘real’ bureaucracy is like.

      Yes, Katie, I promise I’ll write the post, but it’s summertime, the weather is nice, there are outdoor coffee shops and beaches and hikes that beckon. Seriously, I will write it soon.



  4. Hi, Bill-

    Thank you for your insight and for taking the time to pass along knowledge and wisdom. I have a few questions that I would appreciate getting your opinion/response.

    My first question is, what if you have the passion but not necessarily the patience of Job?

    I understand that corridor reputation is critical given that it precedes you so can you offer any advice to a former immature person assigned to an embassy who stepped on the toes of an FSS and now as irony (or karma) would have it, would like to join the ranks? Note: yes, I did apologize for hurting her feelings but some people have long memories.

    Finally, is it advisable to use stories on the bio and/or PNs that may not put you in a good light but you learned and grew from it or should one only highlight the good things?

    Thank you for your time!

    • Patricia–

      Wow, what great questions. Passion is key, and even if you don’t have the patience of Job, well, you learn to deal with the stress, the silly managers and their petty games, and the sometimes frustrating life abroad. I remember during my first tour, I was on the visa line in Ecuador back in the days when the USG didn’t charge for visa interviews. You’d have huge crowds every day and a lot of times the people you refused a visa to the previous day were back in your window. Talk about frustrating, and remember the rules said technically you had to interview them again! So you’d explain to these people — hey, I just saw you yesterday. What could possibly change change overnight to convince me to issue you a visa today. Generally Ecuadorians are not belligerent, but of course there are a few who could push your buttons. They’d say my decision the previous day was wrong and I didn’t know anything about them and what gave me the right to play God with people’s lives. And there times when I fought back, argue with them (it’s amazing how quickly your language skills improve when you’re on the visa line). It would descend into chaos. They call me names — racist, four eyes (yes, I wear glasses), Yanqui dog, nasty things about my mother. And I’d really lose my cool and call the guard over to throw them out. Until one day my boss tapped me on the shoulder in mid-shout and told me to follow him. He wasn’t mad, but he told that getting angry on the visa line wasn’t good, it prolongs the interview, it demeans the applicant and worse it demeans you. Now, take a walk and cool off. Yes, you’re interviewing 150-200 applicants a day and they are mostly unqualified. But deal with it. Shorten your interviews and if they don’t accept that you’ve rejected them, step away from the interview booth. Trust me, the folks behind them will make them hurry up and leave. He was right. He was also the best bosses I had in the Foreign Service. So trust me patience is a learnable skill.

      Corridor reputation is important. For those unfamiliar with what we call in the State Department “corridor reputation” is really the gossip and rumors that you hear from other FS personnel about you. And it’s true that it precedes you to your next assignment, and can in fact prevent you from getting a job or a promotion. However, corridor reputation is also frequently wrong. Look, you’re older, you’ve changed and you figured the Foreign Service would be a cool place to work. I don’t know what you did to step on someone’s toes, but don’t worry about it. Do your job, do it well, don’t complain and be nice. Whatever you did previously — unless it was like manslaughter or stealing someone’s husband — will be forgotten. If not, screw them. And that’s what I mean about corridor reputation being wrong. I’ve served with people who were described as mean and nasty, when in fact digging deeper into their stories they had to fire locals or even FSOs (getting them sent back to Washington, since it’s extraordinarily difficult to fire someone in the State Department. It’s next to impossible. So remember when you get tenure, you’ve just got the brass ring.) Management, especially overseas, can be tough. But if you want your section to run properly and legally, sometimes you have to let people go. The trouble is that many FS managers are bad and rather than make tough decisions like firing someone, they’ll figure they only have a year to go before they transfer to their new assignment, so they’ll leave the time bomb for their successor. Not nice.

      Yes, Foreign Service folks do have long memories, but like I said if that want to hold onto their grievances, screw them. They need to grow up, and you just move along. If God forbid you land at the same post with that person again, and s/he still doesn’t forgive you, then make it your funny story at post happy hours. Believe me when I say that all FSOs have stepped on people’s toes before.

      Please do use honest stories in your bio, in your personal narratives, during your oral assessment. You will stand out from 90% of the other folks taking the exam. Your examiners will love you for breaking up the boredom that comes from reading squeaky clean bios or assessing applicants in the tabletop exercise. Of course, as you pegged, you do have to show how you learned from your mistake and how it has improved your skills and abilities. Don’t leave that out. If you do, they may flunk you. The test examiners, like promotion panels and commissioning and tenure boards, are always looking for the easy ones to deep six before they wrestle with the tough ones — the ones that you can’t tell on the first reading whether they are good, great or mediocre.

      Hope this helps. Good luck and let me know how you do. It sounds like you’re a ringer and you’re going to ace the exam.



      • Bless you, Bill! Again, thank you so very much for taking the time to give indepth and sceanrio based answers to my questions…you have no idea as to how much weight you have lifted off of my shoulders. I will most certainly keep you informed as to my progress given that Management is my chosen cone (I will take the test in Feb).

        With gratitude-

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