Eric O'Neill | Crain's Boston

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Eric O'Neill


Eric O'Neill is a former FBI counter-terrorism operative who helped capture double agent Robert Hanssen. The 2007 movie Breach, starring Ryan Philippe as O'Neill, is based on the two months O'Neill spent undercover as Hanssen's assistant. O'Neill is now a public speaker and security expert, as well as national security strategist for the security firm Carbon Black, based in Waltham, Mass.

The Mistake:

I've jumped around a lot of different careers in my life, and my earliest was as an FBI operative. I conducted counterintelligence and counter-terrorism undercover investigations. My last was the Robert Hanssen investigation, which got made into a major Hollywood movie. My role in the investigation was central to the movie “Breach.” And as someone who hadn't usually enjoyed the limelight, I wasn't prepared for what happened next.

Opportunities suddenly flooded my inbox and I found myself leaping at every single one of them—everything from, "We'd love you to help write this movie," or, "Can you review this screenplay or host this TV show?" or, "Hey, I've got this idea for a business." At that point I was trying to work full-time as an attorney and I decided to leave and start my own company. My problem was I was afraid to let any of these opportunities go—it was like trying to hold water in your hands, you can't catch it all.

So I bounced around without a careful plan, looking at opportunities individually instead of seeing how every part of my professional life impacted the whole. And I got to this point where it was all too much. I was extremely stressed and I sat down with a wheel diagram and in the central hub I wrote “Eric is stressed.” And then I had all the spikes coming out with all the different things that I was trying to do. It's kind of stressing me out now to even think about it.

You want to look at everything you're doing and how that helps your brand progress and grow.

The Lesson:

Individually each one of these things could have been incredibly successful but collectively they were literally killing me. I still pull that chart out from time to time. I realized that I had to drop many of these things because when you try to do too much, you hurt the amount of time or attention you can give to other things.

You want to look at everything you're doing and how that helps your brand progress and grow. You only have so much time, and everything can't be work. Once I sat down with that chart and started crossing off some of those spokes I felt a massive weight come off my shoulders.

Photo courtesy of Eric O'Neill

Follow Eric O'Neill on Twitter at @eoneill

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