3) Observation Skills
People always imagine that when you become a spy you will always have guns and gadgets to help you. Well, that is simply not true. Guns are showy and if you use one then something has probably gone dreadfully wrong with your “undercover” operation. Gadgets are fine but if you are caught with one then your cover is blown – after all, who but a spy would have a camera in his G-string?
So, in both cases, although spies do use these things, they are kept to the absolute minimum. But what you will have, at all times, are your brain and your eyes. Learning to use your eyes is one of the key espionage skills so at the recruitment stage, services are looking for people who they believe can be trained to the necessary standard.
There are several key aspects of observation skills in espionage. There is the offensive and the defensive: offensive when you are following a suspect and need to note that mobile phone number he has just dialled or the keycode he used to get into a building; defensive when you are watching the sea of faces around you in a city centre for any sign that a surveillance team is on your tail. Then there is detail vs the big picture: you need an eye for detail when you are at a meeting watching every slight gesture of your agent to determine whether he telling the truth; but you also need to be aware of the big picture such as who else is in the restaurant that night or the position of the CCTV cameras covering a certain street.
Once you have been selected for espionage training, these skills will be developed by a process known as “layering.” First you will be taught to spot one sort of detail (“What were the registration numbers of the ten closest cars in your street when you left your house this morning?), then another (“Describe the clothing of the three people who were sitting opposite you on the train this morning.”) then to spot the unusual: (“One of our trainers was filming you from an upper window as you came in to work this morning – which one was it?”). And then when your mind is swimming and you are walking down the street with your head spinning like a hamster on speed, you will be taught to notice everything while appearing to notice nothing. The hardest skill of all. (And this is before you learn all the other observation skills such as memorising the contents of documents or reading upside down….)
But how can you demonstrate this at interview? First, sports are a good start – if you have a good eye for a ball and the position of your team mates then the chances are that you can develop the alertness you need as a spy. Then there are hobbies such as astronomy or bird watching, anything that shows you have a keen eye and the discipline to use it.
But it is not enough to show that you can see, you must also remember what you see. On training courses this will constantly be tested through such means as variations of “Kim’s Game” (from the novel “Kim” by Rudyard Kipling). One such variation is often used in movies where, during a training lecture, someone appears to suddenly burst into the room and shoot the lecturer. Then the students are asked to write a detailed description of the attacker. Or – a rather nasty one this – during a very boring Powerpoint presentation, a map or blue print is on the screen for just a few seconds. Then the students are asked to write down the most important details.
To demonstrate this, think of anything that shows you know how to use your memory: many spies have been historians, or perhaps you have memorised poetry or lines as an actor. Even if it is that you are the captain of your local high school quiz team and can remember all sorts of useless detail such as what was on the cover of Spiderman issue No1, it will all go towards showing that you have the sort of mind – and eyes – that can be trained in observation skills.