Playing Through the Pain, Part Two

by rthieme on May 3, 2018

Two years ago Richard Thieme spoke on “Playing Through the Pain: The Impact of Dark Knowledge on Security and Intelligence Professionals” for Def Con 24. He relied on dozens of experiences provided by colleagues over a quarter-century, colleagues from NSA, CIA, corporate, and military. Responses to the presentation have often been emotional and have corroborated his thesis: The real impact of this work on people over the long term can be damnable and has to be mitigated by a series of counter-measures and strategies so scars can be endured or, even better, incorporated and put to use.

Thieme ran out of time and did not elaborate those strategies and counter-measures in detail. That’s what he does in this presentation. This one is spoken directly to the “human in the machine” and his/her needs AS a human being. It’s not about quitting or leaving the profession: it’s about what we can do to survive, and thrive, and transcend the challenges. It includes a sidebar for women and others coping with minority status as well, based on his experience as a minority in five different ways.

Thieme thought he might deliver this follow-up on what to DO in response to the darker impacts of oppressive cultures and the “moral harm” they can cause – defined as a conflict between one’s ethic and what the culture demands one do instead – but after 22 years of speaking for Def Con, the submission was rejected and he will not be returning to Def Con. So a long happy run at that conference has ended.

Reality will not go away, however, because we refuse to believe in it or look at it, to paraphrase Philip K. Dick. So if these themes resonate and can be invited into other venues, please contact Richard at

It is so much easier to focus on exploits, cool tools, zero days, and the games we play in the hacker space that “makes us smile.” It is not so easy to know how to play through the pain successfully. As we know from professional football, sucking it up, injecting drugs, and going back onto the field does not prevent long-term damage. The damage to us is also to our heads, but it does not show up in scans. It shows up in our families, our relationships, and our lives. Thieme is not preaching, he is sharing insights based on what he too has had to transcend in his own life. They call some people “supernormals,” which means they discovered resilient responses to deprivation, abuse, profound loss … or the daily challenges of work that makes clear that evil is real. Supernormals are driven, never quit, fight through adversity, create and recreate personas that work, do what has to be done. It pays to know how to do that and know that we know so we can face whatever comes our way.

A contractor for NSA suggested that everyone inside the agency should see the video of “Playing Through the Pain.” A long-time Def Con attendee asks all new hires to watch “Staring into the Abyss,” a sister talk Thieme did a few years before. Both are available on youtube. This subject matter is seldom discussed aloud “out here” and by all accounts is not taken seriously enough “inside,” which is perhaps why there have been half a dozen suicides lately at NSA and a CIA veteran said, “I have 23 suicides on my mind, the most recent senior people who could not live with what they knew.” One way or another, our choices bring consequences, and intervening in the cycle proactively is better than letting everything take its course. That’s the assumption baked into this talk: real hacking, its ethos and its execution, provides the tools we need to do this damn thing right. We are built to live in a space that is gateless, unbounded, free.


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