12 Things Successful Assassins Do Differently

I've always been intrigued by really successful assassins, the sort of killers who can rack up body counts that are ten, twenty, even a hundred times what most people can. In our everyday lives, most of us kill just a few people a month. Compare that to the top assassins, who on any given day will kill a whole minivan's worth of people before noon, and go on to fill a hot tub with bodies in the afternoon. How do those entrepreneurial leaders do it? How does success like that become, not just a habit, but a way of life?

 Over the years, I've made a careful study of their methods. Through wiretaps, high-power light gathering binoculars, and bribed informants, it's become clear to me that the world's most successful killers weren't just born that way. Here are 12 things successful assassins do differently that let them reach their full potential and be truly happy in life.

1. They plan to succeed.

It's not enough to want to kill someone. You have to PLAN how you're going to do it. We all know people who wish they could push a button on someone, but never quite get organized enough to get the ball rolling. Successful killers know who they're going to kill and how they're going to do the hit. They do their homework, study the terrain and have an active timeline for every operation.

2. They get paid up front.

Successful assassins focus on their strengths: killing people. Bill collection is part of the job for any self-employed entrepreneur, but minimizing the extraneous is what lets the top killers excel. The assassins I've spoken with have said that the traditional "50/50" model of half up-front, half after the job is done, just doesn't work in today's connected world. Instead, they take the full payment up-front, in a modern, "100/0" model. The "100/0" model is based on a relationship of mutual trust with their clients: the client can trust that the work will be done to everyone's 100% satisfaction, the assassin can trust that he will end up with 0 fingers if it isn't.

3. They spend their time killing people, not killing time.

"A day without a kill is a day wasted." Top-notch assassins multitask, doing their documentation and preparation for one job while on a stakeout for another. It takes only three minutes out of an hour to wipe out a target and her security detail. Those other 57 minutes should be spent lining up and/or prepping for the next job.

4. They kill with their head, not their hands.

Informed, intelligent decision making lays the groundwork for any assassination to be a walk in the park. Beginning killers think that anger, rage or bloodlust will help to drive them to the point of ending someone's life. The leaders in the assassination field know that, in fact, the opposite is true. Once all the pieces are in place, the actual kill shot is just the next step in the process, no more emotionally fraught than bribing the bodyguards or draining most of the gas from the target's armor-plated Mercedes.

5. They know when to pull the trigger.

When the time comes, when the homework has paid off and the laser dot is on the target's forehead, successful killers pop the cap. They don't even see the target's children standing by his side or the president of the neighboring country whom he's shaking hands with - they just see the target. When it's time to act, they act.

6. They have a S.N.U.F.F. habit.

Successful assassins know that a single kill is a snuff, but a meaningful career of killing takes S.N.U.F.F. What is S.N.U.F.F.? It's a five step process of operational security: Secret, New, Undercover, Fire, Friends. S.N.U.F.F. ensures the ability of top assassins to keep ahead of the competition AND the law so they can keep on killing, for years and years. Let's look at S.N.U.F.F. in more detail:
  • Secret - An old maxim of the killing business is that two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead. Successful killers don't blab beforehand and they don't brag afterwards. 
  • New - For every job, use a new gun. You might think it expensive to dispose of the pistol, rifle or shotgun after just one kill, but successful assassins know the truth: fresh hardware is cheap, dealing with crime scene-matching ballistics in the F.B.I. database is expensive. 
  • Undercover - "It's a wise man who can learn from the mistakes of others." Your partner, your gun dealer, your banker in the Cayman Islands, your wife, your girlfriend, your brother... anyone can be an undercover operative for the F.B.I. Even someone who has proved themselves time and again over the years could have been turned in the last two weeks. Trust no one. 
  • Fire - If there is any reason to think that something has gone wrong with operational security, successful killers go to ground. The first step in going to ground is to burn down their own houses, offices, equipment storage sheds, and any other building they might be connected with. Nothing slows down a forensics investigation like a good five-alarm fire. 
  • Friends - Every successful assassin is part of a team. You'll need accountants, weapons suppliers, informants, contacts. Remember: these people are your business associates, not your friends. Work with them, but do not trust them.
When you develop a S.N.U.F.F. habit, you are motivated to see the holes in any plan and fill them full of lead. You can achieve any kill, anywhere at any time, knowing that you will walk away completely clean. That peace of mind not only gives you the confidence to charge top dollar for your work, it is absolutely critical to maintaining work-life balance (see #12).

7. They see perfection as a process.

Every kill, no matter how smoothly it went, has lessons for the next kill. The most successful killers study their successes and their failures equally. What worked? What didn't? How can the process be improved? As one assassin told me, "I was killing flawlessly, every target taken out right on schedule. It turns out, the schedule was the problem!" Paradoxically, getting better meant allowing himself to get a little bit worse. He stopped trying for 100% perfection on every kill, and instead strove for a faster, more efficient 98% perfection level. He stepped up his game by stepping back. As a result, that killer was able to double his kill rate, and triple his fees. It's one of the most important lessons for any aspiring assassin.

8. They don't get fancy.

Ask any of the top killers-for-hire, they will tell you the same thing: guns work. Remote-controlled car bombs, silent crossbows, poison-tipped condoms, keystroke activated electrocution, ricin slipped into the morning coffee... all of these methods are exotic, flashy and uncertain. When it comes to putting the brakes on someone who needs to be dead, an ounce of lead sent through the skull at 600 fps may be conservative, but there's a reason the pros use "old reliable" when they have a long To Do list: it works. The consensus about "style" among the best of the best? If you must add a flourish, use a triple-tap to the forehead instead of a double-tap. Classy, yet simple.

9. They see their comfort zone as a jumping off point.

Many people make a decent living limiting themselves to political assassinations. Other fields of target specialization have their adherents: cheating spouses, business partners, nosy law enforcement officials. What the top assassins know is that greater flexibility in your targets means greater opportunities in your business. Granted, if you've made a career out of killing politicians in their homes, it will take some time to develop the skills to successfully target a hospital, a preschool or a weapons research laboratory. However, working outside your comfort zone will bring clients to your door in a way you never thought possible.

10. They notch their belts.

Clients want to know that they'll be getting the best for their money. Successful killers keep a mental accounting of every kill they've made, and can recount the details of each kill to help boost their fees and seal the deal. How do they do it? They use a mnemonic device first used by the ancient Greek philosopher Hippo. Using some article of personal import, they mark it and mentally tell themselves the story associated with that mark. This traditional method is most familiar as the notching of a belt. Some assassins get a tattoo to commemorate each kill, but there is only so much skin available! Remember: a notch on a belt is NOT actionable evidence, even after being admitted to a grand jury as "State's Evidence, Exhibit A", whereas notes, journals, and blog entries ARE actionable evidence. Notch your belt to help you track your progress and remember your kill stories, but DON'T write anything down. Ever.

11. They know that murder might be a young man's game, but assassination is for a lifetime.

This was one of the most surprising things I discovered: most of the top killers-for-hire are over 50, and have been killing people for more than 22 years. It turns out that the popular view of assassination is that it's like the movies: an emotion-driven action, interspersed with car chases, fistfights and exotic lovers taken two at a time.

One of my interviewees laughed at that idea. "All that sort of thing might sound like fun, but it's not generating any income. If you want to make killing your business, you have to treat it like a business. While the young hot shots are getting their murderous kicks with zooming around on speedboats and rappelling down the faces of huge dams, I've quietly interrupted my target's Starbucks run with a quick double-tap to the back of the head. Get in, get the shots off, get out. And then go on to the next job. That's the work ethic that got me to where I am today." That's a lesson for all of us, isn't it?

12. They maintain a balance of work and life.

There's no denying that rising to the top takes commitment and sacrifice. Killing people has to be the first priority, but is it the only priority? Consider these two people:
Jane killed 211 people in the last 12 months alone, and had a net income of more than $80M. That's a record to be admired, right? But after having to kill her twin sister for impersonating her and doing freelance assassinations, what Jane found was that she wasn't enjoying the work anymore. The jobs got done, but she came to regard her work as just that: work. She even began to think about retiring, even though she knows that assassins don't retire, they just become difficult-to-kill targets. She's a successful killer, but is she happy?

Bob only killed 11 people (on contract) in the last year. He drifts across the country, hitch-hiking and doing odd jobs for locals. Although he kills mostly for fun - prostitutes, teen runaways, stray dogs - his only contract work has been from small time crystal meth dealers targeting other small time crystal meth dealers. His fees are paid in some cash, but mostly in weed, meth, hookers and McDonald's gift certificates. The freedom of the open road appeals to him, and he is smiling most of the time, but he admits to being worried about where he'll sleep this winter. He's a happy killer, but is he successful?
These are just two examples of an imbalanced life. It's sometimes necessary in the short-term for us to focus all our energies on only one aspect of our lives, whether it's work, family, extradition, or something else. But the best life, the happiest and most productive life, comes when we remember to look at all of the different areas of our lives as priorities deserving of attention and cultivation. Having an effective work-life balance will defuse stress, improve mood, and enhance our overall health and well-being. "You can't pull the trigger if you've got the shakes," said one successful assassin, "no matter how much Zoloft you take."

===== Feel free to comment on this work of fiction or any other post.


  1. Thanks, Tony! I've been fretting lately about my low kill count. Now I can be a success like those multimillionaire playboy assassins that we know exist by the bucket load because the movies tell us so. I certainly hope this will take me to Jane's level so I'm not stuck in the Bob phase for long.

    Wait...this is a metaphor for writing, not taking people out? Wha...?

    (Was fun, Tony. Thanks for posting it!)

    1. I'm glad you had fun with it, Eric! You can treat it as a metaphor, or as practical advice. Your call.

  2. Very clever!

    I'd add a #13 to the list: They Avoid Value Judgments. Many targets are innocent people who saw something they shouldn't have, or simply stand in the way of naked ambition. Others… death is too easy for them; they deserve to spend a long life of pain in a wheelchair. But a successful assassin knows that making judgments about their targets only causes problems. They agreed to take the job, so they get the job done and move on.

    [This article was timely and useful, since an assassin figures in a story I'm noodling with at the moment.]

    1. Yep. I've heard that ghostwriters have to have the same kind of detachment.

  3. Nice roast on the overimportant and reductive how-to list post, Tony. Takes it to a suitably silly extreme.

    1. As you might have guessed, I wrote this immediately after reading a blog post on "The 12 Things Successful People Do Differently". Excellent inspiration.

  4. Nice. Very nice. I hope you consider including this in your next fiction-publishing endeavor -- it'll fit right in.

    BTW, you might want to stay away from your windows for the next few weeks. Or years.

    1. That's something I hadn't considered... an advice book, filled with the wisdom culled from this blog. Hmmm.....

  5. Yeah, a lot of those principles apply to writers...

  6. HAHHAHAHAHAHA. A lot of these principles apply to everyone, but I love how you tailored it to the life of an assassin or serial killer. It was "laugh out loud" here over the two profiles of unbalanced work-life assassins. Great details (twin sister impersonating her, McDonald's coupons). This is a voice I would read over and over.


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