When I was eleven years old, my younger brother and I decided to find a whisky still used during Prohibition in the 1930’s. Our Dad had pointed it out a few months earlier when all three of us were on horseback and gathering cattle on our Wyoming ranch. All that was left of the still was a few barrel rings and a wall of rocks. It was tucked into a steep draw surrounded by aspen trees and a little cow trail leading toward the bottom of the canyon near our house.
My brother and I collected antique glassware as a hobby and planned to go back to the whiskey still and look around for old bottles. We figured we could find it again easily enough, so after school we told our parents we were going out to play and would be back in time for supper. We started walking up the canyon, and when we saw a draw that looked familiar, we started up.
Our ranch was located in the scatterings of the Snowy Mountain Range at an altitude of 7,000 feet. Summers are short in that country, and the green aspen trees that looked lush and cozy when we rode past them a few months before, were now barren and cold. We forgot that night fell much earlier in the winter months and dusk was starting to set in. We could not find the whiskey still but we continued on until we reached the top of the draw. When we saw Laramie Peak in a distance, we knew we had climbed over 2,000 feet out of the canyon bottom.
We had climbed up the wrong draw, night was coming, and we had no flashlights. It was cold enough that rattlesnakes were hibernating, but conditions were still adverse: it was dark, the terrain was steep and rocky, and the temperature was dropping at an alarming rate.
At the ages of ten and eleven, my younger brother and I learned young to how to keep going through the tough times:
1. Earn confidence in yourself. We were too young to rely on pep talks or motivational speeches to give us the stamina to keep moving forward. If we had climbed over 2,000 feet out of the canyon in daylight, we had to be confident enough in our ourselves that we could repeat our performance downhill in the darkness.
The lessons I learned getting down the mountain stayed with me the rest of my life. In my book Secrets of A Strong Mind, I talk about the four months I spent at the FBI Academy in new agent’s training. We trained hard day in and day out, no matter the weather conditions—in snow, wind, rain, or heat. We felt confident of our abilities because of our experiences. Performing well in adverse conditions gave us the self-assurance we could beat the odds. Whenever I thought I couldn’t push myself any further, I remembered that cold night climbing back down a mountain when I was eleven years old, and I was confident I had what it took to keep moving on. Read Secrets of A Strong Mind.
2. Persist with intelligence. My brother and I were not sure how to get back home before we found ourselves in complete darkness and freezing temperatures. We decided that if we stayed with the cow trail it would ultimately lead us to our destination. We lost the trail once and hopped over rocks and fallen trees to find it. While we knew that as long we were going downhill we were headed in the right direction, the draw had many smaller ones that meandered over the sides of the canyon. Time was important and we knew the quickest way down was the way we came up. We persisted and found the cow path again.
As an FBI agent, there were many times when I needed to remember that dedication and blind persistence are two different things. There are ways to work hard and not smart. If something doesn’t work, pivot and attack the problem from a different angle. Where there is a will, there is a way.
I have drawn my weapon while making an arrest. I was scared and afraid of what I would need to do if the person resisted. When I leaned into my training, I regained my confidence and managed my emotions. It’s always important to acknowledge emotions, but the key to getting through tough times and adversity is by reminding myself that I can manage the negative reactions. I may not be able to change the conditions but I can change the way I deal with them (click to tweet). It’s possible to have self-control in an out-of-control environment. Read Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman.
4. Accept blame. We had no one to blame but ourselves. This was no game we were playing and we had to have the strength to look at the problem realistically and take responsibility for getting ourselves back home. Our parents had no idea we had headed out to find the whiskey still because we hadn’t told them.
As an FBI agent, I found that self-examination would be one of the most important ways I could become a more effective leader who achieved my goals. When I confronted obstacles, I was not afraid to question my thinking. Often, this self-examination uncovered biases or assumptions I had made that either contributed to the obstacle or stood in my way of overcoming it. A merciless review of traits, desires, and fears can lead to a reinvention of goals and beliefs (click to tweet).
I learned the importance of pacing myself while running obstacle courses at the FBI Academy. I was not a strong runner, and while I was enthusiastic about charging out the gate, I knew I’d need to pace myself to last the entire obstacle course. The same logic applied to my investigations: if I depleted my resources, ran myself to exhaustion, and then needed to respond to a fast-moving break in the case, I was in serious trouble. Read the chapter on the 20 mile march in Great by Choice by Jim Collins.
6. Stay in community. My brother and I were a team and we worked together to get back down the hill. We not only provided moral support for one another, but physical as well as we jumped across waterfalls and mucked through inches of mud to follow the meandering cow path.
The personal leadership skill of camaraderie is one of the first lessons taught at the FBI Academy. For the first three weeks, new agents are not allowed to leave the Marine Corp base. Instead, we were expected to develop a supportive community that would be needed during our four months of training.
The ability to relate to others was one of the most effective skills I developed in my career as a counterintelligence agent. Everyone has the need to be heard, and the need to listen for information that can be put into action (click to tweet). The listener is a essential role because even very successful leaders need people who are allied to their cause.
My brother and I made is safely home that night to parents who were very worried.
Learning how to keep going through tough times will help you turn underachievement into superior achievement. As long as you can stay alive, you are still in the game.
You can follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LaRaeQuy
Read my book ““Secrets of a Strong Mind,” available now on Amazon.