… and what I learned from a walk through the most violent town on earth.
WELCOME TO TOMBSTONE
It was two days until I was going to marry my high school sweetheart. I was a newly-minted Border Patrol Agent just starting my shift in the desert, near Tombstone, Arizona.
I saw a dust cloud approaching from the distance. It came closer. I saw the glint of glass through the mesquite trees. Something didn’t feel right. I scanned my encrypted radio for traffic, but didn’t hear anything.
The dust cloud came closer. I switched to the neighboring jurisdiction’s radio network and heard some commotion, but couldn’t understand it.
The dust cloud was coming closer and I realized it was a pickup truck heading my direction. I didn’t know who it was or what they were doing, but they were driving fast.
I was between the truck and the border on a dusty gravel road, standing beside my vehicle with my M4 rifle. As the truck came around the bend, I realized it was a drug runner heading south, back toward the border while several border patrol units pursued.
The drug runners were headed directly for me.
I quickly raised my weapon and put a red dot between the driver’s eyes. He was young and fit, about my age. He looked scared. He wasn’t changing course. Shooting him wouldn’t stop the truck. I lowered my weapon slightly and looked over the scope. We made eye contact and both understood the situation. I lowered my barrel slightly and he started to turn away from me. I raised it back up and he veered back toward me. I could see the driver’s accomplice in the passenger seat looking back and forth between the two of us nervously.
It was clear that the driver and I understood the situation. If one of us was going to go, both of us were going to go. In that moment, we formed an unspoken agreement. As I lowered my barrel, he steered the truck away from me and ripped past at 85 MPH.
I jumped in my truck and quickly caught up. As we came to the border, I fell back slightly to make sure I wasn’t being led into an ambush. With my M4 leveled in one hand and ready to shoot through the windshield, I weaved through towers of metal, staged for construction of the wall. They retreated across the desert back into Mexico.
SUCCESS & FAILURE CAN LOOK SIMILAR
The bad guys were turned back, they didn’t smuggle a few hundred pounds of drugs into the country, and no one got hurt. Success, right?
No. This was a failure. I had almost gotten killed and the reason I was still alive was mostly luck. I allowed the outcome to be mostly out of my hands.
I felt sick to my stomach. It lasted two days.
It wasn’t simply because I nearly lost everything I’d ever cared about. It was because I believed I was ready for anything, and I was wrong. A core belief had been shattered and feeling sick was part of the evolution.
The issue wasn’t a lack of ability. I graduated at the top of my academy class, broke the obstacle course record, and was an expert shooter and martial artist. Yet I clearly failed.
I failed because of a lack of decisive action. The ambiguity of the situation led me to hesitate in using the skills I possessed. I had practiced the skills sufficiently, but not the recognition of when and how to deploy them in chaotic situations. These are very different things. All the skill in the world won’t help you if you don’t use it. And most of us don’t use it.
I didn’t know until the last moment if the truck was some tourist or a drug-runner coming down the road. So I defaulted into a half-assed middle-of-the-road approach.
I didn’t have a spike strip to deflate the tires and policy prevented us from using vehicles to block roads, which would have made me fully liable for any injuries or deaths that might result from doing so. If I drove toward them, I’d risk a head-on collision. If I drove away to slow the down, I’d be in a tactically disadvantageous position.
The right action would have been to prepare for the worst-case scenario and assume a safe tactical position off the road, merely risking embarrassment if it was a tourist.
PARALLELS TO LIFE & BUSINESS PLANNING
We make similar errors in our life and business planning. We forecast, plan, and prepare for clear decisions in calm environments. We plan with the assumption that we’ll have sufficient time, energy, mental clarity, and information. We’ve been groomed to operate this way. In school, we generally have clearly-defined problems, no skin in the game, and we simply select the right answer. We know ahead of time when, where, and how we will be tested, what skill will be tested, and what format the answer must be in.
But the fear of a red mark on your paper is not the same as the fear of embarrassment, huge financial losses, or physical harm. Our schooling and training would have us believe that walking a 6-inch-wide line painted on the ground is the same as walking a 6-inch-wide beam between two skyscrapers. If you can walk the line on the ground, this does not mean you can walk the beam in the sky on a windless day. In theory, it’s the same. In reality, it is totally different.
The real world doesn’t work like that. It is characterized by chaos, uncertainty, ambiguity, incomplete information, misinformation, and multiple competing demands. In reality, you are not waiting in omniscient anticipation of the challenge. It’s up to you to recognize the challenge, frame it correctly, decide upon a course of action, execute, and course-correct. You don’t know what obstacles will present and you often don’t know how much time you have to complete your mission.
If you keep this in mind, your planning, preparation, and decisions will look different. And your results will be correspondingly better.
I learned that to ensure my outcome, I also had to bolster my training with stress-inducing experiences that went far beyond rock climbing, whitewater kayaking, or martial arts.
A WALK THROUGH THE MOST VIOLENT TOWN ON EARTH
A few months later, I took part in a science experiment run by the federal government at a secure facility. There is a town where everyone is a role player except you. You are observed from numerous cameras mounted throughout the city. Your breathing, heartrate, and perspiration are all monitored. At some point, a crisis emerges that is intentionally engineered to be as ambiguous and unclear as possible. It forces you to make tough tradeoffs—your life, other people’s lives, legal liability, embarrassment, ego, etc. These challenging situations feel 100% real and are far more stress-inducing than conventional training. My shooting was not nearly as pretty as it was on the firing range.
I later met with the scientist running the experiment to review video footage, data, and findings from hundreds of other participants. I further realized how ineffective and almost irrelevant conventional training and planning is.
I fundamentally changed my approach to training and planning and my results improved markedly and consistently.
HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR PLANNING & TRAINING 10X
There is more to this, but the synopsis is that my default assumptions for the environment I’m anticipating will involve about 75% more complexity, task load, and problems than I would reasonably assume. And I will have 25% of the time, energy, and focus I would reasonably assume. In truth, these “unreasonably conservative” estimates end up closer to the truth. If my plan is designed to work in that environment and under those conditions, I have a far greater chance of success.
To take this a step further, when you expect chaos and tough conditions and you prepare for them, they don’t just allow you to survive, but provide you with a significant competitive advantage.
We’ll revisit this concept in future articles, but it’s key to adapt our perspective and strategy such that everything works toward our advantage.
It’s not just about succeeding despite chaos, but succeeding at a higher level because of it.
How does your training and guidance on how to plan measure up to your real world experiences?