“Don’t be a wimp!” It was a phrase I heard a lot as I grew up on a remote cattle ranch in the middle of Wyoming.
Ranching is a serious business at 6,500 feet—the harsh winter blizzards often drive cattle into draws and the lower ground where they can be covered with snowdrifts and suffocate. Don’t be a wimp meant I needed to saddle up a horse in a blizzard to help locate the cattle so we could trail them to a corral for protection.
My parents had an incredible work ethic. As I grew up, I thought everyone worked 7 days a week, 10 hours a day. In my young world, people took a shower at the end of a hard day, not in the morning so they smelled like a petunia to start their day.
To be called a wimp by my Dad was an ugly stain on a person’s character that didn’t easily rub off. Another label Dad foisted upon careless ranch hands and indifferent neighbors was lazy. He had a tendency to drawl out the word lazy and then spit out bastard as a follow up so I knew if he threw down the gauntlet and called someone a lazy bastard, this was a person I should hold in silent contempt.
It might sound as though my Dad was harsh, but we lived in an environment where intelligence was no guarantee of success. Dad used yardsticks like wimp and lazy bastard to gauge whether cowhands and neighbors had the backbone to survive in our harsh surroundings where the lives of hundreds of livestock depended on them.
It was the responsibility of each one of us to take the initiative and act when we saw a problem that needed to be fixed. Dad understood the tough benchmark he used to measure others would also help his kids achieve success in life, no matter which profession they followed. As a result, I grew up with the unspoken assumption that I could do anything once I put my mind to it. All I needed to do was focus my energy and apply the spunk required to get the job done.
Failure was never a word used by my parents. If something didn’t work, we tackled it from another direction. When cattle and horses depend on you for their life, failure is not an option. We required a mindset that always found a way around whatever obstacle stood in our way.
Around the age of eight, I started to understand that boys were often treated differently than girls. In my mind’s eye, boys got to do the fun stuff while girls got the leftovers. I knew how to ride horses, and one summer my brother and I had to share a sweet little mare named Sugar. Dad announced that he needed to help a neighbor trail several hundred heads of cattle over the weekend. I felt certain that, since I was a girl, my brother would be the one chosen to go with Dad and I’d be left behind peeling potatoes with Mom.
In one of the most formative moments in my childhood, Dad looked in my direction and told me to saddle up—I was going on a cattle drive! Smug with joy, I rode out of the corral, tossed the potato peeler at my brother as I passed by, and sat tall in the saddle.
That was a day that changed my life because I had stolen a glimpse into a future where I realized that my only limitation would be my own attitude about myself. I found myself in a cowboy’s world full of saddles, anxious horses, backaches, empty stomachs, and hard mattresses. I loved it!
Once again initiative would be required because even though Sugar was a small horse, she wasn’t a pony and I was too small to throw on a saddle without help. But how would it look if I whined and complained? This was my chance to be a real cowboy and I would not let anything get in the way. My parents had raised to be independent when faced with a problem, so I tied Sugar to a fence post and was able to raise my saddle about halfway up her left side. I still had a long way to go but I grunted and pushed the saddle slowly up her ribcage to where it finally rested on her back. Whew! No one witnessed my weak performance, so I quickly cinched up and proudly marched my saddled horse in front of the other cowhands.
I hadn’t thought ahead far enough to realize that I also needed to get on her. As I turned to my horse, I found my nose and stirrup were the same height and realized that I’d need to raise my foot above my head to settle my boot in the stirrup. How in the hell could I get on without help? I watched as one cowboy after another lightly jumped into their stirrup and pulled themselves up in one swift motion. My only hope for getting on Sugar with any dignity, and without help, would be to find something tall enough to give me an advantage. No loading chutes or rock piles were to be found, so I went back to the fence post in the pole corral.
Now, while Sugar was sweet, she wasn’t stupid, either. As I led her inside the corral and climbed up on a pole, she knew the score and moved away before I could mount her. I looked up in desperation as I saw the cowboys head out, one by one, to gather the cattle. Dad knew I struggled back in the corral to get on Sugar, but it was a lesson in independence that I suspect he knew I needed to learn.
He left me behind.
Shit. So much for being one of the guys and trailing hundreds of head of cattle to Bear Creek for summer pasture. I was desperate because if I didn’t catch up soon, I’d never find either the herd or riders. I needed to be creative and the only way I could gain an advantage was to stand on the pole fence. I knew Sugar’s modus operandi by now, so as soon as she backed away, I jumped. I landed on her neck and thank God her mane hadn’t been trimmed because I grabbed a handful in my left hand and whirled my right leg over the saddle horn until it caught something. By this time Sugar was flustered and tried to make an escape, but I pulled myself onto her back and into my saddle.
I kicked her into a trot and caught up with the other horses and their riders. My Dad didn’t say a word, but he turned when I caught up and gave a quick nod of approval.
Several of the lessons I learned on that cattle drive have continued to build throughout my life and career as an FBI agent. These are three core principles that prevented me from becoming a wimp in the face of obstacles:
Shit happens. Life is hard. Pain is inevitable. Growth is optional. Our success in overcoming obstacles depends upon our attitude. We need to develop the mental toughness to push through the obstacles and adversities that life throws at us. It means we take the time to think through our next step. A strong mind has an unbeatable attitude that seeks opportunities to accomplish things we once never thought possible.
Stop feeling sorry for yourself. When you do, you’ll find ways to turn shit into sugar. In the process, you’ll grow into a better person.
Independent people put themselves in charge of their life and the direction it’s headed. Me not having someone to hold my hand when I tried to get on Sugar created a fierce streak of independence; I didn’t need my Dad or anyone else to help me. I created my own success, and while hanging on for dear life on Sugar’s neck was neither elegant nor graceful, I got the job done. I developed a can-do attitude that put me in charge of my circumstances.
Never let the labels that others foist upon you hold you back. Take action and create a plan after you’ve given thought to your next steps. Use this as an opportunity to change the lens through which people see you. As a female agent, I faced many assumptions that I would need to overcome. I had to go no further than back to my childhood experiences to understand that I had the power to create my own future.
The obstacles we face can seem insurmountable. We believe they are the reason we can’t accomplish our goals or live our dream. As a result, we often give up and settle for mediocrity rather than take action and change our circumstances. Everyone’s experiences in life are different, but the trajectory of the emotions produced by those emotions is easy to map out: Fear. Lack of Confidence. Self-limiting beliefs. Anger. Helplessness. Depression.
Many of us blame others for our situation in life, so our answer is simple: we sit and do nothing, disoriented and clueless.
Then how do we explain those who are not paralyzed when confronted with adversity? What do they have that we lack? It’s pathetic to complain that they haven’t suffered the same trials and tribulations that we have, because guess what? Not everyone gets to play with the red ball in the playground and we all need to deal with disappointment and things that are unfair. Obstacles are pesky things that first show up in childhood and cling to us throughout adulthood.
At some point we have a choice: we can melt into a puddle of pity, or we can take action and develop a strong mind that harnesses the willpower to move forward. Great people in history have a common thread that weaves through their story—their strong minds look at adversity as a challenge that propels them into action. Whether the obstacle comes from the outside, or within, they aren’t wimps who go soft and expect others to do the heavy lifting.
Success in life requires you to have the initiative to explore your talents and strengths because are the frontiers that will unlock your potential. Initiative and creativity require the tenacity to break down obstacles as you move into the unknown. Initiative and creativity will enable you to turn adversity into opportunities that will move your world forward.
At eight years of age, I busted through a dangerous stereotype I had created for myself—trailing cattle was a man’s work and I should be somewhere else. With tenacity and pluck, I found a way around my obstacle. Perhaps most empowering was the awareness that stereotypes don’t always come from others. Sometimes we live up to the stereotype of ourselves that we’ve heard others talk about. It’s how we view ourselves.
Later, I became an FBI agent. If I thought the world of cowboys was full of stereotypes, I came across a few more in the masculine-dominated world of law enforcement. My philosophy was this: people stupid enough to rely on stereotypes to make judgments about others are dumb enough to keep making other really stupid mistakes. Wait long enough and they’ll step in something sticky—coming from a cattle ranch, I could smell that shit a mile away.
The stick-with-itness that produces tenacity enables us to see far beyond our current circumstances and to the potential we all carry within us. The quick-fix mentality doesn’t work in the long run. That’s because the important things in life that lead to fulfillment take time to excavate and polish. We can remain a diamond in the rough for great swaths of our life, but our desire for fulfillment is an attitude that will fuel us for life. Fulfillment is not something we can grab from a self-help book or therapy session. Fulfillment allows us to feel a profound resonance with our deepest values. This assumes, of course, that we’ve discovered something more important than selfies, fame, and money to drive our behavior. Fulfillment requires a journey inward, to a place that is safe and the wellspring for our confidence.
Even if you’re a wimp, it’s not hopeless and this is why: attitude, action, and tenacity are three interdependent principles that will help you create a strong mind.
Excerpt from my new book, “Secrets of a Strong Mind (second edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles”