As I was making my way up the path, it didn’t take me long to realize I had made a bad decision. Who am I kidding? I knew I was making a bad decision long before the disaster began to unfold. Like Cassandra of Troy I knew what bad tidings the future held yet I was powerless do anything about it. I couldn’t convince myself to chart a different course. As the hour of my departure grew near I considered the mistake I was making, yet motionless I remained. 20 minutes out. I knew. 10 minutes out. Don’t do it.
“What the hell have I done”
30 or so Marines stepped off sharply and began their ascent of the mountain. We had 1 hour to travel 5 miles and gain about 4000’ of elevation. We were laden with 50 pound combat loads and our rifles. The air was crisp and the snow was coming down.
As Mother Nature’s cold, sharp fingers clawed at my lungs and my heart did its best to keep up with the greedy demands of my legs, I knew I was in trouble. I had barely made it a mile and I was falling behind. We needed to make it to the top in under an hour or we were cut from the class. This was the first of many trails and tribulations we’d have to endure that were meant to slowly whittle down the pool of Marines to only those that were worthy of wearing the title “Winter Mountain Leader”. Even If I did make it, I couldn’t be last. For God’s sake, I couldn’t even be in the back third. I was an officer of Marines. Finishing anything less than near the top of the pack would rob me of the moral authority to ask more of my Marines. The gravity of my poor decision was sending a chill up my spine. I felt sick to my stomach.
In my last unit, 2d Battalion 2d Marines, we did a lot of “humps”, or conditioning marches. In an effort to motivate my Marines and teach them the value of exceeding the standard I’d add weight to my pack beyond the required gear list. Typically I’d throw a in 45 pound plate. At the end the hump I’d challenge my Marines to weigh their pack. If it was heavier than mine they’d get a “72” (a three day weekend).
North Carolina is as flat as a CNN’s ratings. The only elevation one experiences on a hump is stepping up and down the curbs. Vast expanses of boredom are the gravest threat. It was a permissive training environment that fomented acts of bravado and stupidity. This was not North Carolina. Grass is kinder than snow, and dirt is friendlier than ice. Elevation, I came to learn, is the undefeated heavyweight champion of crushing strong humans. The 45 pound plate that I decided to place in my pack needed to come out.
I don’t remember exactly how far up the mountain I was when I stopped to remove the plate. What is still a humiliating and painful memory is his voice. “Captain Dinero, what the hell are you doing?” Sergeant Andes’ words cut through me slowly and painfully like a butter knife bluntly tearing through my flesh, the indignation in his tone the force behind the blade. Being one of the instructors, his immediate assumption was that I had jettisoned some of the required gear from my pack in order to lighten the load and give my self an advantage getting up the hill. As I stood there in shame the implications of his (incorrect) assertion hammered into my brain-housing group one after another with the staccato rythm of a .50 cal. The damage to my reputation increased exponentially with each imagined impact.
BAM! He thinks I’m cheating.
BAM! He thinks I cant hack it.
BAM! He thinks I’m cheating just to get up the mountain.
BAM! He thinks I’m trying to cheat in order to not get cut from the class.
BAM! He thinks I’m willing to cheat in order to succeed.
BAM! He thinks I’m a shit bag.
My breathless, hurried explanation left him skeptical but intrigued. The snow-covered 45 pound plate I hoisted up out of the ditch convinced him it was act of stupidity and not a lack of integrity to which he was a witness.
The ego. It has counted coup over countless men and women. Its victims are cast aside and left scattered and strewn in its wake. Does the ego really deserve its reputation as a man-killer?
Academics have advanced their own ideas as to what makes us, “human”. Skinner, Piaget, Erikson and an endless list of others advanced notions of why we make the decisions we do and what makes us tick. At the base of their theories, in one form or another, lies Sigmund Freud’s id, ego, and superego. Might we find among those three the source for some spectacularly poor decision-making? The id, ego, and superego are supposed to collaborate in order to guide our actions and allow us to make socially responsible decisions while still fulfilling our desire for personal satisfaction. The three of them all perform separate functions in our thought process, however, it is the ego that has become the fall guy.
The id fuels our most primal urges. Life and death. Lust and disgust. The id is our animalistic solution to every problem. The superego provides us with a conscience. It is the little angel on our shoulders telling us to be good. The ego is supposed to be our rational decision maker. It receives the primal urge from the id, mixes in a dash of guilt from the super ego and spits out a decision with which one can happily live. Imagine you are driving down the road and some jack-wagon cuts you off. The id says kill the bastard. As your road rage boils over and you approach ramming speed, your superego quietly reminds you that ramming speed is used only for terrorists and Black Friday parking spots. Lightning-quick your ego mediates a furious negotiation between the two. A causal middle finger and a few choice words muttered under a smile carry the day.
Why is it that we can rely on the ego to prevent us from being charged with manslaughter but we have a hard time listening to it as soon as we walk through the gym doors? How many of us find ourselves doing the same in our careers? Is it our ego? Is it from too much pride? Is it because one lacks experience? Can it be attributed to impatience? It is the latter three that carry more culpability than the former. They are the three great conspirators that set the conditions for failure while placing blame at the feet of the ego.
I made it to the top that mountain in under an hour. My reputation was not so lucky. I acted as an amateur and in doing so I made a fool of myself and wound up in a position where my judgement could be questioned. My ego was rational. My ego strongly advised against putting extra weight in the pack. Tempering my id’s desire to strip naked, throw an instructor over my shoulder and run up the mountain while singing the Marine’s Hymn, my ego came up with a sound, guilt-free game plan that made my superego proud. I would just move faster than everyone else. I could be first. Then this little bastard called Pride reared his ugly head. Being first up the mountain would be good. However, many Marines in my class had what it took to be the first to take the peak. Pride kept me asking how many could make it up there with an extra 45 pounds on their back. None. Drunk on inexperience and led forward by my prideful desire to be admired by my Marines, I willfully stepped off on a condemned man’s path.
A difunctional ego is pathological and rare. Very few people are so deluded that they believe they are capable of doing more than they are actually able to physically or mentally. Long before any of us felt the tendon let loose, or saw the carefully crafted business plan fail, we knew. The certain adulation and admiration brought on by success was too great a prize to pass up. We knew, but our pride poured a honey potion in our ear and before we knew it we were in over our heads.
When you find yourself at the base of a mountain, and Pride is getting the better of your ego, and the blissful ignorance of inexperience is disguised as confidence, hit the pause button. Take a few moments to ponder what most matters. I find it beneficial to take a step back and look at the big picture. Recall the reasons you decided to walk into a gym and then compare them to the reasons you are about to lift, 45 times, a weight you struggle to lift 5 times in a row. Analyze the potential benefits of acting versus both the possible hazards (damage) that may result from your actions and the risk (likelihood) that the hazard will occur. Is your impending act of bravado going to advance your agenda or get you closer to your over all goals and if so at what cost? It becomes a straightforward decision when looked at through this prism and rarely is one left searching for the correct answer.
A lack of experience can also be mitigated. The trouble with experience is that is comes from mistakes. They don’t have to be yours. Find someone you trust, a disinterested 3rd party observer, or possibly your COACH, and ask for their input.
Had I taken the time to do any of this on the mountain, my day would have turned out differently. I would have recalled that my reason for going through the Winter Mountain Leader Course was to become a better, more capable and well-trained Marine. I would have remembered that it was not about me impressing people. It was about becoming the best officer possible so that I could more effectively lead and take care of Marines. I could have talked to my mentor or my instructors and asked for their opinion on adding weight to my pack. They would have reminded me of the mountain’s undefeated record and the poor example I would be setting. My Marines wanted nothing more than a capable leader that could be relied on to make sound and timely decisions. Their lives would depend on it.
Learn from the mistakes of others. Surround yourself with good people who have a solid record of success. Take heed of their advice and gain the advantage their experience. Rather than being a slave to your pride, embrace it. Use it to motivate you in times of adversity. Think about what condition your pride will be in after making an amateur decision. When you allow it to be, pride can be a powerful tool and an asset to your ego.
Im grateful for that day. I made the cut. My reputation recovered. I learned a valuable lesson that I continue to use, daily, in the gym and in the business world. Im sure Sergeant Andes enjoys, just a little too enthusiastically, retelling the story of a young Captain that thought he could beat the mountain.
LIVE – GET STRONG – WIN