It was a beautiful afternoon in the fall of 2001 and I was 19 years old. This particular afternoon was cool and overcast, yet somehow still humid, a fall afternoon indicative of the temperamental weather patterns so uniquely Texan. At this point in time I’d ridden dirt bikes and looked for the “stoke” for a couple of years and I’d developed into a decent rider. My dad was a motorcycle cop at one point in his illustrious law enforcement career. He once wisely told me that there are two types of riders, ones that have been down and ones that are going down. But, like most young men, I was more balls than brains and caution be damned for the thrill of adrenaline.
The afternoon was epic, I was pushing my riding to what I thought was another level in the hill country outside of San Marcos, Texas. Near the end of the route for the day, I decided to challenge one particular jump, one probably outside my skill range. Only one of the other guys in my group was skilled enough to tackle this particular jump and he made it look easy.
I scouted the jump, then promptly turned around to prepare myself mentally to tackle it. In the midst of this mental preparation, I lied to myself that the risk was absolutely worth it and that I was completely capable of traversing this jump. After all, I’d negotiated similar jumps before. Similar. Not the same as this one.
To spare the uninitiated dirt bike riders a plethora of lingo and technicality that led to this mild catastrophe, I greatly miscalculated my ability and wrecked. Simply put, I over gassed my take off and overshot my landing. I knew it mid-air and decided to bail.
The last thing I remembered thinking, just before the wind and consciousness was knocked out of me, was “Damn it. The old man isn’t going to let me forget this one”. According to one of my friends, I tucked midair and bounced once I hit the ground.
I awoke to one of my friends vigorously shaking me. I couldn’t hear or see shit, and momentarily freaked out until I realized that my helmet had twisted and was on my face sideways. Miraculously, nothing was broken. I was scraped up and a little out of it. But, for the most part I was ok. My bike was in the same condition, a little scraped up but whole and functional. I ignored my friends’ entreaties to go to the ER to get checked out. Initially I noticed that my back was a little tight but I didn’t think anything of it. I got my bike up and started, then rode back to where we trailered out and loaded up for the afternoon.
Two days passed and pain was steadily increasing in my lower back. It got to a point where I could no longer ignore it and tough it out. I drug myself to the ER and discovered that I had completely herniated three of my lower lumbar discs.
The recovery was very slow and tedious. I had to reacquaint myself with simple things like walking without limping, standing up straight and running again.
My inability to clearly and honestly evaluate my skill level led to that accident. It was a painful lesson that I still feel almost 20 years later on days when my sciatica flairs up. In lying to myself and not being mindful of my true ability I failed.
Years later, I found my calling in law enforcement, specifically the U.S. Border Patrol. I met many agents who were exceptional, and had the capacity to make mistakes, evaluate where they went wrong and correct their deficiencies. I also met some who were incapable of that level of introspection. The best example of the latter came in the form of a trainee I was assigned to instruct during my time as a Field Training Officer (FTO). Let’s call this trainee Marmona.
Marmona entered government service later in life and was much older than his classmates. He, much to my chagrin, inherently lacked many of the attributes that would a make a decent Border Patrol Agent. Nor during my experience with him did he attempt to address his deficiencies and better himself. He repeatedly failed the standards set by the training division and did not heed the numerous “Come to Jesus” talks I and other FTOs and supervisors had with him. There were many other trainees who successfully negotiated the Field Training Program after initial failures. When asked about the root cause of his failures, Marmona claimed the standards were unfair and biased. He was the epitome of the term liability.
My partner in the Field Training Unit and I spent the majority of our “down time” documenting his deficiencies. Nearing the end of his time in the field training unit, my partner and I were required to submit a recommendation to our primary and second line supervisors concerning Marmona’s retention. We indicated that during our time with him he demonstrated that he was not trainable. Therefore we recommended that he should be given the opportunity to resign in lieu of termination. The chain of command rejected it and told us we needed to try harder to train him.
Following this decision my partner and I had a very long conversation. We honestly looked at the way we were training him and tried to discern if we were being too harsh and biased. We were calling bullshit on how we approached training and fostering the next generation of Agents. We came to the conclusion that Marmona was getting the same treatment and training as the other trainees under our guidance based upon the fact that we were harder on others who rose to the occasion and improved.
Marmona recycled through the Field Training Program for an additional 12 weeks. At this point he’d already seen all the material, he’d been exposed to the standard operating procedures, and he knows what the major facets of the job are. How do you think he did his second time through with a new class of trainees?
He did worse than his first time.
My partner and I spent another exhausting 12 weeks attempting to train Marmona and refine his skills and knowledge. He did not meet the standards and we recommended resignation in lieu of termination. Again. For the second time we were advised to try harder to train him.
At the start of what would be his third time through the field training program (start of week 25) I drew up a simple self-assessment for him to illuminate his perception of his abilities in comparison to those of other Border Patrol Agents. He rated himself above average and working at a Journeyman level in almost every category. When we pulled him into our office to talk about the assessment, he was utterly convinced that he was honest and forthcoming with his self-assessment and the reason he was held back in training was due to bias and an unfair set of standards.
We passed Marmona on to another Agent who was more than happy to give him the easy pass that allowed Marmona to exit the FTU and join the patrol groups. I didn’t have any more contact with Marmona other than the occasional stoic pass in the hallway at the station. From my understanding he went on to have an unremarkable career that was pockmarked with numerous kerfuffles and the occasional goat rodeo. One such remarkable event was allowing a detainee to escape from the back of the transport van while parked in the detention sally port at the station.
Self-reflection is a valuable tool underutilized in our lives. Marmona illustrated how the pursuit of mediocracy can contribute. What sets the majority of those who relentlessly pursue excellence apart from other individuals is one all important factor, recognition and course correction. We aren’t afraid to call bullshit on ourselves and attempt to fix our deficiencies.
A favorite quote of mine is, “Fear is the mind killer” from the sci-fi novel/unintentional discussion of philosophy, Dune, by Frank Herbert. In the novel it’s a litany that is integral to the main character’s evolution. By facing our fears and letting them pass through us they will no longer hold sway over our psyche, and we can move forward with honest intention. The level of honesty it takes to look yourself in the mirror and call yourself out on all your bullshit is immense. That level of honesty and self-reflection is invariably terrifying. The malady of dishonesty with ourselves is rooted in fear; fear of letting yourself realize that you have short comings; fear that you don’t measure up to standards or barely meet them. It is far easier to lie to yourself and believe those lies than to face them and fix yourself. If you work in a profession where your actions and inactions carry extreme gravitas then you owe it to yourself and everyone you come into contact with to have these kind of self-evaluations on a regular basis.
Don’t be afraid to look in the mirror and call bullshit on yourself.
Jared Anderson is former law enforcement officer and medic with 15 years of experience at the local, state and federal levels. Currently, he finds himself back in school pursing another career. He is an avid outdoorsman and pursues the stoke where he can find it. He spends most of his free time with wife and kids.