“Fear is one of the best friends a champion has.”
— José Torres, world light heavyweight champion
The three of us are picking through the desert hardscrabble, collecting the packs another platoon stashed here earlier, when we hear a sound. We turn and look up at the ravine toward the dirt road where we parked our truck a few minutes ago. A crowd of maybe 50 Afghan guys is standing up there, seven or eight yards away, looking down at us. A crowd of Afghan guys with guns. A crowd of Afghan guys with guns, who don’t look happy.
It’s early 2002, just a few months after 9/11, and we are in northeastern Afghanistan on a search-and-seizure operation, looking for bad guys. We wonder if maybe we just found some.
We wonder if maybe some just found us.
Now they’re moving closer. Now they’ve surrounded us. A few have hung back by our truck, and there’s nothing in the sweet wide world stopping them from climbing in and driving it away, leaving us stranded with their armed and very pissed off friends.
I feel something shifting inside. Certain blood vessels constrict, others dilate. My palms suddenly feel cool, yet moist with sweat. Tiny hairs on the backs of my arms and neck stand at attention. My mouth is dry, my hearing suddenly more acute. I can practically feel the release and surge of epinephrine as my adrenals fire off their liquid torpedoes. “Fire one! One’s away, sir! Fire Two!” My face doesn’t show it, but in my mind, I smile. I know what this is.
This is fear. And I’m about to use it.
There’s no time to assess or strategize. This is going down, right now. The handful by the truck have the high ground— always a tactical advantage in any armed conflict — and the rest have us immobilized here in the ravine. There are three of us, four or five dozen of them. They outnumber and outgun us in every possible way. Physically, logistically speaking, there is no way for us to prevail here. We’ll have to do it through sheer balls and bravado.
We shout at them, yell aggressive words we know they don’t understand. They scream back words we don’t know either.
They push closer. Now they’re physically shoving us.
Our nerve ends are blazing electrochemical fireworks, adrenals, and pituitaries pumping out rivers of magic elixirs, lighting up our brain stems and spinal nerves with the buzz of a million years of struggle and survival. The air around us crackles. We shout louder.
They don’t flinch.
We get right up in their faces as if we were the ones with the upper hand here. We brandish our weapons. If this were a cowboy movie we would fire shots into the ground at their feet, too, only this isn’t a movie and we aren’t John Wayne and we are not fucking around here and they know it. If we shoot, it won’t be into the ground.
They stop coming closer. They start backing off.
We hightail our balls and bravado up the ravine and into the truck and back to our camp, our heartbeats gradually slowing back to normal as we bump along the dirt road. Were we afraid? You bet your ass we were.
That was what saved our asses.
You’ve done this. I know you have. You wouldn’t be here, reading this, if you hadn’t.
No, you probably have not faced down a group of hostile, heavily armed fighters on foreign soil. But at some point in your life, you’ve faced down threatening people or situations, in ways big or small. Everyone has. It’s part of the human condition.
There have been moments when your fear caused you to mobilize, to tap some inner strength or ability, and go beyond where you thought you could go. And no doubt, there have also been times when fear made you back down and back out. Like I said: the human condition.
Before you read on, I want you to think about this for a moment, to reflect back on the events of your life, and find examples of both.
Times when fear spurred you on to triumph.
Times when fear dragged you down into defeat.
Have you got those in mind? Good. Then here’s the crucial point: all of those battles, the triumphs, the defeats, took place in your mind.
You may have noticed something about the Afghanistan scenario I described above. We never actually used our guns. Nor threw any punches. We were Navy SEALs, trained in the art and science of shooting weapons and using physical force to fight as few on the planet. But none of that helped here, and there were no tools or technologies, no show of force or fighting skills involved. We did not have the higher ground. We did not have superior numbers. We were not on home turf. We had zero advantage.
The only weapon we used was a mastery of fear.
The book I wrote about fear is not about facing down hostile gangs of men with guns in war zones. It’s about the battleground in your mind. It’s about your relationship with fear, and the dozens of situations — the thousands of situations — that you will face, and the fact that in those situations, fear can smother you, or it can liberate you.
It depends on what is happening between your ears.
Mastering fear is not about becoming physically stronger, or tougher, or more macho, or more aggressive, or more stoic, or more pumped up. It is about learning how to identify and change the conversation in your head.
Keep the Sharks Out of Your Head
Let me ask you a question: What are you afraid of? I don’t mean “concerned” or “a little nervous.” I mean genuinely terrified. Are you afraid of flying, or of heights? Of the dark? Close places? Drowning?
What about public speaking? That’s a big one; people often rate it as worse than their fear of death, which is saying quite a mouthful.
Are you afraid that the right one will never come along, and you’ll die lonely and alone? Or maybe you’re afraid of commitment. I see that one all the time, and not only in relationships but in business and career, too: people who are afraid to go all-in, to push all their chips to the center of the table. Because, what if you lose? What if the business doesn’t work out, or the relationship goes sour but once you’re in, you’re in, and you don’t know how to get out?
I’ve known people who are intimidated by the telephone, or a spreadsheet, or by the prospect of filling out a one-page form. Of swimming. A lot of people have fears that others might find ridiculous. It’s not ridiculous, though, when it’s you.
Are you afraid of failure and the humiliation you think may come with it? Or of success, and the crushing burden of responsibility you’re afraid will come with that? Everyone’s afraid of something.
For me, it was sharks.
“Hey, Brandon, wake up, dude. Get your shit on. Anchor’s stuck.”
It’s the middle of the night. I am already forgetting what dream it was I’m being so rudely shaken out of. But I know it was a lot more pleasant than whatever reality I am about to face. I am 13 years old, a freshly certified scuba diver, working my first real job as an assistant on a dive boat off the coast of Southern California. Right now we are anchored off San Miguel Island, the northernmost of the Channel Islands. The weather here is so rough it sometimes limits even commercial fishing boat traffic. Our fearless leader, Captain Mike, has tucked us in on the backside of San Miguel, figuring that if the weather gets rowdy, the boat starts rocking, and our paying passengers get too uncomfortable, we can always pull up and move to calmer waters.
Apparently, the weather’s gotten rowdy. Time to move.
Problem is, when they went to pull up anchor, the damn thing got caught up on something down on the ocean floor, probably a big ledge or chunk of reef. They could work their way out by patiently maneuvering the boat, but that could take an hour. It’s much quicker and easier to send a diver down to find the problem and untangle it.
It’s Captain Mike who’s shaking me awake from that dead REM sleep. I open my eyes, but my brain is still asleep.
“Hey,” he says again. “We need to move. The anchor’s stuck.”
It takes another moment, but I finally make the connection. He’s saying that someone needs to go get that anchor unstuck and that someone is me.
It isn’t just the weather that’s different around San Miguel. The environment is different, too. It reminds me of this television show I’d watched, “The Land of the Lost,” about a family who goes back in time. This is like that. Weird. Strange. You dive down 30 feet and it’s like you’re in a prehistoric aquarium. I’ve seen big abalones, lobsters, big link cod, and rock cod, the kinds of fish you’d have to go down to three times this depth to find around the southern islands. On San Miguel’s backside, where we now are, there’s also a massive sea lion habitat called Tyler Bight.
And one thing I know about sea lions: they tend to attract great white sharks.
I have this thing about sharks. It’s not just that they’re dangerous. It’s that the guys on the boat have been talking about them telling me all sorts of stories: “This area is a known breeding ground for sharks.” Or, “Captain Mike, that crazy son of a bitch, has even raised a bunch of money to finance a shark hunt, made up a batch of ‘Great White Hunt’ T-shirts and everything. He even put together a few hundred pounds of fish blood and guts for bait and sat out there on the edge of the deck, baiting a great white so he could spear the goddamn thing like it was Moby-Dick and he was Captain Ahab. It was like watching ‘Jaws.'”
By this point, the whole thing has stoked my fear of sharks to a hot flame.
And now he wants me to go over the side? In the middle of the night? No fucking way! There’s no force on earth gonna make me go down there! That’s what I’m thinking. What I say is: “Okay.”
I could say no. They can’t force me to go down there. But if I refuse, I’ll probably lose my job, which I love. Also, I really don’t want to be “that kid who chickened out.”
I scoop hot water from the hot tub into my wet suit to warm it up, then slide into it.
Most passengers go in off the back of the boat, but for the crew, the guys just swing open the bow gate and we jump off from there.
The guys open the hatch.
I plunge down pretty fast, clearing my ears, shining my divelight, doing my best to peer through the churned up muck. I haven’t done much night diving, but I already know that visibility is not very good at night. With the sea swell from the weather churning up the floor, it’s even worse than usual. If I encounter anything big down here, I probably won’t see it until I’m right on top of it. Oh, boy.
At the edges of my peripheral vision, I start seeing sea lions whizzing by. “That’s good,” I tell myself. If there are sea lions here, that probably means there are no sharks hanging around. Or, I think, maybe that just means me and my sea lion friends are all about to be so much chum in the water.
I’ve done this maneuver once or twice in the daytime, just enough so that I know the routine. You dive down, trace the anchor chain, locate the problem, take your regulator out of your mouth, and blast a bunch of bubbles for a few seconds to give the crew up top a signal. They go slack on the anchor chain so you can maneuver it. Now you swim the chain around the reef and get to work getting the damn anchor unstuck. Once you do, you give the signal by blasting a second round of bubbles, and they start pulling. You stay with the chain until the anchor comes up off the bottom, at which point you give your third and final blast of bubbles, and up you go.
I swim down and find the chain stuck under a massive ledge. I give a blast of bubbles, wait for the slack, and swim around the anchor. It seems to take forever. Finally, the anchor comes unstuck. I swim back up to the boat and haul myself out of the water in a rush of pride and, especially, relief. I get out of my wet suit, dry off, and crash back on my bunk, but I’m too wired to even think about sleeping.
At first, I’m re-experiencing how relieved I was to clamber back up on deck, and how lucky I was to get out of there alive. But gradually those thoughts recede and a question slips in: How likely was it, really, that a shark would have come butting in on my operation? Honestly, how great was the danger?
At the time, I wondered how the hell Captain Mike and the other guys could be so thoughtless as to tell this 13-year-old kid shark stories that would scare the crap out of him, knowing damn well that sooner or later I’d have to go down there. Looking back now, I realize they weren’t thoughtless at all. They were testing me.
Or to put it more accurately: they were giving me an opportunity to test myself.
It was the first time in my life that I came face to face with gut-wrenching, skin-crawling, testicle-shrinking fear. It was also the first time I understood that the actual physical situation in front of me was nowhere near as bad as the story I was spinning about it between my ears.
The key to facing that fear and coming out on top was to keep the sharks out of my head.
It didn’t happen that night, but about a year later I did come face to face with my first shark, a big blue off the Southern California coast. Blue sharks are not particularly known for biting humans. Still, a shark is a shark. A blue will typically grow to anywhere from six to nine feet long. This guy, in other words, was a hell of a lot bigger than me. And he had teeth the size of jackknives. One bite from him could ruin my whole day.
I looked at the shark, the shark looked at me — and I felt it. Years later, as a sonar guy in the Navy, I studied how sound waves travel and propagate underwater. This was like that. An electric current running from his eyes to mine and back again.
Now, I see this all the time on the subways in New York. As I step into the car, I look left and right, sizing everyone up. When I lock eyes with a predator, some dude who’s up to no good, or some street guy who’s got something not right going on with him, he knows I see him — and that I am not letting him into my head. That guy is not going to mess with me.
This is not about trying to project an attitude of physical toughness or belligerence. It’s purely about your interior monologue. When the conversation in your head is one of respect — “I respect you, and you sure as hell need to respect me because I am not looking for trouble and you are not getting into my head” — then people pick up on that. If you send out nervousness, anxiety, and the signal that your fear is taking over, people pick up on that, too.
A vampire cannot enter your home unless you invite him in. So the legend goes. I don’t know about vampires, but I know about sharks.
I’ve studied bouncers at New York bars and the security guards who watch the front door at Macy’s. These guys are experts at reading people and putting a stop to trouble before it starts — and 98 percent of it is the conversation they’re having in their heads. “I see you,” they say “and there is going to be no trouble here. There are no targets here. These are not the droids you’re looking for.” Yes, it really is some kind of Jedi mind shit.
Which is what I did that day in the water off the coast of California, staring eye to eye with that big blue. “You do not want this to go down,” my look said.
“Neither do you,” said his.
He moved on. So did I.
I’ll tell you a secret about the image on the cover of the book I wrote about fear. You know, the image of the warrior fighting the wild lion. Chances are good, you saw that lion and figured it represents fear. It doesn’t. That wild beast is your own negativity. Your sense of defeat. The sharks you let in your head.
That’s what we were battling in that ravine in Afghanistan. Not the Afghan guys with the guns, but rather our interior monologue. If we’d thought, “Oh, we are so screwed, what do we do now?” it would not have ended well. But all three of us flipped the conversation in our heads to this: “There is going to be no trouble here.”
We did not invite the sharks into our heads.
A Sniper’s Secret Weapon: Think Positive
After returning from Afghanistan, I began teaching advanced sniper programs for Naval Special Warfare. In late 2003, my SEAL teammate Eric Davis and I were tapped to help redesign the core SEAL sniper program, often considered as the gold standard of sniper training worldwide. By then, U.S. forces were already hip-deep in Iraq, and it was becoming clear that the so-called War on Terror was not going to be quick or easy. In this new form of warfare, Special Operations resources such as SEAL snipers would play a key role. We needed to completely rethink our approach to sniper training.
We revamped the course from top to bottom. We brought in new technologies. We moved our guys from hand-drawn sketches to advanced software and satellite communications. We upped their technical weapons training and turned them into ballistics experts. We trained them on how to operate as solo performers and not exclusively in two-man shooter-spotter teams. But the single biggest advance we made, the one addition to the program that I am most proud of and that I believe made the biggest difference in the course, was that we taught our students how to change the conversation in their heads. This took our attrition rate down from more than 30 percent to less than one percent and we began turning out perfect scores on the range for the first time in the course’s history.
Here is a simple model we used. A kid steps up to bat. His coach, or his dad, yells out, “Remember, Bobby, don’t strike out!”
So what happens? He strikes out, of course. What else is the poor kid going to do? The coach has made him so focused on swinging and missing, has so amplified his fear of striking out, that it’s all he can see in his head. He’s got a hamster in his head running on that hamster wheel full tilt boogie: “Strike out! Strike out! Strike out!” So that’s what he does.
What should the coach have done? Focused on reminding Bobby what he needed to do right. Stand; breathe; keep your eye on the ball and judge it keenly. If it’s outside the batter’s box, let it pass. If it’s over the plate, swing and connect. Bring bat and ball together. Make your team proud. All that good stuff.
Which is more or less exactly what we did with our sniper students. We taught them how to self-coach. We taught them how to flip that switch and change the conversation in their heads. Yes, an entire generation of SEAL snipers, among the deadliest warriors on the planet, were trained in the art and science of self-talk.
The same skillset applies in the field of business and just as effectively as in the field of war.
When my friend James Powell was serving in the Marine Corps, he had the ambition to join the CIA. He decided to try out, and pretty soon he was sitting in a waiting room with a bunch of other candidates, waiting for his interview. He was surrounded by Navy SEALS, Green Berets, and other Spec Ops guys, by people with degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Stanford — and suddenly James felt like a turd in a punch bowl.
What the hell was he doing there?
The woman at the front desk asked him if he was okay. “You look kind of nervous there.”
“Honestly,” he told her, “I don’t know if my résumé stacks up with these other people’s.” He nodded around the room.
She looked at him and said, “Look, if you’re in this room, then there’s a reason you’re in this room.”
It was what he needed to hear. Her comment allowed him to flip a mental switch. A few minutes later he was inside, acing his entrance interview. He went on to a solid career at the CIA. Today he is one of our top writers at our veteran-run news site at Hurricane, our go-to guy on all things CIA. None of this would have happened if he hadn’t instantly changed the conversation in his head.
Over the past few years, I’ve been running a podcast called “The Power of Thought.” My guest list has included a WWII fighter pilot, a world-record-breaking astronaut, legendary musicians, million-dollar entrepreneurs, billion-dollar hedge fund managers, and of course, Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and other Special Operations warriors. In every one of those conversations, I’ve noticed this core character trait: the ability to see and flip that mental switch. To me, that ability to self-monitor and change your interior dialogue is one of the most critical faculties that distinguish a mature, adult human, someone capable of functioning fully in the world. It’s what takes you from a victim mentality to being proactive; from blaming others to taking ownership of your situation and taking positive steps to change it. It takes you from being at the mercy of circumstance to being the master of circumstance.
It is what allows you to master fear.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking about denial or telling yourself that the danger isn’t real. You may have heard that bit of psychobabble about how “FEAR stands for False Evidence Appearing Real.” Sorry, but that’s bullshit. Fear is the awareness of danger. The word comes from the Old English fær: “calamity, danger, peril, sudden attack.” There’s nothing false or imagined about a group of pissed-off mountain fighters pointing guns at you, or a shark swimming toward you, or a business collapsing into foreclosure. Or falling off a ladder while you’re changing out your storm windows and breaking your neck. Here’s a popular meme that is true: Shit happens. The world is dangerous. Life is fragile. Each moment is precious, and you know why? Because it won’t last.
Fear is no illusion. Fear is real. Convince yourself that it isn’t, and you’re already dead.
But here’s what far too often happens: We focus on that awareness of danger, and by focusing on it we magnify it, cause it to expand until it starts filling the space in our heads. We start having the wrong conversation about it. We spin this story and then keep telling and retelling it, like a hamster running on a wheel, over and over. Rather than mastering fear, fear masters us.
When that happens, here’s what you need to do: First, become aware of it, and then redirect it. Flip the switch in your head.
This is not some vague, new age pop psychology thing. This is how battles are fought and won. It is how billion-dollar deals go down and outstanding careers are made, how destinies are carved and lives are lived as richly and fully as they deserve to be lived.
Make Fear Your Best Friend
You may have seen the quote, “What would you do if you were not afraid?” It’s become one of those memes that people accept as divine revelation, as if it were handed down from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets.
But just because a hundred thousand people repeat something doesn’t make it valid. In this age of social media, such “truths” need particularly careful inspection. Because I’ll tell you what my two teammates and I would have done that day in Afghanistan if we were not afraid: been taken prisoner, or worse.
Yes, I get what that meme’s author was it driving at, and I get that there’s a good point in there. For me, though, here is a much more powerful question:
“What would you do if you WERE afraid?”
How would you deal with that fear? Would you let it stop you or propel you forward? Fear can be a set of manacles, holding you prisoner. Or it can be a slingshot, catapulting you on to greatness. Read the biographies of great men and women, and you find that people who accomplish great things typically do so not by denying or beating back their fears but by embracing them. Not by seeing fear as the enemy, but by making it your ally.
Fear is a lot like fire: When it’s out of control it is destructive. Learn how to use it, and you can do practically anything. Harnessing fire is what made human civilization. Harnessing fear can change the course of your destiny.
Growing up in Puerto Rico during the WWII years, José Torres’s heroes were the American soldiers stationed near his house. When he was 17 he volunteered for the army by forging papers to make him a year older than he really was. In the service, he took up boxing and discovered he was good at it. In his first fight, he knocked the guy out. In the second fight, the same thing. And in the third. He competed for the Antilles championship and knocked out both guys he fought there. Then he went to Panama for the Caribbean armed forces championship — but that time, things were different. When he saw his opponent, he started shaking. It was the first time in his life he remembers being afraid.
He told his trainer, “I can’t beat this guy. I don’t know why. I just can’t.” His trainer told him to go in there and just do his best. He went in there. The other guy threw the first punch and hit him smack in the face. José felt like he’d been zapped with a million volts. He lost the first round. He’d never lost a round before.
It was only later that José realized what had gotten to him. All his previous opponents had been black or Puerto Rican. This time he was going up against Billy Priest, a fighter from Boston. A handsome, blond guy. A white American soldier — the hero of his youth. José was fighting a superhero. How could he possibly win?
José had let the shark into his head.
The second round started, and somehow, José flipped a switch. It wasn’t so much that he changed the conversation in his head; he just shut it down. He stopped thinking about who he was fighting, stopped thinking at all, and let his neurons and tendons and muscle memory work their chemistry. He landed a punch, then another. By the end of the third round, he’d won the fight. In the aftermath of that fight, he and Priest became good friends — and José understood something for the first time: The fight can be won or lost in your head.
José had not yet learned his greatest lesson about fear, though. That was still to come.
While still in the army he won an Olympic silver medal, losing the gold by a single point. He soon went pro, started winning title after title, and moved to New York, where he worked with the legendary trainer Cus D’Amato. There, he discovered something startling about his trainer. Cus D’Amato was afraid of flying. Terrified. In fact, he had never gone on a single flight.
“Are you kidding me?” said José. “How can you teach me about fear in the ring, when you’re so afraid of flying you won’t even set foot in an airplane?”
Cus shook his head. “You have to be smarter than that, José. Fear is something you must have if you want to be a champion.” Fear, his trainer told him, is a champion’s secret weapon. José hadn’t won that critical fight against Billy Priest all those years ago despite his fear. He’d won it by using his fear.
“You need fear,” José would later say, “for you to understand when the guy is going to throw a punch before he throws the punch, to anticipate what the guy is gonna do before he does it. All that is triggered by fear. Having that fear — not letting it get the best of you, but using it to help you — that is the quality of a champion. Fear is one of the best friends a champion has.”
In 1965, in Madison Square Garden, José defeated International Boxing Hall of Famer and World Light Heavyweight champion Willie Pastrano and became the first Latin American to win the World Light Heavyweight Championship. His secret weapon? He’d been taught how to master fear by a man who was too afraid of flying to step into an airplane.
One thing this book will not teach you is how to “overcome fear.” I don’t believe in overcoming fear, because I don’t see fear as my enemy. In fact, my experience is that if you see fear as the enemy, then you’ve already lost. Fear isn’t something to fight. It’s something to embrace.
The goal is not to eliminate fear. You don’t want fear to go away. You don’t want to step into the ring, onto the stage, or out on the battlefield all loose and laid back. Professional singers, dancers, actors, and speakers will tell you that the nervousness they feel, that pinch of anxiety going into a performance, is more precious to them than gold, that they can’t deliver to the level they’re capable of without it. You want that adrenaline running, those palms sweating, that stomach folding in on itself. Records are not broken in practice; they’re broken in the pressure cooker of the competition.
José Torres had it right: if you want to be a champion, you don’t fight against fear, you make it your best friend because that’s how you win the battle of the mind.
Like this? I wrote a whole book about it. You can find it here.