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 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. 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 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, 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 returning to normal as we bump along the dirt road. Were we afraid? You bet your ass we were.
That’s what saved us.
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 heavily armed hostile 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.
This is not about trying to project an attitude of physical toughness or belligerence. It’s purely about your interior monologue.
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. It’s the human condition.
Before you read on, I want you to think about this for a moment, to reﬂect 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.
Do you have those in mind? Good. Now here’s the crucial point: All 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 did we throw any punches. We were Navy SEALs, as well trained in the art and science of shooting weapons and using physical force to ﬁght as anyone on the planet. But none of that helped in this situation; 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 used here was a mastery of fear.
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.
When I was 14, I came face-to-face with my ﬁrst shark, a big blue off the Southern California coast. I looked at the shark, the shark looked at me — and I felt it: that static charge. 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 the shark’s eyes to mine and back again.
I see this now 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 — 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.
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, it says, 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.
This is not purely about sharks or sketchy characters on the subway. A shark can be any threat, or any perceived threat, which is not always the same thing.
When was the last time you felt anxious? What was it about? A deadline? An unpaid bill coming due? An important meeting ahead? A difficult conversation that you knew you had to have but were afraid to face? Think back to that moment of anxiety, that edgy, clammy-palmed feeling about whatever event or issue was swimming your way.
Next time that happens, here’s what you tell yourself: “Whatever it is, you’ll deal with it in its time and place. Meanwhile, don’t let it swim around inside your head!”
That’s what we were battling in that ravine in Afghanistan. Not the Afghan guys with the guns. Our own interior monologue. If we had 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.
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 the gold standard of sniper training worldwide. By then, U.S. forces were 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 to operate as solo performers and not exclusively in two-man shooter-spotter teams. But the single biggest advance we made, which took our attrition rate from more than 30 percent to less than 1 percent and began turning out perfect scores on the range for the ﬁrst time in the course’s history, was this: We taught our students how to change the conversation in their heads.
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.
Fear is no illusion. Fear is real. Convince yourself that it isn’t and you’re already dead.
Over the past few years, I’ve been running a podcast called The Power of Thought. My guest list has included a World War II ﬁghter pilot, a world record–breaking astronaut, legendary musicians, million-dollar entrepreneurs and billion-dollar hedge fund managers, and, of course, Navy SEALs and 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 distinguishes a mature, adult human, someone capable of functioning fully in the world. It’s what takes you from victim mentality to being proactive, from blaming others to taking ownership of your situation and taking positive steps to change it.
It is what allows you to master fear. Fear is no illusion. Fear is real. Convince yourself that it isn’t and you’re already dead.
But here’s what happens: Far too often, we focus on that awareness of danger, and by focusing on it, we magnify it and 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 that hamster running on its wheel, over and over. Rather than us mastering fear, fear masters us.
When that happens, here’s what you need to do: 1) Become aware of it, and 2) 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.