Understanding Fear, Our Greatest Adversary

Bonnie Ware, a palliative care nurse who cared for the terminally ill, wrote The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. In the book, she revealed the five most common regrets her patients shared with her on their deathbeds. The number one regret? They wished they had dared to live lives that were true to themselves, not the lives others expected of them. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live a life of regret. I want to live the life that I design, and I most certainly don’t want to let my fears get in the way of that.

There is an old adage that says, “Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible.” But before we can be courageous and before we can begin to accomplish all those “other” things, we must first better understand—and learn to manage—fear.

Fear shapes the outcome of our lives, and it is both a gift and a disease. I chose a hazardous profession as a U.S. Navy SEAL. Hell, in some sense, I spent 20 years on my deathbed. Fear keeps us alive if we are being chased by a lion, but in daily life, especially in our work life, a fearful state of mind cripples us. Most experts agree that we are born with only two fears, a fear of falling and a fear of loud noises; the rest is learned. As we grow up, we receive little training on how to deal with fear beyond a few clichés telling us to “face” our fears and “overcome” them. But what does that really mean?

Fear keeps us alive if we’re being chased by a lion, but in daily life, especially in our work life, fear cripples us.

If you can’t manufacture courage, motivation, and willpower, all the clichés in the world won’t help you raise your hand in a board meeting or get off the couch to work out. At least not for more than 90 percent of humans; we all have finite willpower.


For a 2003 exchange program I was selected as a SEAL Officer to become a member of the British Special Forces. At this time, we were in two major wars, and the British were our most active coalition force, so the strength of our relationship was critical (and still is today). The Special Air Service (SAS) and the Special Boat Service (SBS) produce among the toughest and bravest warriors the world has seen. They conduct covert, clandestine, and direct action missions around the globe. Some say they are fearless, but are they?

I had only been in England for a few months, and I was still getting my bearings and learning the nuances of the culture. One afternoon I was told that the squadron I was in was having a boys’ night out, or a “fancy dress” as they call it. I decided to wear a button-up shirt and classic jacket, which I thought was a safe bet.

I arrived at the pub a little early, but not long after, several of the lads rolled in and walked over to me at the bar. At first, I didn’t recognize them—they were all wearing dresses! I was staring at some of the world’s toughest men, who had done some of the most dangerous covert and direct action missions. Not only were they wearing dresses, they had also accessorized with makeup, wigs, and, hell, I believe they even shaved their legs! They looked at me a little strangely and snickered as they realized I hadn’t understood the meaning of the “fancy dress” night.

Not too many pints into the evening, we went to a small club. I asked the lads why they were just keeping to themselves at the bar and weren’t mingling. The Scotsman who had invited me replied: “Brits don’t dance, mate. You won’t catch a British man dead on the dance floor. That’s for you Yanks.”

I was a little confused, but realized it was because they were embarrassed. I pressed him, “So, you wear dresses, but you don’t dance?”

“That’s right, mate. We don’t dance.”

In their minds, wearing dresses was so absurd—it was a way to make fun of themselves and have a good laugh. But dancing, which exposes you and makes you a little vulnerable, well, that was a bridge too far.


Fear has many faces. There are different types of fears, and we all have various levels of immunity to each type. For U.S. Navy SEALs and others in similar professions, physical fear often comes more naturally than others, such as social, moral, and emotional fears. Often what we think we fear is not what we really fear, as is the case with public speaking. People often say they feel as if they are going to die before speaking, but what they really fear isn’t the speaking itself or even the fear of being embarrassed. Rather, it is the fear of feeling incompetent, which could lead to the loss of a job, home, or social standing, in addition to the embarrassment. Fear is complicated.

We know that fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that something is likely to be dangerous and cause pain. Note that fear is a belief, and like any other belief, we can change it. We just need proof, evidence to show us why this belief is no longer valid. Fear is a physical event experienced, not only in the mind, but in the body, and it naturally produces a freeze, fight, or flight response.

Fear is the primary emotion that ensures our survival; it’s our survival instinct. It triggers what most people refer to as the “reptile” part of our brain, which happens to be the oldest part. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, humans had predators that preyed on them, and they feared for their personal safety on a daily basis. Our brains are still wired to that level of fear, and our minds naturally look out for danger in our lives. According to researchers roughly 80 percent of our daily thoughts are negative and fear based. Most of those negative thoughts are repetitive, like a movie playing in a loop in our minds. Psychologists use the term awfulizing, which means “in a situation of uncertainty, the mind is filled with fear of the worst.” Fear replaces the unknown with the awful.

When your mind “awfulizes,” fear replaces the unknown with the awful.

Just turn on the news and watch and listen for fear. It’s as if humans are obsessed with potential dangers, often overreacting to a perceived threat without rational justification. I believe the 24-hour news cycle has not only created a fearful state of consciousness throughout the United States, it is contributing to national health issues such as depression and anxiety. A horrific event gets played over and over until our minds believe it happens continuously, producing a sense of inevitable doom. If you want to be less fearful, stop watching the news!

Fear is a disease. The more you allow it to penetrate your mind, the more it spreads to other parts of your life.

Threats: Real and Perceived

We know that our fears are mostly irrational, but we have a terrific imagination. Our imagination enables us to paint a picture of something so horrific that it almost can’t be spoken about. Some 20 million Americans are reported to have aviophobia, an extreme fear of flying. According to the National Safety Council, Americans have a 1 in 114 chance of dying in a car crash compared to nearly a 1 in 10,000 chance of dying in an aviation accident. These include small planes, private jets, and all the other higher-risk forms of flying. That means you are about 88 times more likely to get killed on the drive to the airport than on the flight. But the mental image of a plane crash is much more vivid, and everyone can imagine the horror that must take place before crashing. Our mind has a great ability to dream up a graphic horror movie of what might happen, even though we know it’s unlikely. Now imagine going into combat knowing the threat is very real. It is tangible. The strategies I discuss in this book work no matter what the fear is—real or perceived.

The fact that you fear something is evidence that it isn’t happening.

Our minds put perceived threats into context. The amygdala, that reptile part of the brain I mentioned earlier, processes emotions, especially fear. The amygdala speaks to the hippocampus, which speaks to the prefrontal cortex. The hippocampus deals with emotions and long-term memories, while the prefrontal cortex is the executive part of our brain and the newest addition in our evolutionary process. This part gives us the ability to be creative and to control our lives. I will focus on these three areas of the brain when speaking about fear.

Imagine seeing a hungry lion 20 feet away, staring at you. Obviously, that would wake up the reptile part of your brain and put you in survival mode. But imagine seeing that lion through the window of a safari vehicle or in a zoo. The hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex put the threat into context and change our emotional and physical responses. Now imagine being on foot in the Sahara and seeing that hungry lion, but this time you have a high-powered rifle. Even though you would still have fear, being armed gives you a different perspective and puts the situation in a different context. To be clear, I’m not saying we should shoot lions—of course not!—but metaphorically arming yourself is a way of mitigating fear and having a plan.

The paradox of evolution is that our own survival instincts are killing us.

Making Fear a Welcome Guest

The way to deal with fear is not to expect to eliminate it altogether. The goal is to mitigate its inappropriate adverse effects and make it a welcome guest, not an intruder of the mind. The “inverted U” curve, created by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson and published in 1908, describes how pressure and performance increase together until you hit the optimal pressure for a particular task. As pressure continues to increase, performance begins to decline, and eventually, too much stress leads to deficient performance, anxiety, and unhappiness. Too little pressure or stress in life is dull; too much is overwhelming. My GUTS (Greatness Under Tremendous Stress) approach is not about wholly eliminating fear. It’s about getting fear into that sweet spot, zone, or flow. It is about managing the stress and channeling it into energy and intent.

GUTS is not about eliminating fear; it’s about using it to achieve excellence.

Confidence: The First Line of Defense

Identifying fear in different parts of our lives is critical to understanding the situation (the S in STICKS)—where we are and where we want to go. GUTS will discuss specific techniques to deal with specific fears, some of which are applicable to other parts of your life. Some skills—and the confidence that goes with them—become foundational. For example, people say that martial arts build confidence in people, especially kids. I agree. It’s precisely why I’ve had my son in various forms of martial arts since he was young. Once people have a high level of confidence in their abilities, it tends to flow over to other aspects of their lives.

In the office, we’ve probably all encountered toxic bullies who can’t control their emotions. But bullies are actually insecure and driven by fear. Now consider a person who has been training in martial arts for years, who is very confident in his abilities. Suppose he gets into a heated argument with a toxic bully who is used to having people submit to his demands. We know that a physical confrontation is unlikely to happen in the office, but our reptile brain is still triggered to initiate our survival instincts. Adrenaline kicks in, our heart races, our breathing increases, we get tunnel vision, and the prefrontal cortex (executive brain) shuts down—we can’t think clearly. The reptile brain sees and hears the bully’s violent cues: loud voice, angry tone, leaning in, pointing, cursing, wide-eyed look, and so forth. But a person highly trained and experienced in martial arts will not get triggered in the same way. His brain will put the situation in a different context. Because he doesn’t feel physically threatened, his survival instincts won’t kick in, so he can use his executive brain and be rational and clear minded. He may be a little nervous because of social and moral dangers, but he won’t shut down in a panic. Instead, he is likely to function effectively in an optimal stress zone—a “sweet spot.” The GUTS process approach is about tactics and techniques to arm ourselves, build confidence, and put fear into the proper situational context to optimize our performance.

It’s better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war.

Freeze, Fight, or Flight

What happens when we become scared, and why?

It all begins in the amygdala, that small part of our reptile brain, the almond-shaped bundle of neurons that is part of the limbic system. Our focus will be on manipulating this system to our advantage. A stimulus triggers the amygdala, which in turn activates areas involved in the freeze, fight, or flight response. It also triggers the release of stress hormones and activates the sympathetic nervous system.

We all know the feeling of being scared. Our hearts beat faster, we become hyperalert, our mouths turn dry, and our bodies produce adrenaline and cortisol to prepare us for fight or flight. When this happens, our bodies want to move and burn off the cortisol and adrenaline that are being produced.

As a trained tracker, I find it easy to identify the very spot that a person realized she had become lost in the woods. Why do you think that is? Knowing you are lost brings all kinds of horrific images of becoming dehydrated, hungry, and cold; being stalked by predators; and dying in the woods alone. We quickly awfulize the situation, which increases the level of fear. Body reflexes kick in, and the person often begins to run, sometimes back and forth, getting more and more lost. The body wants to move when it’s scared. It’s designed that way. Once we realize how this works, we can work backward to deal with fear at its source. I will cover this extensively in the chapters that follow.

The Path of Least Resistance

When you learn to track animals and human beings, you learn a great deal about their nature and natural habits. Humans, like other animals, have a natural aversion to straining. Go into the woods, and you will see natural patterns of trails that animals take, even using each other’s paths, making the walk more comfortable. Most of the tracks lead to water, food, or a safe place to sleep. Many animals spend most of their time either lying down, standing, or walking, preserving energy until it is needed.

Humans are no different. Physically, intellectually, and emotionally our natural default is the path of least resistance; instinctively, we don’t want to strain ourselves. You may disagree, but look at the world we live in for a moment. For instance, when you watch TV, it seems like every commercial is for a new drug that pushes our “easy button”—our desire to take the path of least resistance with no discomfort.

If you ever have trouble sleeping as I have, you’ve probably seen the late-night infomercials promising the world with virtually no pain. You stand on this board and twist for 15 minutes a day—voila!, you now have a ripped supermodel body. Take this one pill and instantly be skinny, or happy, or whatever it is the infomercials are promising. By offering the path of least resistance, they manipulate our natural human weaknesses.

We have become conditioned to avoid strain and pain and think both should be eliminated from our lives. Our culture is addicted to instant gratification, a culture that attempts to avoid discomfort in all aspects of our lives. The proof? We are the most obese society in the history of the world; nearly 40 percent of Americans fall into this category.1 The use of antidepressants and other anxiety-relieving drugs is steadily increasing across the nation, and we have an epidemic of taking addicting opioids to relieve physical pain. We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, yet we are getting more depressed and have become increasingly fragile. Instant gratification has lowered our threshold for discomfort.2

The answer is to avoid the temptation to take the easiest path. And we do this through discipline. Learning to delay gratification and embrace challenges in all areas of our lives will start the process of building discipline.


When I refer to the accomplishment gap, I’m referring to what has become a natural tendency to take the path of least resistance, which, if done repeatedly, will eventually leave us short of our goals and generally feeling “unaccomplished.” The gap starts to form when our desire to avoid straining, especially in the face of fear, becomes the dominant factor in most of our decisions to plan or act. We lose the motivation to act.

Crossing the gap requires discipline, and discipline forms the bridge that takes us across the accomplishment gap. So how do we build discipline?

The Discipline “Habitude”

You build the foundation of discipline by delaying some form of gratification. It means investing the money instead of spending it, working on the project instead of watching YouTube videos, not checking your phone constantly, not eating that last donut, and so on. Discipline ultimately channels and manufactures motivation. It’s a process that creates habits, and more importantly, habits of attitude, which I call “habitudes.” Like any habit, it doesn’t happen overnight.

As a “habitude”—a regularly chosen and followed attitude—discipline takes us across the accomplishment gap.

No Easy Way

In the United States, we have an epidemic of stolen valor. The SEALs have an exclusive social media site that almost 2,000 of us use to share information and continue the brotherhood. One of the things we do on this site daily is to confront and expose people lying about being a Navy SEAL. Why is that? I’ve exposed people who were pillars of their communities, frequent guests on TV, prosperous businessmen, family friends, and even a deacon of a church. What would drive someone to do such a thing? People who steal valor want the trophy without the effort of the win. They want the valor of a Navy SEAL without the strain and pain of earning it.

This desire is not uncommon. Most of us have probably fantasized about instantly becoming a master guitarist or speaking a different language, wishing a genie would grant us the skills. But this approach to life fails to bring either success or happiness because much of the happiness, in my experience, is in the straining. I learned this when my first book, First, Fast, Fearless, came out. I asked myself, “Now what?” because it turned out that the journey—planning, organizing, and writing the book—was the reward.

Putting Wealth and Success into Perspective

Most people want to achieve their goals and attain success in life. What if you could get into a time machine and fast-forward 10 years into the future when all of your “hard work” has paid off and you’ve accomplished everything you set out to do? Maybe you had a very successful business or you were rich, famous, or whatever you think you want. If you could fast-forward, would you? Would you skip ahead in life, avoiding the pain and strain of success and go right for the trophy?

Why do many people who win the lottery become unhappy and often claim it ruined their lives? Maybe you’re thinking, I wouldn’t be miserable. It would make all of my dreams come true. Those people are idiots. Or, Money might not buy happiness, but it sure would make misery more tolerable.

What value is any trophy in life without the hard work? The greater the work, the more valuable the reward, no matter the trophy. When I see a fellow SEAL wearing his Navy SEAL Trident on his uniform, I know how valuable that is to him, and what it took to get it.

Business tycoon Warren Buffett is one of the richest people in the world, worth billions of dollars. Through his 2006 Buffett Giving Pledge, he has promised to give away 99 percent of his wealth to charity during his lifetime or after death. He has donated a large chunk to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among other nonprofits. When asked about his decision to give away such wealth instead of leaving it to his children, his response was: “I’ll give my children enough money to feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing.” Brilliant, no?

Some people believe Buffett did his children wrong, but he knows that if he gave his children too much wealth, it would have stolen their happiness and ultimately their fulfillment in life. The trophy is meaningless without the struggle and the effort to earn it. The struggle is what brings joy and fulfillment in life. Now intellectually, you’re probably nodding with agreement. But do you really believe it? Once you start to believe and feel it, you begin to build a different relationship with struggle and strain, and even fear.

The elevator to success is out of order, but the stairs are always open.


No, none of this happens overnight. I don’t have a magic pill, but I do have a proven process. Muscles don’t prepare for the last workout; they prepare for future workouts, and overcompensate. That’s why you get bigger and stronger when you strain to lift weights. When we strain mentally, emotionally, and physically, those muscles rebound bigger and stronger, preparing for the future. It’s a process that builds discipline, motivation, and willpower—first, to deal with fear and then to go beyond and conquer.

Suffering is the perception of discomfort.

No Pain, No Gain

In Coronado, California, the home of the SEAL Teams, is a large medical facility to treat SEALs and SEAL candidates. The doctors who work there created a cartoon-drawn poster for diagnosing “pain.” They found that SEALs reported pain very differently than the normal Navy sailors they were used to treating. While a regular sailor may say “seven” on the pain scale, a SEAL may only report “two.” At first, you may think SEALs are just being tough guys, but it’s more than that. SEAL training creates a different relationship with discomfort, and SEALs no longer seek to avoid it at all costs because, in our world, discomfort is tied directly to success. In just a few months of basic training, our pain and discomfort tolerances go through the roof. The doctors are the first to point this out. On their poster, they have pictures of various injuries relating to levels of pain, from 1 to 10. A 9 is equivalent to becoming a double amputee; one can only wonder what a 10 is!

GUTS uses all the principles, tools, and experiences of the SEAL world to help you deliberately transform yourselves and your environment to enable you to cross the accomplishment gap.

Image EXERCISE Image

Get a pen and paper and write down your “f***-it” list. (I don’t use harsh language to be crude; there is a purpose. I will explain this further in Chapter 2.) Most people talk about a bucket list, the things they want to do before they die, which I understand and definitely appreciate. But this list is different: it’s a list of what you would do if you weren’t consumed by fear. For me, it was public speaking, improv (comedy), dancing, telling my friends I love them, and writing this book. Many people fear public speaking more than death, which means they would rather be inside the box than giving the eulogy! Think about that.

Once you have your list, write down beside each item what scares you about it. For me, when it comes to writing a book, my fear is that people will think it’s stupid or that I’m dumb. They will see that I have emotional fears and that I’m not the “steely-eyed warrior” they think I am. They may see me as vulnerable.

As soon as you identify and put a name to your fears, they change because you can rationalize and see them for what they are. Next, write down the strain or hurdles that might keep you from getting started. For example, when I started writing GUTS I knew that in order to be authentic I had to be vulnerable and say things that I normally would hide. I knew I had to speak about my personal challenges, and I was scared of the ensuing shame or of being judged as not being the person others think I am. When you codify your ideas in a book, you commit, you put yourself out there, and it’s scary to know you will be judged publicly, perhaps even harshly. Beyond that, my mind jumped to the hurdles, the straining: I have to get up early, be on the computer for hours at a time to write a proposal, and engage in months of effort and dialogue with my editor to define and sequence the concepts for the chapters before I even start to write the book—all this before dealing with the overwhelming self-doubt that comes with the process of writing itself. The list can go on and on, can’t it?

Write your hurdles down and keep the list to yourself for now. We will come back to it later.


•   Fear is the main obstacle to accomplishing our goals in business and in life.

•   Fear is not all bad; it’s our survival instinct.

•   What we think we fear may not be what we really fear.

•   Eighty percent of our daily thoughts are negative and fear based.

•   The mind has a tendency to replace the unknown with fear, a process known as “awfulizing.”

•   The “reptile brain,” or amygdala, governs your first response to fear, which may be rational or irrational: freeze, fight, or flight.

•   Confidence is the first line of defense in dealing with fear.

•   Avoidance of strain or discomfort (“the path of least resistance”) works hand in hand with fear to create the “accomplishment gap,” the gap between where you are and where you want to be in business and in life.

•   A “habitude” is an attitude that becomes a habit (e.g., not checking your phone every minute so you can pay proper attention to the people around you). This reflects an attitude (prioritizing attention to others) and the discipline to make it a habit. A good set of habitudes will transform you.

•   As used by SEALs in combat, GUTS applies a systematic understanding and mitigation of fear, discipline, motivation, and willpower to get you across the gap—whether it be onto the dance floor in a dress, through an executive presentation at work, or past a difficult discussion at home—to the life you design for yourself.

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