Mastering Fear

A Navy SEAL's Guide


  • On Amazon
  • ISBN: 978-0525533566
  • My Rating: 5/10

In Mastering Fear the author presents his five-step guide for dealing with fears.

I expected a different book because of the subtitle: one that shows (psychological) techniques Navy SEALs might learn during their training for dealing with fear in war zones, based on research. However, the book is based on anecdotes. And it seems like the Navy SEALs angle from the subtitle is more about marketing, though there are some anecdotes from the author's time as a Navy SEAL. Somehow I found the author unsympathetic as his style felt like bragging.

My notes

Introduction: In the Pool

The brave man is not the one who has no fear, he is the one who triumphs over his fear.

Nelson Mandela

Roadmap: The Battle Is In Your Mind

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.

Everyone's afraid of something.

Fear is not something to fight. It's something to embrace.

Fear is a lot like fire. When it's out of control, fire is destructive. Learn how to use it, and you can do practically anything.

Fear is a signpost, pointing the way to the prize.

Often what we interpret as danger is really the spark of adventure, the electric buzz of sensing what's over the horizon. A signal saying This is where things get exciting.

There are five legs to the journey; I call them Decision, Rehearsal, Letting Go, Jumping Off, and Knowing What Matters. Call this your roadmap from fear to the prize. In my experience, the path to mastering fear starts with a moment of decision, a personal commitment to meet that fear and take action, large or small, in the face of that fear – even if you don't know what that action is or how you're possibly going to take it. The what and the how aren't important right now. You're in the realm of pure decision. I'm going to do this thing. (That's Decision) Once you've made the decision, it's a matter of doing whatever you have to in order to organize and prepare yourself. (Rehearsal) Once you've sufficiently prepared, there comes a point when you have to let go of whatever crutch, limitation, or safety blanket you've been holding on to that keeps you from diving in (Letting Go) – and then [...] to take action (Jumping Off), that first step off your former home base that launches the journey. Finally, there has to be something that makes going through that whole sequence worth it. Something important – that is, important to you. (Knowing What Matters)

Often you cannot go that last action step, make that jumping-off leap into the abyss of the unknown, without first having a moment of vivid clarity where you identify exactly what this most important thing is.

In most cases ["get out of your comfort zone"] is terrible advice. Most times, when people step out of their comfort zone, they just freak out. Why? Because they're not prepared. [...] You don't start with what you can't manage. You start with what you can manage and then build on that.

Focus on positive action steps you can take, not on the possible threats or risks involved; on what you aim to do, not on what you hope to avoid.


Mastering fear starts with a decision. You might think that big decisions, potentially life-altering decisions, arise out of courage. They don't. It's the other way around. The strength and the courage to keep going arise out of the decision. The decision comes first.

Decisions don't just happen. You have to make a conscious choice to be someone who makes decisions. You have to decide to decide.

[...] decisions aren't made in the head. They're made in the gut. Does that mean you'll always make the right decision? No. But I believe you'll get into far more trouble from not trusting your gut than you will from trusting it.

A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.

George Patton

If you want to become accomplished at making powerful, life-changing decisions, in addition to trusting your gut, you also need to stay suspicious of your ego. Because your ego is driven by feelings, and feelings are notoriously untrustworthy.

Rushing into a decision is not a sign of strength or confidence. Typically it's a sign of weakness. It takes strength of character to wait. Sometimes, a lot of strength of character.

If you want to make world-class decisions, you need to be fit, healthy, and rested. There's no way around it, no shortcut, no "hack".

Making bold decisions does not mean throwing caution to the winds. There is a razor-sharp line between bold and foolhardy. They may look similar. They are opposite. Being foolhardy is acting on all posture and bluff. That's not bold: that's just being stupid. The truly bold never throw caution to the winds; they steep themselves fully in the wisdom of caution, and then make the decision to move forward in the full awareness not only of all the dangers involved but also of their own capacities and limitations.

So how do you know when you're being bold and when you're just being stupid? The hard truth is, sometimes you don't. Which is why you need to surround yourself with people who know your business, or your project, or whatever it is you're planning to do, better than you do.

[...] if you want to feed your ego, you surround yourself with people who look up to you – but if you want to feed your growth, you surround yourself with people whom you look up to.

Mastering fear starts with a decision. Which means that, if you are going to master your fear and thus become master of your life, you need to become a master decision maker. The single greatest strategy I know of for doing that is to curate your environment. Make conscious choices in what you read and what media you absorb – and especially in the people you spend time with.


There is no training that can prepare you for the reality of war, no rehearsal that can fully prepare you for the reality of starting your own business, no practice that will ever take away the ice-cold bath of fear that pours over you when you walk out onstage, step up to the microphone, or face the camera. Whatever it is you fear, make no mistake: when it comes time to actually jump off the cliff, you are jumping off a cliff, with all the terror that comes with it. No training can change that.

Practice does not create perfection. What it creates is competence. And that can make the critical difference. Competence breeds confidence. Not the swagger of false confidence; the quiet inner confidence born of knowing in your bones, I got this.

Practice does not make you impervious to fear; it gives you the tools to fall back on in that moment of maximum stress. Adequate rehearsal builds in a functional alternative to panic.

Effective rehearsal [...] starts in your mind. This is one of the prime secrets to mastering the fear of public speaking: see yourself on the stage, vividly enough that you hear the rustling of people shifting in their seats and feel your palms going clammy – picture it vividly enough that you feel the fear – and then use that fear to deliver the most electrifying presentation (in your mind, that is) that those people have ever heard. Relish the sense of mastery and presence, the sense of fulfillment and satisfaction at seeing your thoughts land in their minds and enrich their lives. Most of all, walk yourself through the words, making every point you want to make with precision. That last is crucial: when you go through your mental rehearsal, focus on doing it right.

Doing it in your mind doesn't mean that how you do it doesn't matter. It matters even more. If you're going over something in your mind in a casual, imprecise way, then you're training yourself to do it wrong. Mental rehearsal takes just as much discipline as physical, tangible rehearsal.

Here are three key step you can use to master the practice of mental rehearsal, as applied to any and all areas of your life.

  1. Listen. Pay attention to your thoughts. Start consciously noticing your inner monologue and becoming aware of what the voice in your head is saying. [...] If you notice your thoughts getting into a negative spin cycle, going over and over that injustice, that person who said something bad about you, that unfair boss, that argument you had with your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend and what you should have said... catch yourself – and stop. Because here's what is happening: You're rehearsing the problem. Practicing how to make sure it goes wrong.
  2. Reframe. When you catch yourself in a negative spin, take the time to sort through and figure out what you would like to be thinking. [...] reframe your own thoughts to start mentally rehearsing what you want to have happen, not what you're afraid might happen or regret already happened.
  3. Focus. It isn't enough simply to reframe from a negative orientation to a positive one. Once you've got your positive frame, you also have to sharpen that picture, hone those thoughts like a razor, so that they send a clear and unambiguous message.

Whenever you take on anything new, especially anything scary or intimidating, it's essential to first get that big picture, so you can see clearly what's about to happen, and that it's probably quite different from – and not nearly as frightening as – whatever you're expecting.

The key to effective rehearsal is to identify the boundaries and definitions of your current zone of competence, then apply repetition and refinement to deepen, strengthen, and extend those boundaries and definitions.

[...] if you want to raise the level of your performance, in any area, then focus on raising the level of your rehearsal. Whether this is something you're already doing that you want to do better, or something that you've never done before and want to master, the strategic place to put your energy is in your own self-preparation. Which means: Challenge yourself. Don't content yourself with resting on your laurels.

Letting Go

[...] once you understand that complete safety will forever be out of your reach, it frees you to embrace those risks that are worth it, and to do so with passion and abandon.

So we do what we can to tilt the odds in favor of our safety, well-being, and continued longevity, yet ultimately we have no genuine control over the outcome. Does safety matter? Of course. As long as you understand that in the big picture, there is no such thing.

Much of what gives our fears their power over us, [...] is our impulse to hang on to where we are, to what we know, to "what has always worked before" and "the way things have always been". But it's no safer over here than it is over there.

There will always be critics, always people who want to rain on your parade, bring you down, steal your dreams, or stop you from leaping forward. You can listen and believe it if you want. Or you can let go of it all and tune in to what's important.

Don't miss out on what could be the greatest experiences and opportunities of your life because you feel you're "not ready". I think this tragic mistake stems from a misunderstanding of the word "ready". Ready does not mean you've removed all uncertainty. It doesn't mean you've practiced to the point where what comes next will be easy. It won't be easy. No leap worth taking is easy. All ready means is you've suited up and mounted your horse. Now it's time to ride.

Sometimes the fear that holds us back has nothing directly to do with present circumstances. Sometimes what's happening right now resonates so strongly with past events that it evokes deep layers of response and reaction. The great majority of the fears most of us experience day to day are nothing but shadowboxing: not a response to a genuine danger but a reaction to the reverberations of events long behind us.

There's nothing wrong with cherishing fond memories, just as there can be a lot to gain from sorting through past hardships and pain for perspectives that may serve us in the present day. The problem comes when you get trapped in that place. [...] When you find that happening to you, there's only one thing to do. Flip the switch. Change the conversation in your head. Let the past be in the past. And while we're at it, let the future be in the future. Engage in the present.

Imagine that in this instant your life is suddenly over. Your consciousness is hovering over your dead body, looking down, reviewing the situation. How do you feel about it? Are you basically okay with the life you lived? Or do you feel strong regrets, and if so, what are they? Returning to your real life in the present moment, what steps can you take to engage and eliminate those regrets?

Jumping Off

Over time, how you operate starts to become who you are. A habit of action or of nonaction, and before you know it, it adds up to a lifetime of exhilaration or disappointment, excellence or mediocrity, achievement or mere existence.

You want anything done, go to the person who can make that decision – and ask.

Sometimes you need to take the risk and ask for what you want. Does that mean you're always going to get what you ask for? No. But if you don't ask, the odds of your getting it drop to roughly zero.

If you want it, you have to ask for it. Nobody else is going to do it for you.

You can't jump unless you have faith. In what? In your training, for one thing. In the integrity and efficacy of your preparation. In your teachers, who helped you prepare. In yourself.

It's important to do your homework, to listen to the voice of experience, to get advice and guidance and wisdom from those who have gone before – but when the moment arrives, you can't look to the evidence to tell you if you should jump or not. You have to trust yourself.

Every time you face a jump-or-stay choice, observe what happens, and evaluate carefully after the fact. Learn from your own experience, so that you come to rely more on your own gut than on the actions and opinions of those around you.

Knowing What Matters

We all experience fear – but for every single one of us there is also something in our lives that is stronger, that matters more, that will always win out and carry the day. We just have to know what it is.

Money can't buy happiness? Bullshit! Money can buy a ton of happiness. But only if you already know what's important. What money can't do is figure that out for you.

[...] we've all had the experience of reaping different kinds of rewards for our efforts, whether large or small. Praise from others. A financial windfall. A rush of pride, thrill of accomplishment. A title, a promotion. The look on other people's faces when they are impressed with what you've done. None of that is bad. But it's all glitter. It's all wrapping paper and ribbons, not what's inside the box. What's inside the box is who you are becoming in the process.

[...] everything you really want is on the other side of fear. I can't tell you what it is, or what it looks like, or where to find it. But I can offer this clue: start with what you fear. And don't suppress it, or fight it, or try to put it behind you – embrace it. Make it your ally. Trust it. Master it. It will point you in the direction of what matters most.

Conclusion: Solo Flight

I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.

Theodore Roosevelt

Once you know what it's like to be the captain of your own destiny, you never want to go back.

The reality is, your life is up to you. No one else. Every one of us comes into this life alone, and alone we go out again. Your life is defined by a series of choices, and the one who makes every one of those decisions is purely and solely you.

Life is a solo flight. You are the captain. And it's not a 747, with all the hydraulics and fancy equipment and massive automation.