When I speak to audiences composed mostly of men, I can be pretty confident that as soon as I start talking about firefights and surviving combat in Iraq, most everybody will be on the edge of his seat. Men love stories of combat and risk, but sometimes I think they love them for reasons that don’t do them any favors.
You see, as men we’re fond of talking about “overcoming fear” and “defeating fear,” and when you talk about combat against an enemy who’s trying to kill you and all your men by any means necessary, fear is definitely a factor. Fear is a constant presence in a combat situation; it’s a natural human response to mortal danger. But in the field, talk about overcoming or defeating fear is ridiculous. As for the guy who blusters, “I don’t feel fear,” he’s either a liar or a fool.
There are two tricks to dealing with fear, whether you’re in combat or getting ready to walk onstage to speak in front of 10,000 people (a situation some people probably find more terrifying than the prospect of IEDs and the bolt action rifles of the mujahideen). First, make it into a familiar friend so it doesn’t get in the way of you doing your job. Second, use it to your advantage.
The first you do with repetitive, grueling training. The idea is to suck all the novelty out of an experience so that instead of reacting to it with the shock and stress that can cause you to freeze up and maybe get shot, your brain says, “Oh, this again?” That’s why astronauts spend thousands of hours in simulators. The only way they can do their jobs while being hurled into space at Mach 30 while sitting on top of a 20-story bomb filled with millions of gallons of explosives is to make the experience so familiar, so routine, that they don’t panic. That’s why soldiers drill, speakers practice and actors rehearse.
The second—well, that’s an attitude. When I was in the field, in combat, my greatest fear wasn’t losing my life (though it was up there). It was letting my men down—losing their lives. The prospect of having to face some young soldier’s wife or parents who had died under my command was intolerable. I let myself feel that fear and capitalized on it to keep me sharp, to make me prepare even when I knew I was already prepared, and make prudent decisions that would keep the soldiers in my command as safe as they could be.
Fear can paralyze or it can motivate. Want it to motivate you? Make friends with fear. Acknowledge it and respect it, then come out swinging and make it serve you instead of the other way around.