in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: April 4, 2022

Podcast #651: How to Turn Fear Into Fuel

We typically think of fear as a negative emotion. Something that feels terrible, and not only keeps us away from true danger, but also inhibits us from going after our life’s goals and passions. 

Fear can indeed be an unwelcome hindrance, but, my guest today argues, it can also be a powerful propellant and a signpost towards success. His name is Patrick Sweeney, he’s a tech entrepreneur, a university lecturer, a coach and consultant to CEOs, professional athletes, and Navy SEALs, and the author of Fear Is Fuel: The Surprising Power to Help You Find Purpose, Passion, and Performance. We begin our conversation with how a diagnosis of leukemia forced Patrick to confront the fact that he had led a life dominated and shrunken by fear, and inspired him to face those fears and to spend six years talking to leading neuroscientists about how to live more courageously. He explains how fear should be thought of not only as an early warning system for danger, but as an early warning system for opportunity. We then unpack the three kinds of fears which exist, and how you can be fearful in one area but courageous in another. Patrick then explains how it’s possible to train the brain’s courage center to control and reprogram its fear center, so you can get the best from fear, rather than letting it get the best of you. We discuss how uncertainty creates something called “free energy,” how free energy creates fear, and how to reduce both forces by exposing yourself to a wide range of experiences. We end our conversation with how to find the motivation to take the first step into a fear, and three things you can do to gain the confidence to take action in the face of uncertainty.

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Show Highlights

  • What catalyzed Patrick’s thinking about fear 
  • Why didn’t Samuel Langley win the race to the first manned flight?
  • How can we re-program our fear center to find more opportunities?
  • The 3 types of fears 
  • What are the signs that you’re feeling fear? 
  • Why should you do something that scares you every day?
  • What is free energy? 
  • Fixing our erroneous, fearful thinking 
  • What role does self-talk play in turning fear into fuel?
  • How do you will yourself to exposure of your fears?

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

fear is fuel book cover patrick sweeney.

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Read the Transcript

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. We typically think of fear as a negative emotion, something that feels terrible and not only keeps us away from true danger, but also inhibits us from going after our life’s goals and passions. Fear can indeed be an unwelcome hindrance, but my guest today argues it can also be a powerful propellant and signpost towards success. His name is Patrick Sweeney, he’s a tech entrepreneur, a university lecturer, a coach and consultant to CEOs, professional athletes and Navy SEALs, and the author of Fear is Fuel: The Surprising Power to Help You Find Purpose, Passion and Performance.

We begin a conversation with how a diagnosis of leukemia forced Patrick to confront the fact that he had led a life dominated and shrunken by fear, and inspired him to face those fears and spend six years talking to leading neuroscientists about how to live more courageously. He explains how fear should be thought of not only as an early warning system for danger, but as an early warning system for opportunity. We then unpack the three kinds of fears which exist, and how you can be fearful in one area but courageous in another. Patrick then explains how it’s possible to train the brain’s courage center to control and reprogram its fear center so you can get the best from fear rather than letting it get the best of you. We discuss how uncertainty creates something called free energy and how free energy creates fear, and how to reduce both forces by exposing yourself to a wide range of experiences. And we end our conversation with how to find the motivation to take the first step into fear, three things you can do to gain the confidence to take action in the face of uncertainty. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at Alright, Patrick Sweeney, welcome to the show.

Patrick Sweeney: Brett, it is such an honor to be here. I’ve been a big fan of you guys and AOM for years, and I am just delighted to be on the show. Super, super stoked.

Brett McKay: Well, thank you so much. So you got a book, Fear is Fuel: The Surprising Power to Help You Find Purpose, Passion and Performance. Before we get to the book, let’s talk a bit about your background, ’cause I think your background led to the book. Did you have an experience in your life that kick-started you exploring this intersection between fear and how it can be used to, I don’t know, used to motivate you and do better things?

Patrick Sweeney: Brett, it was funny, it was like this snowball experience that I didn’t really see coming. My whole existence leading up to an incredibly, what sounded on the surface as a tragic event, but it became an absolutely transformative event. And so my entire life, I was trying to figure out how to be a man. I was searching for manliness and really searching for self-esteem and self-respect, and did everything I could to try and find it without finding my authentic self. And when I was 35 years old, I had been running my second startup, I had raised about $30 million by that point, should have been as happy as anyone in the world with one of the hottest high tech companies in the US in a great space and incredible employees, wonderful clients. And instead, I was terrified of everything. I was afraid of board meetings that I wasn’t gonna look good as the CEO, and I wasn’t gonna be presenting myself as the perfect CEO. I was afraid of employees leaving, of my clients jumping ship.

So I was constantly living in the state of fear, and the way that I dealt with it… Because when you’re in this fear state, your body releases all these enzymes and hormones, and I had cortisol, the stress hormone, just constantly flooding my body. So the only way I knew how to deal with it then is drinking, and I was having seven or eight beers every day and probably twice that on weekends, and getting about four hours of teeth-grinding sleep and waking up feeling guilty, the whole Irish Catholic guilt thing, so I had to go to the gym to sweat it out. And not surprisingly, that led to a lifestyle that almost ended in disaster. I woke up one morning and I couldn’t move my arm and I was too afraid to go to the doctor, so it took two or three days before I finally got to the doctor and he told me I had no immune system. And it was at that point when that sort of single phone call was what changed my entire life.

Brett McKay: And what did you do in response to that? What was your… ‘Cause that’s like… You were living your life in fear because of all these things that your business could fall apart, whatever, but this, yeah, this is real. This is life or death here.

Patrick Sweeney: Well, and I had no idea what it meant, and I was afraid. I was terrified to find out what it meant and to face the fear, but in this instance, I had no choice. So I was living in Northern Virginia, and the doctors there said, “We have no idea why, but your white blood cells are cannibalizing themselves and you have no white blood cells left, and we’re gonna send you to Johns Hopkins.” And I went up to Hopkins, my daughter was one year old and she went to her grandparents’, and my wife and I went up to Hopkins and we went through this battery of tests and evaluations. And the whole thing culminated in this nightmare scenario of Dr. McDavid coming in and saying, “We don’t know what it is, but it’s a very rare form of leukemia, and it’s progressed quite a ways already, so we suggest you get your affairs in order and say your goodbyes.” And I was… My wife was six months pregnant as well. So we had a one-year-old, my wife was six months pregnant, she went into shock. And it was at that point when I just…

I was just so overwhelmed with this sense of regret and failure that I had missed out on my entire life because I was afraid to do things, afraid to be the authentic self, and I was most of all terrified of flying, so I always made excuses not to do things. And I’m lying there in a bed in Hopkins and I realized, “This is gonna happen. It’s gonna happen now, or maybe it’ll happen six months from now, or maybe it’ll happen six years for now, but I’m gonna die at some point.” And that realization dramatically changed the way that I looked at the world.

Brett McKay: And when you said you were terrified of flying, you mean literally flying. Not like flying in life, but like flying on an airplane.

Patrick Sweeney: Yeah, flying on an airplane. I saw a plane crash on TV when I was seven years old, and that planted this seed of fear that grew into an entire tree in my body, and the main trunk of that tree was getting on an airplane and flying. So I made up every excuse I possibly could to avoid exchange programs, avoid Spring Break, avoid family reunions. I missed out on a huge part of what could have been a very rich life because I was afraid to get on an airplane.

Brett McKay: How long ago was this?

Patrick Sweeney: So this is 15 years ago. So I was 35 and I had been… I had an amazing life up until then that I never really appreciated or had gratitude for or even took advantage of. I was second in the Olympic trials in rowing, and I’ll never forget the day my coach called me and told me that I could race in the World Cup, and very few Americans had ever gotten to race the single scull, the one man boat, in the World Cup. And it should have been one of the happiest days of my life, Brett, but instead, I had a panic attack ’cause it meant I had to get on a plane and go to Europe. And I was just petrified to actually go and do the World Cup, even though it’s what I had been working five years of full-time training to get the opportunity to do that. And so fear just locked me in this prison, or probably more appropriately because of our caveman brain, it locked me away in a cave.

Brett McKay: So your whole life you’ve grappled with fear. You had this, basically, a moment where you thought you were gonna die. You faced the ultimate fear. Obviously you’re still here, so there was a happy ending to that story.

Patrick Sweeney: Don’t do that, that’s a spoiler alert.

Brett McKay: Right, that’s a spoiler alert.

Patrick Sweeney: One that, you’ve given it away. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: So what changed? Kind of big idea of your picture… Let’s do this, I think you start off your book, Fear is Fuel, talking about the story of the race for man flight, and you use it as a metaphor to explain your ideas of fear and courage. Now, we all know the Wright brothers, they’re the winners of that race, Kitty Hawk, and have gone down in history. The other guy who was really close, it was this guy named Samuel Langley. What happened to Samuel Langley? Why wasn’t he the guy that won the race to man flight?

Patrick Sweeney: So the big thing, and the point that I was hinting at as that as an introduction, Brett, is there’s two ways we can make decisions in life. We either make decisions out of fear or we make decisions out of opportunity, and at the end of the day, you can distill every decision you’ve made down to that. And Langley was making these decisions out of fear. He was getting funding from the government, he had funding from Thomas Edison, he had the great marquee names, he was getting all the publicity, and so he started… He originally got into this 15 years before the Wright brothers, and he was doing these amazing experiments. He was getting condors, having a taxidermist stuff them, and he put them on basically what came up to a giant record player that he spun around at 60 to 70 revolutions a minute so he could watch what happened to their wings as they flew, and he used that to design his own wings.

So yeah, the guy was brilliant, and he should have been the first one to man flight, but he got so overcome by fear-based decisions, one, because the funding, two, because of publicity, three, because he was afraid to change. He had an unmanned aircraft that did incredibly well. It was the longest flying, it flew for about a mile without a person on it. He didn’t wanna change the design to put in to make up for the weight and balance of adding a man to the aircraft, so he ended up sticking with it and nearly killed the pilot two or three times who tried it. So it boils down to the fact that we need to be able to recognize when our fear center is activated and trying to influence our thinking, and that’s obviously the definition of courage. And you’ve had a bunch of podcasts that have talked about this that I’ve heard over the years. When you can act rationally and thoughtfully in the face of fear, that means you’ve got control over your fear center, that area called the amygdala, which is running a piece of two million-year-old software that we have to re-program. Because if we don’t re-program it, then what happened to me for the first 35 years of my life will happen to everyone else, all your decisions will be based on fear instead of based on opportunity.

Brett McKay: So when you say… The title of the book is Fear is Fuel. We don’t wanna make decisions based in fear, but you make this case that your fears can actually tell you something and actually be used to propel you in your goals. What does that look like? Big picture. We might get into some specifics here later on in the show.

Patrick Sweeney: Sure, two big pictures with that, Brett. Number one, that amygdala, that center of our brain, the lizard brain it’s often called, that’s running that two million-year-old piece of software used to be an early warning system for danger. And we don’t have the danger anymore of something rustling in the leaves or moving in the grass, so we can reprogram that, number one, to be an early warning system for opportunity. So when we know that amygdala is activating, we can say, “Hey, there’s a chance to get out of our comfort zone. There’s a chance to do something and grow.” So number one, we can reprogram the fear center to be an opportunity center.

And then number two, when the fear center activates, when the amygdala activates, we produce these physiological changes, that we basically produce a fear cocktail. It’s DHEA, it’s cortisol, it’s adrenaline, all these things that make us, literally make us stronger and make us smarter. We get more oxygen to the brain, anything unnecessary like digestion stops, and so when we’re stronger and when we’re smarter and we’re thinking better, we can use that opportunity to make better decisions. And so that’s how you can use fear as fuel.

Brett McKay: Alright, so I understand how we can use fear and turn it to fuel, you have to become fluent in fear. And you’ve talked a little bit about what goes on whenever we feel fearful, but you also in the book, you argue that all fears can be categorized basically into three groups. What are those three groups?

Patrick Sweeney: Yeah, you can distill everything down to what I basically call the Terror Triangle. And if you imagine a triangle with three sides, on one side is gonna be physical fears, on the other side is gonna be emotional fears, and then at the bottom is instinctual fears. And if you really wanna be a well-balanced, complete, courageous person, then you’ve gotta do the deep work on all three fronts. And a lot of times… I’ve worked with a lot of Navy SEALs and special operations forces, and one thing you found is these guys are the absolute pinnacle of physical courage. So they can… A HALO, a high altitude low opening jump 30,000 feet in the air over a raging sea in the dead of the night, their heartbeat isn’t even up over 100 beats per minute, and they’re jumping out of the plane. That’s a physical courage that’s unparalleled in the world.

But so many of those guys have been married two or three times. They come home from deployment, and they can’t face the identity crisis of not being in the teams, or not being a commander anymore, or not having guys under them. Or they don’t know how to tell their wife issues about parenting or about wanting to have kids, and so they have emotional fears because they haven’t worked on that component. And it’s exactly the same as the physical stuff. They train for years on end, and the government puts millions of dollars into them to make them amazing at the physical courage. You have to do the same thing with the emotional and instinctual courage as well. You’ve gotta do the work on all three, because every fear we’ve got from fear of flying to fear of speaking to fear of being judged comes down to some combination of those three components.

Brett McKay: I think this is a good point because people often think if you’re fearful in one area, it means you’re sort of a frightful, anxious person. And there are people who have a general anxiety about everything. But for the most part, we have fears in certain parts of our life, but then in other parts of our life, we’re just fine.

Patrick Sweeney: Fear is a very individualized thing, but what’s not individualized is the physiological reactions that we have to them. And the fact that if we let that two million-year-old software run our life… You gotta understand that, Brett, our fear center, the amygdala, that little almond-shaped gland at the base of our brain, that was designed so we could survive and procreate. That’s all it cared about, was passing our genes on to the next generation. It doesn’t care about our happiness, it doesn’t care about success, it doesn’t care about fulfillment, it doesn’t care about going on vacation in Fiji. So it is an archaic element to run your life by this two million-year-old programming in our brain, so everybody should be doing the work to re-program it and to find courage. And that’s why I love The Art of Manliness, that’s exactly for men, that’s exactly what you’re promoting, what we used to do in terms of coming-of-age rites, in terms of testing ourselves, in terms of learning courage while we still can. Because the courage center is much newer and much more difficult to program than our fear center, and I’m happy to talk about that as well.

Brett McKay: Yeah, let’s talk about that. Walk us through that idea.

Patrick Sweeney: So the interesting thing, and for most people, this is really what fucks up your whole life, is we have a subconscious database that is about the equivalent of 500 MacBook Pros, so it’s a tremendous amount of information. We make at least 80% of our decisions every single day subconsciously, without any conscious thought. And the way we do that is based on something neuroscientists call prior beliefs or priors. So all the experiences we have are put into the subconscious database so we can make these very rapid snap decisions. And the reason that we’re designed that way was for survival. We might have to decide very quickly between a friend or a foe. But the part that’s messed up, Brett, is all of this population is happening in the database for the most part before we hit puberty. And in that instance, we have no control over it. We don’t choose where we’re born, we don’t choose the color of our skin, we don’t choose the language we speak, we don’t choose the size of the house we grow up in, yet all of those things go into making up what we identify subconsciously as our tribe, as something safe or something that we wanna mate with. So we’re populating this. Now, when we come out of our mother, at birth we have a nearly fully developed fear center, the amygdala. We come out mean, angry and ready to do anything to survive.

In fact, we’re most aggressive as human beings between the ages of four and six years old. So this notion of you see in paintings and books and everything else these beautiful, angelic children is way off. So the truth of the matter is we come out ready to survive. And because of that, for the first 20 years of our life, our default is to that fear center. So we have three choices basically in the first 15 to 20 years of our life: Fight, flight or freeze. And that’s because the amygdala responds to everything, and that’s all we’ve got. So we default to a defense. And all of that information, that defaulting to the defense, is all going into our subconscious database that we’re gonna rely on for the rest of our life. The prefrontal cortex is the newest part of the brain, and it’s basically the adult supervision. It’s called the executive function. It’s where we do rational thought, it’s where we do strategic planning, it’s where we do relationship and those types of high-end intellectual processing. That doesn’t fully develop until we’re in our early 20s, and that’s where the courage center lies. So the courage center is this thing called the SGACC, the Subgenual Anterior Cingulate Cortex.

And that is a newer part of our brain and it’s much weaker. But the key thing is, we can reprogram that. So we can re-program that part of our brain to access at the time when our fear center starts to activate, and we have what’s called an amygdala hijacking, and that’s the whole point of the fear is fuel process and learning how to be able to recognize when the fear center’s activated and then consciously activate the courage center because you can activate that courage center by choice, it just takes a lot of work initially, until you get those neurons firing together, and once those neurons start to fire together repeatedly, they’ll wire together, and it gets easier and easier to be courageous.

Brett McKay: So fear can give you a performance-boosting energy. It can be an early warning system that points you to opportunities, but it sounds like in order to harness it for good, the first step in turning fear into fuel is to recognize the signs that you’re feeling fear so you can use your courage center to control it, and I guess, direct it.

Patrick Sweeney: So in the book, I refer to these things as our fear tales, and one of the reasons that the key ask in the book or action item is to scare yourself every day, and the reason you wanna scare yourself and do something that you know is gonna get you out of your comfort zone is so you start to recognize what that feels like in your body. When you recognize what fear feels like in your body with an amygdala activation, it’s unique to each one of us, but it’s always the same. You might have a tight jaw, you might get butterflies in your stomach, some people feel a lead balloon in their stomach, people will get a shaking leg, whatever it is, if you start to become aware of that and those feelings… This is why with the group Young President’s Organization, YPO, I’ve done about 25 chapters around the world. So this is the world’s top CEOs are in this organization. And oftentimes, I just did one out in Los Angeles and we rappelled off the top of the Marriott, and what I do is I get them out over the edge of the building at the point when it’s most scary and I make them stop and inventory what’s going on in their body.

And then their assignment is the next week at work or with their partner to try and feel those same feelings again and recognize it, because then they know that they’re about to make a decision based on fear. So the first thing is figuring out when the amygdala’s hijacking you because it takes over our brain, it takes over a part of our brain called the working memory, and it says, you either fight, you flee or just freeze. And that’s the response that it puts in there, and that’s all we can do and all we can think about, we can’t think rationally. Unless we know we’re having an amygdala hijacking then we can stop and we can get control of ourselves. The easiest way to do that is breathing, I teach something called a 4 x 4.

Brett McKay: So the 4 x 4, that’s breathing in for four seconds, holding your breath for four seconds, and then breathing out for four seconds, and that’s a technique you can use to control of that visceral fear response. And then to understand the next step in the fear is fuel process, you have to understand something called free energy, which is something really interesting you talked about in the book, I never heard of this concept before. What is free energy and where are you borrowing this idea from?

Patrick Sweeney: First of all, it comes from literally one of the smartest men in the world, and this guy is most likely gonna be one of the next people we hear who wins a Nobel Prize. His name’s Karl Friston, and he’s at University College London. He does these Monday lunches with Karl and he said literally, everyone from the top executives at Google and Apple come over to people who run Airbus and Boeing because he’s got a model that explains how the human brain works from a perspective. A lot of people love him because they’re basing new artificial intelligence system, so everything from Siri to Alexa is based on his notion of the brain, and basically what it boils down to, it’s super complex. So free energy, I try to explain it as best I can in the book is basically the measurement of what happens when your prior beliefs… So your prior beliefs are all of that information, all your past experiences stored in a database, and basically what he’s saying is your brain’s a prediction engine. So, we’re trying to predict the outcome of every single moment.

So if we walk into a room and it’s dark and we flip the light switch, our brain is gonna predict that there’s a 95% chance the light will come on and a 5% chance the light won’t come on. If it doesn’t come on, then our brain further predicts there’s a 88% chance the bulb’s burnt out and there’s a 12% chance that the circuit breaker’s bummed. And so we’re doing all of these prediction based on our past experience. Now, if all of a sudden we go to unscrew the light bulb and all these baby snakes come slithering out and landing up on top of us, we would freak out because that’s not in one of our prior beliefs, and if something, if there’s a level of uncertainty or surprise in your prediction, that produces free energy and free energy, basically you can think of as the catalyst for fear, so the more free energy, the more fear you’re gonna feel.

And so he’s got this very extensive equation to measure uncertainty and measure the free energy. One of the reasons I think it’s so important to understand that your prior beliefs and your expected outcomes, so the priors we talked about, all your past experiences, the expected outcomes, what your diversity in thinking, what your past history has helped you gain can allow you a range of outcomes, and the more prior beliefs you have, the more diverse your expected outcomes, the greater your range of predictions and the less likely you are to have prior belief.

So what that means, particularly for parents, is raising kids. If you wanna raise courageous kids who are independent and who are confident, then you’ve gotta give them a broad array of experiences and get them to be questioning and curious and experiencing everything, because that’s gonna increase their priors, and that’s gonna increase their choice of expected outcomes. And so, just knowing those levers to pull helps you not only be more courageous yourself, but raise courageous kids as well.

Brett McKay: Alright, so free energy, basically unexpected things happening causes free energy, which causes fear, but also it sounds like too that you can have something wrong with your calculations in your database. For you like a kid you saw the plane crash, you see a plane crash and you think, “Well, I’m never getting on a plane ’cause all planes will crash.” Well, that’s erroneous thinking. You have to fix that thinking.

Patrick Sweeney: Yeah, that’s exactly right. And so when we form a memory, Brett, two things happen: First, we form an episodic memory, and for me, that was 19… Whatever it was, 1977, 1978, a Delta DC-9 flew into the sea wall at Logan Airport, 100 people on board died, it was a foggy day, it was a Wednesday. So that episodic memory is just the facts, and that’s stored in one part of our brain. At the same time, we create an emotional memory, and that emotional memory is actually stored in the amygdala, and that for me was anything that had to do with an airplane was terror, was death, was dismemberment, a horrible outcome, no matter what. So we can never change the episodic memory or the semantic memory, the facts. We can change the emotional memory, and this is what everybody needs to know because at any point in your life, we’ve got something called neuroplasticity, we have the ability to change our brain at any age. If you wanna get more creative, you can. If you wanna get more courageous, you can. If you wanna get more empathetic, you can. Because our brain structure can change at any age because of neuroplasticity.

So what’s really key and what a big part of my mission is, is helping people realize that if they wanna change their brain at any age they can, and it’s all about changing the emotions associated with different events. And that does exactly what you’re talking about. So if I had one expected outcome of airplanes, that was death and that was dying. Now, if I got on an airplane or if I sat and watched videos of an airplane after that crash, that would very quickly change my expected outcomes, so that would change what I’d predict outcome of a lot of things. And that’s pretty much what happened. So after I got out of Johns Hopkins, I made a commitment, and it was more to my daughter, who was a year old at the time, I said, “You know, the last thing I wanna be as a father is have the memory my daughter has if I die in a year or a couple of years, I don’t want her memory being a guy who is too much of a coward to get on a plane and go to Disney.” And so, when I got out of Hopkins I made a commitment, I was gonna learn how to fly, and so I went to Leesburg Airport and I started taking flying lessons. And that in itself could have been an entire book, but I was doing exactly what you’re talking about, I had a fear and I was trying to change my catalog of expected outcomes of experiencing that situation.

Brett McKay: Well, that seems like that’s the idea behind a lot of therapists use this with patients who have phobias or anxiety, like exposure therapy. You just expose yourself to the fear over and over and over again so that you change that emotional memory and that’s one of the things you encourage people to do if they have a fear based on some sort of emotional memory, just start doing things, doing that thing that makes you afraid in a safe way so you can change that.

Patrick Sweeney: That’s exactly right. It’s populating the database. So what we do, Brett, if we wanna consciously change our life, if we wanna break these barriers… So if you have a roadblock with the amount of wealth you’re making, if you have a roadblock with the quality of your relationship, if you have a roadblock with your parenting journey for your kids, it’s all because of what was put into your database, into your subconscious mind when you were a kid. So, everything you’re doing falls back to that because we weren’t responsible for populating our subconscious. So if we wanna change things, we have to change our future past. So I know that sounds a little bit like an acid trip, but if you think about it, if we’re making 80% of our decisions subconsciously, we’re making them based on what happened in the past, so if we wanna change our life, then we have to start experiencing things now in the way that we want to experience it very consciously and with a lot of effort, so that in the future, all of our past experiences are gonna include these things that we want, to the whole structure of changing your life, of making more wealth, of having better relationships, of being happier, of living wherever you wanna live, all has to do with how you populate your past experiences, your prior beliefs, before you get to the point where you’re making these key decisions.

And that’s the thing that people have to understand is we have to start experiencing the world the way we want to, even if it’s manufactured, even if it’s visualization, because your brain can’t tell the difference between lived memory emotionally and visualized memory emotionally. You’re still firing the same parts of the brain, you’re still using the same neurons and synapses, but there’s less sensory feedback so the memory doesn’t tend to be quite as strong as it happens in reality, unless you’re really good at visualization. But that’s a key component. You have to imagine your future, so you put it in your past memory.

Brett McKay: So to turn fear into fuel, you’re gonna take control of that mental database instead of letting it be filled with defaults. So you’re gonna intentionally populate it with new contacts, you’re going to intentionally expose yourself to a fear so you have experiences and memories where you did something that scared you, but nothing bad happens, and you’re also gonna visualize doing things that scare you, but visualize good outcomes. And so from there, you’re gonna start seeing more options, you’re gonna start seeing that there are opportunities in your fears.

Patrick Sweeney: And when you do, Brett, when you start living a life of courage, my first act of courage when I got out of Hopkins was to go and get my private pilot’s license and the amazing… This is why I wrote the book. To the first lesson, I peed probably four times before we even got out of the plane, and I was terrified. Everything was in super technical or things were moving in slow motion ’cause I was taking in so much more information in fear like, if you’ve ever been in a car accident where things seemed to move in slow motion, same thing. The second one was even worse ’cause we went out over the mountains and hit some turbulence, and I actually pooped myself just a little bit. And then the third or fourth lesson, something incredible happened.

I absolutely fell in love with flying, and it became… I got my private license, my instrument rating, my commercial rating, I got a seaplane license, and now I compete in competitive aerobatics, something that just the thought and talking about would have absolutely scared the hell out of me just 15 years ago now is one of my life’s, my source of greatest passion and fulfillment and happiness. And it was hidden away from me for 35 years because of fear. And so, that finding out that my dreams were on the other side of fear made me think I’ve gotta let other people know that just because they’re afraid to do something doesn’t mean it’s not gonna end up being their passion, it doesn’t mean it’s not gonna end up making them super successful.

Brett McKay: So we’re trying to turn fear into fuel, and one thing that… So you do the breathing, assessing, start re-interpreting things instead of saying like, “I gotta be afraid of this,” now you’re thinking this can be an opportunity. Another sort of tactic you can use to help with that is self-talk. What role does self-talk play in this turning fear into fuel?

Patrick Sweeney: Self-talk, I first really became aware of it as a phenomenon when I was at the Olympic Training Center, and we were doing a lot of visualization, and they were walking me through it, it is the secret, every elite athlete in the world knows, and what you’re doing basically is, you’re framing… And some people call it priming, if you’re talking to yourself beforehand, you’re either priming the outcome you want or you’re framing a situation to be optimal for what you’re trying to accomplish. And the easy way to do it is just be the narrator of your own movie, and one of the things that’s so easy to do is… My kids have this Formula One game on the Xbox, and you have two positions, you can either be sitting behind the steering wheel and just see what’s in front of you and maybe the car on the side, or you can take the view from the helicopter and see the entire track and all the cars and where the accidents are, and then if you can take that mindset and remove yourself and become a commentator for what you’re doing and congratulate yourself, then that’s exactly what your brain needs for its reward center to activate.

So you’ve gotta get cues for the brain’s reward center, which produces this stuff called dopamine. You’ve gotta get cues for that, so as you sit there and talk to yourself, when you do something really good, you’re saying, “Hey, Brett, good job, man. I’m really proud of you. You nailed that one.” Or when I’m on a rock climb and I make a great move, I’m like, “Oh, man, I was awesome, I can’t believe I just pulled that off.” And the idea of self-talk is you’ve gotta be your own coach, you’ve gotta be the person who’s looking at the whole scene, narrating it in the outcome that you want, because then your brain and your neurons start to shift to find the outcome that you want. So it’s almost like a neurological connecting the dots. When you do self-talk, you start to create these dots to form this picture you want, and then your subconscious brain, which again, remember is making 80% of our decisions and taking in 99% of the information we take in from a sensory perspective, it’s gonna start looking for those dots to connect. So you can literally by self-talk, you can start to lay the ground work and put together the pieces of the puzzle, and then let your subconscious fill in the rest, and that’s incredibly powerful.

Brett McKay: So we’ve been talking about the idea of exposing ourselves to the things we fear in order to become more courageous, but there’s almost like a catch-22 here because to overcome a fear, you have to be able to do the thing you’re scared of, but if you’re scared to do it, how do you will yourself to take that first step?

Patrick Sweeney: So the easiest way that I found from, at least in the neuroscience research, and again, I took six years to interview three dozen of the world’s top neuroscientists, so all of this information is from them, I’m just the guy who put it together and translated it to plain English. The research is fascinating, it’s some of the most dry, boring, incomprehensible stuff, but it has these nuggets of incredible information, obviously. One of the ones is, your motivation. There’s a neuroscientist from Georgetown University named Abigail Marsh, and Abby did this incredible work on the motivation of mice, and it turns out that the altruistic motivation, so doing something for someone you love, and this holds perfectly true for me taking flying lessons because of my daughter Shannon, the only thing that got me to the airport was the thought of her, and if you talk to athletes or firemen or first responders, you hear this time and time again that they’re not motivated for personal glory, they’re not motivated for money, they’re motivated for the love of somebody else.

So the key thing, if you really wanna change your life and you wanna have lasting change, all of these steps you can take in the book, all the neuroscience will help you get the change, but just like you said, taking that first step, Brett, is the toughest thing to do. So if you wanna be a great dad, if you wanna be a great partner, if you wanna be a great son, then what you’ve gotta do is use that as your motivation for change, and I’ve seen this with everything from alcoholics to Special Forces warriors, people who wanted to be a great dad, and they knew they had to become a man to do it, and they used the idea that their girlfriend was pregnant, and now it was time for them to step up and do some difficult things. And so when you have an altruistic motivation, you actually get these squirts of almost enzymatic ecstasy, like your body produces a substance very much like cocaine, that when you do something altruistically, you get more of that. So, it may seem like you’re doing good, but it’s actually good for you as well, and it encourages you to do more of that.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s apply this stuff we’ve been talking about to a scenario, and the one that came up to mind, let’s say someone is thinking about quitting their job because they’ve been moonlighting with something and it’s big enough where they can make a living on it, but they haven’t been able to pull the trigger on quitting ’cause it just freaks them out, they’re just too scared. How can we apply these things we’ve been talking about to help them turn that fear into fuel?

Patrick Sweeney: So that’s a great question, Brett, because particularly in this time of COVID, what they’re dealing with is uncertainty, and when we’re faced with uncertainty, we’re gonna produce that free energy ’cause we don’t know the outcome, and more importantly, what happens with that free energy is, we start to feel disempowered. And when we’re disempowered, we become paralyzed by analysis, so we fall into this analysis paralysis trap. And when you’re looking at starting something new, you can’t possibly know the outcome, so the best thing you can do then is really three things. So if we’re looking at doing this, number one, What’s your motivation? So if your motivation is, it’s for your family, is to take care of your mom and dad, is to be able to pay cash for your kids’ schools, whatever your motivation is, you gotta write down your motivation, you gotta understand it and you’ve gotta use that as the catalyst to take the first step. The second thing you have to look for is all your past successes, so go into your prior beliefs and look at everything you did really well. And then the third point is the most counterintuitive, and that is to contemplate the absolute worst-case scenario.

So if you think about the worst thing that could possibly happen, and you think that I’m gonna spend my savings on this, I’m gonna lose my house, and then another round of COVID hits, my wife leaves me, my partner takes off with all our investment, and you look at where you’d be then, you say, “Okay, well, you know, I’ve had this great career for 10 years in the same industry, I’m really well respected, there are five companies I can go work for,” or, “I was a carpenter in college, I know how to swing a hammer so I can always go try and find some houses to work on.” And you look at the worst-case scenario, it takes away a lot of the uncertainty.

It might be terrible and it might be really bad, you might lose your BMW and your kids at private school, but it’s not as bad as the disempowerment that you feel from uncertainty. So from a neuroscience perspective, you’re creating an expected outcome at the very far range of what it’s gonna be, and your brain is gonna form basically a bell curve, and you know that’s way out at Six Sigma, one into the bell curve, but in the middle and that the most likely area, you’re seeing a good outcome, and then you start to justify, then you start connecting those dots again, because you’re thinking, “Well, I’m working by myself, so a $250,000 contract that my company wouldn’t even put the resources into responding to, hell, if we win that. I’ve got my first year made, and then if we get a million dollar contract after that, then we’re hiring people and we’re taking off.

And all of a sudden you start to think to yourself, you get back to that self-talk and you start to think, “Alright, this wouldn’t be that tough. In the downside, really, the risk isn’t really commensurate with the reward. The reward is gonna be much better because I’m really capable of handling all these challenges. So I think those three things, if you can look at those, it’s a great way to build enough confidence. The other thing is, and I tell this that I’ve said this at Harvard Business School, at UVA, at MIT’s Business School, if anybody out there wants to start a company, so I’ve started three tech companies, I’ve invested in 35 different startups, and if anyone out there wants to start a company, here’s what you do, Write your resignation letter right now and date it six months from now, because there’s never a good time to start a company, and there’s never a bad time to start a company. So take the next six months and plan, get ready, write your resignation letter, put a stamp on it, write your boss’s address on it and make two copies, you keep one and you give a copy to me because I’ll mail it. So that’s the ultimate motivation and that’s burning the ship.

Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, you’re making a commitment there. Well, Patrick, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Patrick Sweeney: The book, Fear is Fuel, and it’s available anywhere, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, all the usual places. And the audio version is coming out at the end of the year, which I’m super excited about, we’ve got some great cast members in that. You can go to, that’s my website, got the blog there, a lot of information on there. Facebook, Patrick Sweeney, Fear Guru. Instagram is the fear guru, and Twitter is PJ Sweeney. And if you go to, there’s a five-minute fear test you can take, and it rates you on those different elements we were talking about, that combination of those three fears. You can take the test in about five minutes and it’ll give you a little insight into areas that you need to work on, so that’s kind of a fun thing that people should jump over to.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Patrick Sweeney, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Patrick Sweeney: Brett McKay, thank you so much. I’m a huge fan of Art of Manliness. I love what you guys are doing, and I hope the audience got some value out of this, and I appreciate everyone taking the time to listen in.

Brett McKay: Thank you so much. My guess today was Patrick Sweeney. He’s the author of the book, Fear is Fuel. Check it out on You can also find out more information about his work at his website, Also check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM Podcast. Check out our website, the, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The AOM Podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to to sign up. Use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on android iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of The AOM Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, that helps out a lot. And if you’d done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to The AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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