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Harnessing Your Fear Factor for Peak Performance

Patrick Sweeney says he used to be a wimp. Now he’s a full-time adventurer who has overcome his fears and is helping business leaders reach new heights by embracing theirs.

YPO member Patrick Sweeney gets asked one question over and over again: does anything scare him? The 50-year-old Irish-American is, after all, a self-styled “fear guru,” who learned how to embrace fear after overcoming a crippling dread of flying, and who now travels the world encouraging others to use the emotion to their advantage. Formerly a successful tech entrepreneur and CEO, Sweeney swapped a life of closing business deals in boardrooms for climbing mountains and embarking on thrilling expeditions. (He assures us that being a professional adventurer is a real job.) He’s also an in-demand thought leader whose dream is to help millions of people reach new heights by understanding and utilizing a raw and powerful emotion through knowledge of the latest neuroscience.

Sweeney’s fear of flying was caused by a traumatic event in his childhood. “When I was six my parents just flipped on the news and I saw this DC-9 in flames, a horrific crash at Boston’s Logan airport,” he recalls. “That initial fear frontier is like a seed inside your heart that grows into a whole tree of terror,” he says. “Once you recognize that, you can clip it one branch at a time, or you can chop down the whole tree. I took the quickest and most effective route – but the way I did it was also the most painful.”

Sweeney felled his fear tree after he was diagnosed with a rare case of leukemia. “I had a near-death experience,” he says. “I’d spent years focusing on business success and just when I thought I was conquering the world everything nearly got taken away from me. I realized that everything we have, including our body and mind, is just on loan to us, and could be taken away in the blink of an eye. I also realized that I needed to treat every day like it’s a gift. I understood that my fear had been holding me back, so I decided to overcome it and I took flying lessons. I got my pilot’s license and I fell in love with flight.”

Conquering the fear frontier

In addition to recovering from leukemia and conquering his biggest fear, Sweeney quit his job, abandoning the demanding lifestyle he believes contributed toward his illness. He decided to pursue his dreams and became an adventurer; in 2015 he was the first person to officially bike up to Mount Everest base camp. He also became increasingly fascinated by the powerful emotion he had tamed as a result of his serious illness. He interviewed dozens of psychologists and neuroscientists, so he could better understand fear, and today he talks to business leaders about his revelatory findings — that fear can be used as a source of power and strength to create a culture of courage.

According to Sweeney, several of the world’s top business leaders have built a constructive relationship with their own fear, using the emotion as fuel to power them toward their goals. He explains how this works. “When we get scared we have what’s called a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. Your survival instinct kicks in to say, ‘something is threatening our life so we’re going to do everything we can to survive,’ and that means shutting out anything that’s non-functional. That’s when we get superhuman powers.” Here Sweeney is referring to our physiological reaction to fear. Upon the activation of our amygdala, the part of the brain that researchers believe controls our response to fear, our body reacts rapidly: our pupils dilate, our heart beats faster and our adrenal glands release adrenaline and other hormones. This “fear cocktail,” as Sweeney calls it, offers a moment of opportunity. Rather than fight, flee or stand there like a deer in the headlights, you can capitalize upon your heightened awareness, energy and sense of intuition. Sweeney teaches what he calls the BASE method (Breathe, Assess, Smile, Eliminate) to help people take control, tame their fear and be proactive when the amygdala takes over.

Capitalizing on your fear

Sweeney’s own experience as a chief executive gives him an understanding of how the fear factor can prevent people from reaching their full potential in a business environment. He believes it can hold people back from asserting their opinions in the boardroom, from pursuing bold new strategies or from spending money on potentially risky but potentially profitable acquisitions. He’s convinced that business leaders can increase their chances of success by positively embracing fear.

Sweeney says that several of the chief executives he has worked with have realized the benefits of his approach. “I worked with one CEO of a logistics company who said that he felt like he’d broken out of the cocoon he’d been trapped in. He felt constrained by his peers and his board and he wasn’t making decisions based on his unique knowledge of the market. He was doubting himself.” A few weeks after their session the CEO emailed Sweeney to report that he had accepted his fear and placed more faith in his intuition, a liberating experience.

Sweeney, who advises people to “scare themselves at least once a week”, is currently working on a book about his discoveries, titled “Fear as Fuel,” as well as spreading his message to business leaders and sports team through speeches and seminars. It’s on these occasions that Sweeney’s fearlessness occasionally goes missing. “Every time I speak I get the fear response,” says Sweeney, answering the question people can’t help but ask him. “But that fear has become something that’s a source of joy and excitement to me. It pushes me to peak performance.”

Rob Orchard is the co-founder and editorial director of the Slow Journalism Company and the publisher of “Delayed Gratification” magazine, which revisits the events of the preceding quarter after the dust has settled and makes a virtue of being “Last to Breaking News.” The publication is an antidote to PR-driven stories, knee-jerk reactions and churnalism. Previously, Orchard launched and ran magazines for Virgin Atlantic and created the Middle East’s biggest travel magazine.