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Five Top-Gun Tactics to Conquer Fear, Overcome Adversity and Achieve Breakthroughs

Have you ever wondered how to overcome fear?  

I used to fly F-16’s in combat. As you can imagine, I went through some intensely fearful experiences.

fighter jet takeoff conquer fear

When I look back and reflect on those missions, it wasn’t the missiles that caused me the most fear. It was being strapped into the tiny cockpit of an F-16 for up to eight hours at a time! And I was actually more scared of letting down my team than I was of getting shot down. 

A few years prior to ever flying in combat, I had a dreadful experience that changed my life. I nearly died while scuba diving 35 feet below the surface. Something went wrong with my mask. I choked on the burning saltwater as it entered my lungs and subsequently had a panic attack. The result? I ended up with occasional panic attacks and claustrophobia that manifest itself while flying in the weather or at night. 

But no matter how my fear and anxiety attempted to control me, I didn’t let fear win. No matter the circumstance, I pushed myself to learn about those things in my mind that tried to stop me from doing what I loved more than anything else – flying. And despite it all, I became a highly decorated fighter pilot. 

Facing and overcoming life’s major challenges like a health challenge, loss of a loved one, layoffs or business pitfalls requires courage and resilience. 

Here are five powerful strategies that I use to move through fears and achieve breakthroughs.

The Sky’s the Limit 

When I was in the cockpit, that little box was my whole world. But really there was a whole, big blue world out there that was full of possibility.  

When I learned to “think outside the cockpit” — that is, think of the bigger picture, about my teammates, and about what was important to me in my life — I realized that fear is intensified when you focus on yourself and your little “world.” 

'Think outside the cockpit'

So the next time you feel “boxed in” by fear, ask yourself: 

  • How can I reach out and inspire someone today? 
  • Who needs support? 
  • How can I be a better listener? 
  • Who needs to hear that I love them right now? 

Once we broaden our horizons — that is, find meaning outside of ourselves — fear loses its power. 

Outmaneuver Challenges   

I used to try to be “tough” and pretend that claustrophobia couldn’t “get” me. 

But then I realized that, in order to beat the enemy, understanding them can be much more effective. 

So I started to learn everything I could about claustrophobia.   

When I had a better understanding of this particular fear, I was able to face it and accept it in a new light. I learned that maybe it wasn’t the “enemy” after all — or maybe that seeing it “as” an enemy was what caused some of the fear. 

When we overcome fear we can essentially “outsmart” the fear itself! 

Forget the Concept of “Fearlessness” 

We’ve all heard the age-old example of “the fearless warrior,” but in reality, true fearlessness is unattainable. 

Why? Because in the process of denying our fear, we just make it worse. 

Not only that, but ignoring fear and avoiding challenge also means that you are neglecting important opportunities that can help you grow into a better leader, and a better human.  

I tried to deny my claustrophobia, playing it cool and not admitting to that fear, and guess what happened? 

It got worse. 

But when I started understanding that my fear could be of benefit, I not only learned what humility was about, I was inspired to lead with true courage. 

I learned how to overcome fear, by accepting that the fear existed.

Stay on Target 

Fear is like a missile: it will get in the way of your dreams and rob you of your confidence. 

And when fear is your overriding emotion in life, when it’s constantly overtaking you, your main focus becomes survival. When you are focused only on survival, you lose sight of your mission. 

As you hone in on what “enemy” or “threat” could be lurking around every corner, you don’t have the bandwidth to stay focused on the key objective of the mission.  

Whether you want to build a thriving business, find the love of your life, or build your dream home, you must always acknowledge fear, but not let it take over your entire reason for being. 

There is always something bigger worth fighting for. And learning how to constantly redirect your attention towards that big goal will help you to stay resilient and persevere through the hard stuff. 

Don’t Forget Your Tribe 

As I mentioned above, one of my biggest fears was letting down my wingmen. 

But one of my biggest comforts was knowing they were there!

Learning how to overcome fear can’t be done alone. Building and nurturing team relationships is essential when it comes to learning, growing, and overcoming adversity. 

When you have strong relationships to start with, every challenge you face together will be easier.  

That’s why it’s so important to be there for your tribe — your friends, loved ones and colleagues that have your back. And let them know you have theirs. Make a point of offering support and assistance to your tribe, and you’ll find that life is just simply more enjoyable and meaningful. 

Make Fear Your Best Teacher 

Fear and adversity are part of everyone’s life, but you don’t need to let challenges blow you off course or sway you from pursuing your dreams.  

Never lose sight of your tribe, your growth, or your big-picture mission. 

And remember: Fear, despite the anxiety it can bring, can be the most important teacher of all.  

Your Wingman,
Waldo Waldman

Enjoyed this article? Here are three more to help you: 

Pick Up The Phone – How to Create Connection with Conversation
Refuel & Retool – How to maintain your performance and mindset
Focus on who, not how

This article was originally published in 2017, but has been updated as of November 2019.