While we live each day of our lives avoiding fear, sometimes, it just might be the very thing we need. Guest, Patrick Sweeney, learned this the hard way. Being diagnosed with leukemia when his daughter was one and his wife six-months pregnant, Patrick realized that all our dreams are on the other side of fear. In this episode, he sits down with Robert “Fireman Rob” Verhelst to talk about how he transitioned from making decisions out of fear to that of opportunity. Through his book, Fear Is Fuel: The Surprising Power to Help You Find Purpose, Passion, and Performance, Patrick takes us on his personal journey and the lessons he learned about translating fear into optimal living. He goes deeper by sharing how we can face fears, challenge new ones, and reach our full potential as we strive to achieve more, experience more, and enjoy more.
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Fear Is Fuel: Finding Dreams On The Other Side Of Fear With Patrick Sweeney
We have an amazing individual. We don’t have enough time to get into all the things he’s done, but Patrick Sweeney is a great author and a world record holder. He has had many businesses that have made tens of millions of dollars. Let’s get into a story. Patrick Sweeney, it’s great to have you on the show.
It’s great to be here. Thank you all for taking the time out of your day to read.
I saw that you talked to one of my good friends, Shay Eskew on your Instagram. That was awesome.
Shay and I had a great live session. He’s an inspirational guy.
Going back into your story, I want to go all the way back to one of the battles that you took on because you have a great book called Fear Is Fuel. You can go on PJSweeney.com to get that book as well as find out more about Patrick. Going back to you being a cancer survivor, battling leukemia, when your daughter was one and your wife was pregnant for six months. Tell me more about the fear that came from that.
It was bigger than that. That was my whole life-changing transition that started me on the journey to write Fear Is Fuel and what happened after that. I had spent my whole life just being afraid and I had no self-esteem. I grew up blue-collar, a Boston Irish kid, son of the first-generation Irish immigrant. I got bullied and my grandfather thought the way to teach us to be a man was put us over his knee, take off his leather belt and whip us with it until we got the wimp out of us. I had always grown up afraid of everything. At that time, I had started my first technology company. I figured I had been very good at sports and I didn’t find the self-esteem or assurance or confidence I was looking for from that.
I figured if I made millions of dollars, then that would get me there. I should have been having a blast. I was running one of the hottest technology startups in the US and instead I was constantly afraid. I had to drink 6 or 7 beers every day to keep the anxiety wolves at bay. I had imposter syndrome. I was afraid of being rejected, failure, success, and all these things. That response had this constant fire hose of cortisol streaming through my body. That’s the stress hormone and the way that I dealt with it was drinking. That disastrous combination led me to get very sick one day. I went to my GP. I can barely get out of bed. I had one arm that I could barely move. I went to my doctor and he did a couple of tests and he said, “I don’t know what it is, but you’ve got no immune system. We’re going to send you to Johns Hopkins.”
That was when my daughter was one. She went to her grandparents. My wife and I went up to Hopkins and endured this battery of tests. It culminated in this nightmare scenario of Dr. McHale walking in the door and saying, “This leukemia is rare. We suggest you to get your affairs in order and you say your goodbyes.” My wife who is six months pregnant went into shock. You can imagine how I felt. I felt like I got hit in the stomach with a baseball bat because all I saw as I looked back on my life was regret. I had hidden the shame I felt for being afraid.
I was absolutely terrified of flying. I saw an accident when I was seven years old on the TV and I was horrified to fly. I missed out on spring breaks, family reunions and exchange programs all because I was so scared to fly. When I looked back and I figured I was going to die in a couple of days, I had this tremendous gnawing feeling of regret. I thought I was completely robbed and totally cheated in my life. It was such a horrible feeling. What I’ve realized was the view my daughter was going to have of her dad is a guy who was too much of a coward to get on a plane and take her to Disney.
When I started thinking about her, I thought, “I’ve got to change.” Not to give away the ending, but I lived. I got out. The first thing I did when I got my immune system back was I went to Leesburg Airport and I said, “Even if I’m kicking and screaming, I’m going to get my private pilot’s license.” I probably peed four times before we went out on that first flight. I was terrified. I went through this amazing transition because of it. That’s when I came to the realization that all our dreams are on the other side of fear.
I love that because it’s something that a lot of us have, but how did you transition that fear? You had been successful already because you went to the University of New Hampshire. You started rowing and went to the Olympic Trials twice. You had that feeling of success, but at the same time, when this hits you, you felt like you hadn’t done anything in this world. I think that’s a hard realization.
I finished second in the Olympic Trials. I raced the World Cup for three years in the single scull. I often tell people, “I probably could have been a gold medalist if I wasn’t so afraid of everything.” What I realized is in life, we can boil down every decision we’ve ever made to either fear or opportunity. If you make decisions out of fear, it always leads to shame, regret and failure. If you make decisions out of opportunity, it always leads to growth, happiness, fulfillment and success. If I look back in all the decisions that I’ve made during my rowing career, the major ones were all made out of fear. I can remember there were very few Americans who have rowed the World Cup in the single scull. When my coach called me up to tell me, it should have been one of the happiest days of my life, but instead, I had a panic attack on the other end of the line because I had to fly to Europe. I don’t know how I was going to deal with it.
If I look at the opportunities that I missed because of fear, what happened was, when I’m sitting there in Hopkins assuming I’ve got a few weeks to live, I realized we’re all going to die anyway. Interestingly enough, it came as a surprise to me. I said, “If I’m going to die anyway, why not die in a plane crash or a mountaineering accident or die trying and doing something that I love.” On the racecourse, I did get good at turning those butterflies that I felt in the start from fear into excitement. I started to use that approach.
One of the bits of research I found in my book, I interviewed three dozen of the world’s top neuroscientists over the last six years for the book. One of the neuroscientists I interviewed was Abigail Marsh at Georgetown. She said, “When you do something for an altruistic motivation, you do something for someone you love, then you flipped the courage switch in your brain, and we get this little shot of ecstasy. It might seem selfless, but it makes us feel good.”
When my motivation started becoming my daughter and my family, then that definitely changed the ability for me to access the courage center of our brain. The fear center, the amygdala that most people have heard of, it’s a little gland at the base of your brain that’s shaped like an almond. It handles the fight, flight, or freeze response. We’re running a two-million-year-old piece of software on there. It’s an early warning system to keep us from getting eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. It was never designed to be used in a world where we have constant distractions and constant stimulation. We’ve got to reprogram that fear center. That’s what I did over the course of a couple of years and it incredibly changed my life. I wanted to find out how and then share the how with the rest of the world.
I love the secondary part of it, The Surprising Power to Find Purpose, Passion and Performance. There are two things that I was looking at, “Learn the root of fears,” because that is so powerful. It took you realizing that death was inevitable for all of us to be able to realize those fears. I don’t want to give away your whole book because people need to go to your website and buy it. As a normal person, if you’re not going through cancer, you’re not hitting that wall of realization of, “I get one chance at this.” How do you take the time to be able to figure that out?
The first thing people need to ask themselves is, “Have they reached their full potential?” “Are they living their dream life now?” “Do you have everything that you want and you think you deserve?” If the answer is no, then the thing that’s probably holding you back is fear. Growing up blue-collar in Boston, I had relatives who were cops or priests and that’s what you can expect. Maybe if you weren’t smart enough, you’d become a teacher, if you weren’t going to be one of these guys, one of these rich people. Fear of failure, “You’re going to try something. You’ll just fail.” You have all these prior beliefs. Prior beliefs are all of our past experiences, but the messed-up thing is we don’t copulate our subconscious mind, someone else does.
That’s what we use for 80% of our decisions during the day. We don’t choose where we were born, what language we speak, the color of our skin, the number of brothers and sisters we have and the place we went to school. All of those things become our basis for our tribe and for something that we consider safe and certain. It’s uncertainty to our mind that sets us off on this need to feel safe. Basically, we run back to our cave when we feel uncertain, because we don’t know who is different from us.
We’re saying, “Are they friend or foe?” We don’t know. We run back to the cave and the mental cave is the most extreme version of ourselves. We go back to everything that’s in our subconscious and we want to be with people just like us. We want to be with people who look like us, who dress like us, who talk like us because that’s safe. When you get that feeling, we’ve all felt it. I’m sure you felt at a ton of times. Even in the first responder community has felt fear and it’s different for everyone. It’s butterflies in the stomach. It’s beating hard. If you have something you can identify that you feel each time.
You put it into such good words in this book as far as it takes action to become courageous. That is so true in the fire service. You have to have that action to be able to go into those things that you fear the most, to be able to come out on the other side, courageous and to be able to do it again. I’m amazed because in your life, you are successful as a businessman, but it looks like you fell toward the powerful actions. I want to get into your Guinness world record. It’s amazing because you went on that abstract side. I love that because that’s like me. You wanted to summit the seven tallest mountains, but then at the same point, bring your fat tire bike and descend.
To specifically answer what you were saying, how do they learn? When your body changes, when you feel butterflies in your stomach, your jaw tighten and you feel your heartbeat start to pound, that’s when you know you’re having a fear response. Most people are afraid of that feeling. One of the things I say in the book is that we’ve got to find more fear in our life because you’ve got to learn to get comfortable with that feeling.
I got to the point where I was getting comfortable in everyday life and I wasn’t feeling it because I had gotten over the fear of flying. I got my instrument and commercial rating. I got my seaplane license and what I decided was, “I want to keep seeing how far I can go. I’m going to start flying a stunt plane and take acrobatic lessons.” I started feeling that that feeling again and it kept powering me on. The other thing I started doing was all these adventures because I’d never seen the world. While I was doing a fat bike ride in February across Alaska, that’s on the Iditarod Trail.
It’s the week before the dog sled race, which has been going on for almost 100 years, that they invite 40 adventurers to go either by foot or by bike along the trail. It’s called the Iditarod Trail Invitational. It’s probably one of my top three adventures. One of the times I’ve been most scared, but I was sitting there doing it with a guy. There were 40 of us who started in the first day. A group of 3 or 4 of us ended up slogging along together in minus 35 degrees and we weren’t talking much. At one point, one of the guys said, “I wonder why no one’s ever biked in Nepal to the Everest Base Camp?” I said, “Why don’t we?”
Sadly, this guy ended up committing suicide six months later. I said, “I’m going to do it for him in his memory.” I never even realized he was suffering so greatly from depression and some other things. Everest was the first trip. It took fourteen months to get the permit and a lot of creating incentive for government officials. Even more so during the trip, which is entertaining in itself. Getting up there and doing that trip was incredible. I thought, “What’s the highest mountain in Europe?” That was Mount Elbrus in Russia and that’s the documentary that won a couple of film festivals called From Russia With Love.
The next one, a woman who rides for Red Bull, who’s a world champion mountain biker and a friend of mine. She and I were talking and I said, “Kilimanjaro is next for me. How about you come along?” We did Kilimanjaro and Red Bull made a little short film of that as well. It’s been trying to find out places where I get scared thinking about and I get out of my comfort zone, and that excites me now. The feelings, aren’t fear as much as their excitement and the anticipation of doing something new and challenging.
It’s great because you’re not just doing it yourself, you’re doing it for bigger causes. You talk about these things and it’s so funny because riding your bike while summiting, I think most people when they hear these stories are like, “You went to the top of the mountain and then he rode down.” It’s like, “They don’t understand that you carried your bike.” This isn’t like the bike with the basket on the front and the flyers on the side, and you put the baseball cards and the wheels. This is actually a fat tire bike. How much does it weigh?
It’s probably 26 pounds or maybe a touch heavier.
It perfectly fits on your back.
That’s what I tell everyone. Particularly going up to Everest Base Camp, the bike rode me more than I rode the bike. That’s for sure. I’ll tell you the short story of Everest. Everest technically is a pretty easy climb. There are a lot of people who go and they aren’t experienced mountaineers and stuff. I knew it would be a decent one. I strapped the bike to my back. My son was eleven years old at the time and we had already done fifteen summits above 14,000 feet. He loved being with me. One of the greatest days of my life was when he and I summited Mount Rainier when he was ten, and that was awesome.
I knew I’d be going up carrying the bike and I’d be riding down. I hired a guide, a local mountain guide for PJ to go down with, because I knew it would be a significantly different time. He actually ended up getting about 1,000 feet short of the summit and starting to get frostbite in his toes. They went down and they ended up descending. I’m carrying on by myself. At Elbrus, it’s almost like a Camelback Mountain. There are Eastern and West Summit. West is slightly higher, so that’s considered the official summit, but you get to the saddle in between them and it gets steep there. I’m climbing up that and the fog rolls in. Fortunately, the guiding companies had put little flags every 50 feet or so along the way.
Now, I’m about way around 15,000 feet. The air is pretty thin up there. I went up pretty quickly. I’m climbing all around and I wasn’t quite sure where I was going. I knew I was just 100 feet or so from the summit. I took the bike off and meticulously trying to look at a GPS and the wind’s blowing. I’m up in the fog and I’m bummed about PJ not coming up with me. I get to the summit, I record on the GoPro to prove I was up there. I go back and I started heading down and I can’t find the bike. Then some guy comes walking towards me. I don’t know if he saw my shape, but he turned around and he was gone. That was like a ghost. It’s freezing up there and I’m thinking, “I lost the bike.”
All these things go through your mind because when you’re up at above 12,000 or 13,000 feet, it feels like a full on, constant hangover type of thing. Your brain isn’t working. I finally find the bike and I get down. Without a doubt, it was one of the best descent in my life, because I put it together. I put the wheels back on just above the saddle and people are looking at me like I’m absolutely nuts. The hike from the summit down to the base camp, they have these things called barrel huts, is normally about 4 to 4.5 hours of hiking.
I got on the bike and I had a couple of spectacular wipeouts in the snow and the glaciers and stuff but made it down in about 45 minutes. It was incredible. It was so much fun. I got down there and PJ was there and then we had a little adventure getting out because they lost power to the whole mountain. One of the lifts that was supposed to take us all the way down wasn’t working for another day so we had an unscheduled night. It’s all this uncertainty and all this inability to predict stuff that gets most people.
This is why the pandemic has been so difficult for a lot of people. When we deal with uncertainty, our brain is a prediction engine. We try to predict the outcome of every event based on our past experiences, based on those prior beliefs I mentioned. When we can’t, that’s when we produce free energy, which is the root of all fear. That’s when we produce the feelings of fear and our early warning system goes off. When you get comfortable with it, then you start to enjoy that feeling of instead of fear, it becomes a feeling of excitement and adventure. That’s definitely where I switched.
The amazing thing is it reflects itself in business as well. We’ve all seen leaders in our job who are terrified and they hide in their cave. They’re leaving their whole team with even more uncertainty, but when you’re courageous and you say, “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” “I don’t know if we’ll still be around,” “I don’t know if you’ll have a job, but here’s the plan. Here’s what we’re going to try. I’m scared, but we’re going to keep going through it. You just be your authentic self.” When I became courageous and I became the authentic me at work as well, my business just took off. I was working probably half the hours that I was before I got sick and choosing opportunity and acting with courage, then you feel courageous. You’ve got to act first. Those were the things that had a dramatic impact on my life.
I love it because on your website, you can see all your dreams are on the other side of fear. I love how you mentioned the unknown because that’s a lot of what I talk about and the fact that you’re challenging the things that you don’t know that you can do is probably one of the biggest things. When you look at yourself as a father and you look at parenting, there’s no handbook for that. Was that the scariest adventure?
It really is and especially nowadays. The current generation of parents probably have it the toughest because their parents were so influenced by this helicopter parenting or bulldozer parenting. It became affluent particularly in the United States. What we tried to do is protect our children from any harm and we ended up teaching them how not to deal with challenges. One of the nightmare things that’s happened over the past many years is schools have instituted things like Bully Control Officers. They tell a kid, “If someone bullies you, you don’t do anything. You go to the Bully Control Officer and report them.” We’re teaching kids that somebody else is going to be their hero.
If you’re a victim, there’s always a villain, and if there’s a villain, you need a hero to come and save you. Instead of teaching kids that they’re the creator of their own life and, “If someone bullies you, that person’s challenging you to be the best version of yourself,” “If you have trouble dealing with that person, you see a coach, but a coach isn’t going to jump in the boat and row it for you. He’s just going to give you some advice or she’s just going to tell you how to deal with it, but you’ve got to take accountability and deal with it yourself.”
A lot of parents want to remove that challenge from their children and make it easy. They’re scheduling SAT Practice for ten-year-old even though they’ve got seven years before they take the test. They’re scheduling Mandarin lessons after the soccer lessons, after math tutoring. Kids don’t have a chance to go out, adventure, and learn the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness. Learn the difference between challenging and backing away. I think parenting is difficult not because it’s a challenge and we don’t know what to do, but because other parents and even people who aren’t parents, make it difficult and they put pressure on the parents. The fears that we all have when we have kids get magnified. I see a lot of moms and dads coming to me after my keynote speeches and they’ll say, “Everyone thinks that I’m a bad parent because I let my kids swim in this cold lake when we did this Boy Scout adventure.” It’s sad but true.
Patrick, we’re going to have you on again. I know you have some things you’ve got to get to, but it’s been an honor to have you here. I always end the same way with a few questions. I don’t give them to you before, because I want to bring out the unknown. This is one of those questions that’s hard to ask you, what is one thing you haven’t done but is outside of your comfort zone?
Travel through space.
You have the opportunity now.
No one’s ever asked me that, but that’s the first thing that popped up. That would definitely be outside of my comfort zone
That’s a long plane ride. What’s your favorite quote and why?
Without a doubt, Theodore Roosevelt’s, “The Man in The Arena.” For those of you who don’t know it. He gave a speech at the Sorbonne in France and he succinctly said, “The most fulfilled, valuable, impactful people aren’t the ones who sit on the sidelines and critique, but the ones who actually get in the arena, whether they find victory or defeat, it doesn’t matter.” That’s such a great message. As he puts it, they separate themselves from the timid souls who know neither victory or defeat. Roosevelt’s The Man in The Arena, everyone should read that. That’s a classic.
This last one is going to be interesting because I have no idea who you’re going to pick. If you could pick three people to have coffee with, deceased or alive at a firehouse table, that means nothing is off the table to ask them, who would it be and why?
It’s Roosevelt for sure. He has an amazing life and if you don’t know it, he went from being a wimp who was controlled by rich parents and his dad laid out his plan for joining the Senate in New York. His mom and his wife died on the same day and that he basically went out West to change his life and started ranching. The incredible story behind Roosevelt. He’s the first one. Richard Branson is probably the second one because he has been so authentic his whole life. He’s got a great story about the thing that changed his life. That was his mom dropping them off 3 miles from their house when he was seven years old. He had to find his way back and had to ask people for directions. This was before cell phones and they didn’t live someplace where there was a subway. He was terrified the whole time, but it changed his life. There’s great parenting there by Branson’s mom
The third would be George Mallory. He was what a lot of people believe the first person to summit Everest. He didn’t make it out alive. He was 30 years before Edmund Hillary had made the attempt. He was decades before and even just traveling to Nepal, that whole thing must’ve been an adventure. That would probably be a fun and an interesting guy to talk to as well. I’d put Christ on there, but He’s going to know the answer to everything. It takes away the fun.
This last part is the rapid round. I’m going to give you two things and all you’ve got to do is say one of them. Paper or plastic?
Soup or salad?
McDonald’s or Taco Bell?
Camping or Hotel?
You don’t need to ask me that one.
Fly or Drive?
Fly for sure.
Sleep in late or wake up early?
Wake up early.
Run or walk?
Run, for sure.
Partly sunny or partly cloudy?
It’s always partly sunny.
Fire or water?
Here’s the best one, use a porta-potty or run or drive to the physical bathroom that’s next?
A tree or a good rock.
Coke or Pepsi?
I’m not a big fan of either, but I’d have to go with Coke because it’s classic American.
The last one is, go big or go home?
It’s go big all the way. Go big and go enjoy yourself.
Patrick Sweeney, it has been a pleasure to have you on the show. Everyone should definitely go to PJSweeney.com. He’s got so much information, masterclasses, books. He can come and talk to you. He’s got more stories than I was able to even get to. Patrick, thanks so much for joining.
Everyone else, if you’re on Instagram, hit me up at @TheFearGuru as well. Rob, I’d love to come back anytime. Thanks so much for having me on.
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