Fearlessness: 3 Things You Can Learn From Special Ops And Navy SEALS


“One-man army.”

It’s a phrase that gets thrown around lightly. But for 7 hours, Hector Cafferata was exactly that.

On November 28, 1950 during the Korean war, the then 21-year-old took on an entire regiment of Chinese soldiers, defending his group of badly wounded friends.

He did it in 30 degrees-below-zero-weather while in his socks.

He had only his eight shot M1 Garand and when grenades were thrown at him he batted them away with a shovel.

I’m going to repeat that:


Via Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool:

For the next seven hours, Cafferata became a one-man fighting force. With moonlight and flares providing illumination, he hustled up and down the wash, taking out advancing Chinese troops. In his left hand, Cafferata carried an entrenching tool, which he used to bat away any Chinese grenades that flew in. “I was the world’s worst baseball player, so I don’t know how I hit them,” he told me… Cafferata fired his rifle so much that night that the barrel began to blacken and catch fire; he had to cool it down with snow. Late in the battle, he tried to fling a grenade back manually but it blew too soon, badly damaging his nearly frozen left hand. He kept fighting. Sometime after dawn, marine reinforcements arrived to find a single man holding off an entire enemy unit, as if possessed by supernatural energy. It wasn’t until this point, when he could relax a little, that Cafferata discovered that he’d fought all night in his socks, and without his parka.

At 85 years old, Cafferata, who was awarded the Medal of Honor, offered a succinct statement on his perspective toward such challenging scenarios.

Via Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool:

I always felt that if you wanted my ass, you better bring your lunch.

What produces this level of fearlessness?

Yes, some people are different. As Taylor Clark points out in Nerve, twin studies show about 30% of fear response is genetically determined.

But that only begs the question: what about the other 70%?

The research points to three things that can help you develop fearlessness.

1) Training And Preparation

Gary Klein received a grant from the U.S. Army to study decision-making under stress in firefighters. His research showed that firefighters generated a set of options in their head, compared them and picked the best one.

Then he talked to firefighters and realized he was 100% wrong about everything.

Via Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool:

In one of the first interviews he conducted, Klein asked a seasoned firefighter commander to describe a few examples of how he made difficult decisions under stress in the past, and the man replied with a jaw-dropper: “I don’t make decisions. I don’t remember when I’ve ever made a decision.”

They didn’t think. Years of training and experience had finely tuned their instincts, and in these situations, instinct is all you have time for.

Via Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool:

…the elite firefighters had seen so many fires over the years that a web of patterns had been etched into their subconscious minds, lending them incredibly solid instincts… When a fire commander sees a building with a billboard affixed to the side go up in flames, for example, experience immediately reminds him of the times he’s seen billboards suddenly plummet to the ground below, and he gives orders to clear out the area without having to think.

The Navy SEAL team that killed Bin Laden trained for weeks inside a full scale replica of the compound they would be attacking so that when they arrived, it would be like they’d already been there.

Via Daniel Coyle’s excellent book The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

When U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6 mounted its May 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, it prepared by constructing full-scale replicas of the compound in North Carolina and Nevada, and rehearsing for three weeks. Dozens of times the SEALs simulated the operation. Dozens of times, they created various conditions they might encounter. They used the power of repetition to build the circuitry needed for the job.

And this is true in general. Who survives catastrophic scenarios? The people who have prepared.

Via David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself:

According to Johnson and Leach, the sort of people who survive are the sort of people who prepare for the worst and practice ahead of time. They’ve done the research, or built the shelter, or run the drills. They look for the exits and imagine what they will do. They were in a fire as a child or survived a typhoon. These people don’t deliberate during calamity because they’ve already done the deliberation the other people around them are just now going through.


2) A Feeling Of Control

You can tell a Special Forces soldier by a blood test.

Via Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool:

The effect of neuropeptide Y is so pronounced, Morgan says that he can tell if a soldier is Special Forces or not simply by taking a look at a blood test.

Yale Psychiatrist Andy Morgan has studied Special Forces soldiers for over a decade. He says the training creates stress levels in the human body higher than what is measured during open heart surgery.

But Morgan says what is equally important is how you talk to yourself in stressful situations.

Via Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool:

How you frame something in your head has a great deal to do with your neurobiological response to it… when you say to yourself, I know what to do here, or see things as a challenge, then that turns into a much more positive response.

This is one of the techniques the Navy SEALS used to increase passing rates. What’s notable about all of the techniques is they all involve increasing a feeling of control.

It makes intuitive sense: What creates a sense of fearlessness? I’ve got this covered. I’ve done this before. I’m in control.

And that word feeling is key. While training produces more of the ability to actually control a situation, even an illusory feeling of control can reduce stress and thereby increase performance. 

In fact, the illusion of control is so powerful that overconfidence is an asset, not a liability, during disaster scenarios.

Via Oliver Burkeman’s Help! How to be slightly happier and get a bit more done:

It’s largely a matter of beliefs: survivors are those who think they have some control over external circumstances, and who see how even a negative experience might lead to growth. Overconfident people, who overestimate their powers, do particularly well.

The top tier bomb disposals experts are so confident that as they approach the explosives their heart rates actually go down:

Via The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success:

Whereas the heart rates of all the operatives remained stable, something quite incredible happened with the ones who’d been decorated. Their heart rates actually went down. As soon as they entered the danger zone (or the “launch pad,” as one guy I spoke with put it), they assumed a state of cold, meditative focus: a mezzanine level of consciousness in which they became one with the device they were working on.

Follow-up analysis probed deeper, and revealed the cause of the disparity: confidence. The operatives who’d been decorated scored higher on tests of core self-belief than their non-decorated colleagues.


3) Humor

During his five years as a POW, Colonel Gerald Venanzi had an imaginary chimpanzee friend named Barney Google.

Via Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool:

Barney liked to accompany Venanzi to interrogations wherein Venanzi staged debates with the animal — “I can’t tell them that! They’ll beat the hell out of me!” — as his questioners looked on in shock. (Once, the camp commander tried to mollify the discord by offering Barney tea, but Venanzi had to relay a polite no; Barney didn’t like tea.) Venanzi’s Barney Google stories provided limitless amusement to the Americans. Ultimately, the guards summoned Venanzi once more and told him he’d have to release his chimp into the wild: he was getting new roommates, and Barney’s presence might upset them.

He wasn’t insane. Humor provides a powerful buffer against stress and fear.

Via Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool:

In tense moments, explains the clinical psychologist Rod Martin, the purpose of pranks like Venanzi’s isn’t merely to elicit a chuckle; joking actually reformats your perception of a stressor. “Humor is about playing with ideas and concepts,” said Martin, who teaches at the University of Western Ontario. “So whenever we see something as funny; we’re looking at it from a different perspective. When people are trapped in a stressful situation and feeling overwhelmed, they’re stuck in one way of thinking: This is terrible. I’ve got to get out of here. But if you can take a humorous perspective, then by definition you’re looking at it differently — you’re breaking out of that rigid mind-set.”

When I interviewed Army Ranger Joe Asher, he emphasized the importance of humor in getting through the punishing months of Ranger training:

It occurred to me, I said “You know what? If I can laugh once a day, every day I’m in Ranger School, I’ll make it through. That was one of the things that I’d say to myself and I make sure I can laugh. There’s always humor around. Given that the root of all comedy is misery there’s plenty of humor in Ranger School because people are constantly miserable.

The other thing I would tell myself in Ranger School, they say this a lot: “The only easy day was yesterday.” My Ranger Buddy and I always said: if tomorrow yesterday looks as bad as it does right now then we’ll quit. But by tomorrow, looking back on yesterday, it was over. We survived it, we can go one more day, so, we would continue on. That was another method we used to sort of help us limp along.


Next Steps

You don’t need to be preparing for war to make all this useful. Keep in mind:

  • Preparation
  • Feeling in control
  • Humor

And for help in more common scenarios you may want to check out:

  • Ways to make sure you don’t choke under pressure are here and here.

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