How to Change your Interior Dialogue


This is a transcript of the Writing Gym Podcast. To listen to the full episode, go to:

Annalisa: Well, hello Brandon. I am so happy to be speaking with you about your book, Mastering Fear, which you co-authored with John David Mann.

I am really interested, you know, this is obviously a writing podcast. We talk with a lot of prominent authors. John’s been on the podcast several times, and he and Bob Burg have talked about how they worked together to co-author a book. I’m really interested to hear what your process was with John to co-author a book. Because that’s a really interesting process. It’s different than writing your own book.

Brandon: Yeah. You know, John and I work extremely well together, I gotta say.

I mean, we’ve done eight or nine books together. I lost count. Him and I have worked multiple ways. We don’t have a set format. When I was first introduced to John back in 2011 by my agent, Margaret McBride, I had turned in a pretty much finished manuscript for The Red Circle. And she said, “hey, look, this is really good, but I think, especially ‘cause it’s a memoir, having somebody else ask questions and dig stuff out of you that you probably think is boring but other people would probably find interesting.”

So I took Margaret’s advice. I met John. And she was right. I mean, John on his own is an incredible writer. He makes everything I do better. And he’s just a good kind of right-hand man in that way. But in that case, I gave him 80,000 words and he just rewrote and then made questions and really captured my voice perfectly. And so that was The Red Circle.

Then Among Heroes, for example, was a book about me losing friends and comrades and kind of dealing with that, but also as a way to honor their memory. John and I, our big struggle there was how do we write a book about four guys dying, that’s positive? Not make it a downer.

So we focused on kind of the good pieces of the friendship that I took away and how that made me a better person. It highlighted those traits for other people to identify with as well.

I’d set up interviews with the families, we would co-interview. John would record our conversations and then he went in and wrote that book. And usually I like to outline throughout the story arc.

In another case, John and I would kind of riff off each other.  I spent 4 and a half years chipping away at a novel that we’re just about to finish together. Finally, this year, I said, “John, I’m 60,000 words into this thing and I just want to get it finished.” It’s a novel. The working title is Steel Fear. It’s about a serial killer on an aircraft carrier. It’s based on true events.

When I was a search-and-rescue swimmer in helicopters, before I became a SEAL, I was deployed on the Abraham Lincoln, which is this massive, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Like, almost 6,000 people on board. And they had just integrated women onto the ship. And had a sexual predator on the boat. He assaulted, I think, seven or eight women and they never caught the guy.

Annalisa: Oh boy.

Brandon: For people that never served on an aircraft carrier, even though it’s a city, it has a police force, but these are really more like security guards. They’re really not equipped to deal with, you know, complicated crime. And that was a case of it, right? Like, how does a guy who’s using the same M.O. go to the women’s shower and assault seven or eight women and not get caught? I mean, it’s crazy.

Annalisa: Wow.

Brandon: And it created terror on the ship. These women were terrified to shower. They were showering in partners. So that, again, this is an example of how John and I worked together, right? I just dumped this manuscript on him and said “please help me finish.”

He didn’t change any characters, but he just made them more complicated and wrote these profiles and I think it’s going to be a great book. And I’m happy. John and I will share equal credit for that one.

Writing a novel is very different than nonfiction. I can write nonfiction in my sleep, just about. I mean, I started my business out of the blog space. My first website I launched, in 2012, I must have wrote two articles a day for almost two years. You get good at writing after a while that way.

But John and I, don’t have this set formula. We’ve done over the phone. He’s given me stuff back that I’ll smooth over. A lot of times John counts on me for a lot of the technical details that he just doesn’t have the background for. And actually, another project I’ll share with you, I haven’t really shared this with anybody on the podcast world.

I wanted to explore other areas of fiction. I had an MBA student do a study on the most under-served markets in fiction, and it came back military romance was a huge under-served category. So I sold a project to St. Martin’s Press, a three-book romance deal. And I directed the book. I basically directed a romance writer. The book is called The Military Wife. It publishes in February.

Annalisa: Oh, neat.

Brandon: It’s interesting because when I did that study, I was hoping it would come back with like, special ops in space, you know? I was like, “that would be great!” I’m like, “military romance, are you kidding me?”

Ironically my mom named me after a romance book called The Flame and the Flower. Some pirate captain in the book. And here I am directing this romance series.

But, it was funny because when the report came back, I was getting hit up on social media by all these established woman authors that were trying to break into this space, but they didn’t have the background. They were asking me questions about training, how long is boot camp, what’s Navy SEAL like, what’s the structure, and I was like, “oh they’re probably getting pressure for this type of content because the publishers know that there’s a gap.”

But anyway, I’m excited about that series. And again, I worked with the writer and just directed. I said, “Here’s the story arc. Here’s all the kind of juicy details. Some real-world experiences. Go nuts.” And she did a great job.

Annalisa: Oooh. Oh, that’s great.

Brandon: Yeah, I’m excited about it. I just like to create stuff, I think is what it comes down to. I don’t mind sharing credit where credit is due.

Annalisa: Yeah. Well, and that’s really beautiful. John is certainly a great partner to have, right?

I want to get into the content of your newest book with John David Mann, Mastering Fear: A Navy SEAL’s Guide and talk a little bit about the content. Because there’s a lot of overlap between what you’re presenting here and how we work with writers. And I thought that was really fascinating.

Over in the writing Gym we also talk about changing your “interior dialogue” is the phrase that you use. We say, “getting into write relationship with the inner critic”. So, tell me more about changing your interior dialogue and what that means for you and how you talk about it in the book.

Brandon: I think self-talk is a big thing. We walk around having these conversations with ourselves. And they’re not always positive to our benefit. We say, “I’m not good enough for this,” and, “I’m not good enough for that”.

And an example I would give you, I remember I was dating a girl and she made a comment, not to me, it was actually to my mom. I had had a couple New York Times bestsellers with John and she’s like, “oh, Brandon’s never written on his own a New York Times bestseller.”

That really, stuck in my head. And I started having this conversation. I was like, “oh, maybe I’m not good enough. Maybe I can’t make it on my own.” It’s a perfect example of how you can get stuck in that loop. And then, fortunately, I was like, “No, I have what it takes.” Then a couple years later I wrote a book with Jack Murphy. In this case, Jack is an amazing writer. He runs the news site part of my media company. NewsRep is what the site is called now. Jack is a brilliant writer.

In that case, him and I just said, “Hey, I’m gonna take six chapters, you take six.” We had a copy editor re-do it, and then we wrote about the whole Benghazi event. Beause we had a lot of insider access. And that made the New York Times list as a nonfiction ebook, which is really tough to make, as an ebook.

But, I had to change that conversation in my head, that I’m not good enough. Because if you let that affect you, it can really do damage to your career, to relationships.

The first time I learned the importance of self-talk was when I was in the military. I was about to take over the sniper program as course manager. We were running a pilot program to overhaul the Navy SEAL sniper course. It was a mediocre course before 2001. After 9/11, we had budget to overhaul and we said, “How do we make this into one of the most premiere courses in the world?”

So we were able to bring in all these consultants. One of them, who is a close friend of mine today, was Lanny Bassham. Lanny is a gold medalist and really was a pioneer in mental management for athletics in the ‘70s because he went, expected to win gold. He was a competitive shooter, was a world champion, went to the Olympics in Germany, won silver ‘cause he let a couple of Russian guys get into his head on the bus to the final event. Came back, at the time the sports psychology world…they weren’t focused on performance. Everyone Lanny went to said, “Oh, it’s okay, we’re going to make you okay with being #2 in the world.”

And he’s like, “No, that’s not what I’m after here. Something happened to me in my self-image, my self-talk. I need to figure out what this is.”

So, what Lanny did was go to all the gold medalists and interview them. Anyone he could get a hold of. And he was an Olympic team member, so he ended up interviewing I think over 100 gold medalists. And found that, fundamentally, they all had certain similar characteristics and traits. They all had positive self-talk. They would write these mantras on sticky pads. They wanted and welcomed the competition. They knew that the competition was necessary to stimulate them to a level of performance that doesn’t come in practice. Like, nobody breaks world records in practice. You need that competitive environment or the stressors of the situation.

Think about public speaking, right? When I started public speaking, it was nerve-wracking. I think it’s one of the biggest fears people have. Once you do it enough times, you realize, “Oh, this feeling.” You can harness the kind of nervous energy and fear to make you elevate your performance to a higher level.

So I met this guy Lanny. I could talk for hours on what he did with us, but the short version is he gave us this incredible toolkit to use in how we train snipers: self-talk, visualization, visualizing performance, even if you’re nervous.

Say you’re giving a talk for the first time in public. You can close your eyes and imagine yourself being nervous, and sweating giving that speech over and over again, and your brain doesn’t know the difference between reality and you just practicing in your head. You can train yourself to get better in those types of situations.

So, we applied this to our sniper students. The big thing Lanny said also was, “There’s a time and a place for negative teaching style.”

For instance, maybe it’s a tough financial internship. Like, “I know this guy’s good.” Treated like men and women who go to Goldman Sachs. They’re put into this negative environment to just see how they react. And if they’re able to overcome the same way as a Navy SEAL candidate, very negative environment, you know? They’re talking down to you daily. But they want to see, do you have what it takes up here to deal with that.

But in the case were there are certain instances, like kids learning subjects in school, beginners and kids in sports. Even as an adult, I just recently took my first dance class, and the instructor was great. It’s a very positive environment. If he was yelling at me, telling me I sucked, I have two left feet — I wouldn’t learn as fast in that environment.

The thing, when we were teaching snipers, we had a very negative attitude and teaching style. Lanny said, “time out, guys. There’s no need for this style of teaching. You need to switch to positive. Don’t point out the mistakes that these guys are making. Just tell them the positive corrective things to do properly.”

‘Cause when you’re pointing out mistakes, like when you’re beginning to write, you’re just hammering on all the mistakes they’re making, instead of saying, “Hey, this is what you need to fix it.” Grammatically or structurally move things around. You can just tell them what to do properly. A beginner in those situations are sponges. If you’re pointing out the mistakes you’re programming them for bad habits, is what it boils down to.

So we changed from negative to positive teaching style. We implemented visualization techniques. All this stuff from Lanny and a bunch of consultants. And overnight we took a course that was failing over 30% of the sniper students and we started passing everybody. And the standards got even more difficult.

So to me, that was the first time I experienced positive psychology in action. I was like, blown away. I was like, “this is crazy.” And it works.

And I’ve applied it multiple times. I went through what was to me a pretty traumatic divorce. Going from a dad coaching Little League to divorcing my wife and she took the kids away to her parents out of county. It was very tough because I had to change the style of parent I was. I was no longer the kind of father that could coach Little League and could see the kids on a daily basis. And on top of that I just lost my first business and all my life savings. It was a tough period in my life.

But I caught myself going negative and said, “Woah, wait a minute. I need to focus on the positives here.”

For one, thankfully my ex-wife and I were getting along. We chose to really work hard for the kids’ sake to get along and have a good divorce.

And I looked at, okay, I lost my life savings and my first business, but I basically had two years that I’d put myself through business school. I had a real-world business MBA. Like, doing my first business, raising money. I had all these valuable tools to either buy a business or start another one.

So I started focusing on the positive self-talk in my head. To finish a very long answer to your question about self-talk. It’s just so important, ‘cause if I had got caught up in this thing, like, “I failed. I’m a failure.” I would have not started again. I would not have my business today. I have a great media/e-commerice business that employs 100 people today. And I would not have had it had I fallen into this negative self-talk.

I see people do it in relationships all the time as well. I have friends that are successful in other areas of life, but they can’t let go of certain things. And I talk about it in the book, the Coconut Story. There were these monkeys in the jungle, they trap ‘em by digging a hole in the ground with spikes and they put a coconut in there. And the monkey reaches in and he grabs the coconut with both arms and he tries to pull it out but the sticks are preventing his arms from getting out. All he has to do is let go of the coconut and he can run away. But they don’t. They just hold onto the coconut.

I see people with their own version of coconuts. Relationships, where maybe they’ve been cheated on or had a bad experience, maybe mental abuse, physical abuse, and they just can’t let that go. They’re just bringing it into a new relationship. And a lot of times they just attract the same people because they can’t.

I can tell you, I’ve been on enough bad first dates, living in New York City, I can sense the negative immediately. And people in a very good place in their lives sense that and run for the hills when they see it. I can see it over and over. In business as well. But anyway, sorry to go on and on.

Annalisa: No, that’s all really good information.

And I’m so glad that you brought that up, Brandon, because the work that we do in the Writing Gym is based on neuroscience, and it’s really interesting as you talk about positive psychology, there’s a direct correlation to the application of neuroscience to how we learn and create best. So you’re absolutely right.

In the Writing Gym we’re really focusing on the positive when it’s time to focus on the positive and really only bringing in that critical eye only when it’s time to bring in that critical eye. And bring that manuscript to absolutely publishable. And I’m sure you know all about what that process looks like, having been through it several times now.

Brandon: Yeah. Yeah, and again, I see some writers, they get in this—it’s hard to chase perfection, right? It’s never as good as you hope it’s going to be.

You’ve gotta realize, especially in the world of books, you’ve gotta realize that there’s people that have good input, right? Your editor, hopefully you have a good one, at a publishing house, is going to want to give input to the manuscript. Sometimes structurally, sometimes it’s, “Hey, something’s missing, I think you could do more work here.”

I think people get hung up and they’re like, “Oh, I don’t want to turn it in yet.” I’m like “You turn it in, it’s gonna get chopped anyway.”

Annalisa: You can’t publish it until it’s finished, right?

Brandon: Don’t let perfection get in the way of good enough, basically.

Annalisa: Absolutely.

So, I’ve never gotten to ask this question before, Andi always gets to ask this question. So I’m kind of excited, this is a big moment.

But, if you had once piece of advice to give the aspiring writer, what would it be?

Brandon: The aspiring writer…I would say there’s no substitute for practice. And learning.

We’re always learning.

I read Stephen King’s On Writing book, because I’d never written fiction before. It was a huge eye-opener for me. It was totally against my method of writing non-fiction, where I create a story arc and an outline and I write to that.

So I would say practice, practice, practice, and continually learn, listen to podcasts like yours, read books, talk to other writers and just work on the craft. Because I don’t know anybody that just wakes up one day and is a brilliant writer. All the best people I know in the business from the screenplays, from a guy like Allan Loeb, who wrote Collateral Beauty, is an amazing screenplay writer. My friend Kamal Ravikant, is a great writer and inspiration behind Mastering Fear. They’ve all written for years and years and years. It’s not like they just all of a sudden had success.

I look at some of my stuff that I wrote for magazines and some of the blog posts, and I’m just like, “Oh, God.”

But I just recognize that, it’s kind of neat, ‘cause I’m like, “Oh, I was just kind of putting it out there.” You’ve gotta do that. You’ve gotta put it out there.

I think blogging especially is a great format. Even if you have an audience of one. If it’s just yourself or your friends. If you blog every day, it’s like journaling, you just get better and better and better. I’m thankful my mom made me and my sister journal as kids.

But anyway, that would be the advice. Practice, and go out there and put yourself out there. Take classes, listen to podcasts, read books, just constantly, I mean I’m always in a state of self-improvement.

And I’ll tell you this, it’s easy to get arrogant. I’m in a group called YPO, the Young Presidents Organization. My business was scaling. We had a year we grew 300%. My YPO group hosted this mini-Harvard University. I had this prejudice. I’m like, “What the hell are these Harvard MBA professors gonna tell me about business? I’ve been through it all. I’ve lost it. I’ve built it back.”

And they blew my mind. I went through this week like, “What an arrogant prick I was,” to really—I just proved to myself, I gotta reset. ‘Cause I learned so much in that one week course that I actually signed up for their Business Owner MBA program. I start in May. ‘Cause I was just, like, “Okay, I need to go. I don’t know it all.”

Annalisa: That’s great. Well, thank you for sharing that with us, Brandon. I really appreciate it. And thanks for being on the Writing Gym Podcast.

Brandon: Thanks for having me.

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