Sylvestor Stallone: How does the underdog fight his fear?

He had always been a fighter. He was expelled from 14 schools before he was 15! Sylvestor Stallone was often bullied and lived a very insecure childhood. Forceps used on him incorrectly during birth had given him an impediment slurred speech which made things worse. His self esteem was always low. But given a fight or flight situation, he always dug in and fought.

When Stallone was 12 years old, he saw Hercules – a Steve Reeves movie. And he got inspired. He started lifting weights and being more athletic. And he dreamt of becoming a movie star like Reeves.

But unfortunately for Stallone, things didn’t really improve as he grew older. He enrolled in the drama school at the University of Miami. But his professors didn’t believe he would become an actor and belittled him. He dropped out and moved to New York.

His life was working odd jobs and going for auditions. And getting rejected. He worked as a zoo cleaner and a fish seller in a deli and as an usher. When money was tight and he was evicted and put on streets, he even worked for a softcore movie. The worst was when he had to sell his dog Butkus for $40 because he was just so broke!

But when most actors would have taken flight, Stallone dug in and found his spirit to fight. He turned his anxiety into something that forced him to write. 

Anxiety to inspiration

Stallone chanced to see a boxing match between the great Muhammad Ali and a little known fighter Chuck Wepner. And while everyone rooted for Ali, Stallone found inspiration in the fighting spirit Wepner showed even in a losing cause.

In a bout of inspiration, Stallone shut himself in a dark room for 3 and a half days. And wrote one of the best underdog stories of all time: Rocky.

Luckily, Stallone found producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff who loved the script and wanted to make the movie. But when they offered $350,000 for the rights, Stallone refused. He would give his script only if he could act in the movie. 

Winkler and Chartoff wanted to hire a famous actor like Burt Reynolds to play the lead. But Stallone didn’t balk. He was penniless and yet he dug in. Finally, Stallone was offered a grand total $25,000 for the movie if he wanted to act in it too. Did his acting fees make up the difference? No. He was paid $2,000 for acting along with an additional $360 per week that the union mandated. All in all, the total he earned was about $35,000!

Stallone agreed to the huge pay cut. And the first thing he did with his new money is he went back and bought his dog Butkus for $15,000! 

In the end, Rocky became a huge hit! And it was nominated for 10 academy awards. Including for the best actor! 

Stallone showed that you’ve got to choose to do the hard things. If life knocks you down 7 times, you have to choose to get up 8 times.

You have to spit in the face of fear

“Fear is the fuel that we use for overachievement. If I wasn’t afraid at times, I wouldn’t work as hard.” But how did Stallone use fear and anxiety as fuel?

He knew what a boxer inherently knows. Before the big fight, a boxer is anxious. But he does not calm down. Instead, he channels his anxiety into excitement. He beats his chest and roars like a lion. 

Anxiety to energy

Harvard professor Alission Brooks went out to study anxiety. When she asked 300 people for their advice on how to deal with anxiety, 85% of them told her something to the effect of you should calm down.

But in reality, people with anxiety can’t really calm down well. 

So Brooks conducted experiments and studied people before they performed an anxiety inducing activity. Like giving a speech or doing hard math problems or singing in a karaoke.

Without fail, people who tried to calm their anxiety down performed poorly. But people who channeled excitement improved their performances!

Even a simple thing like saying “I am excited” before the activity changes you. Because it allows you to label an event as a challenge instead of as a threat. It allows you to dig in.

And it improves your performance too because it allows you to handle your emotions better. Brooks found that people who said they felt anxious had an accuracy score of 53% in karaoke. But people who were asked to reframe their anxiety to say they were excited found a singing accuracy score of over 80%!

People who were asked to say “I am calm” before they gave a speech were marked as 3.45 out of 7 for persuasiveness. People who were asked to say “I am excited” before the speech were marked as 4.03 out of 7!

Anxiety is a high energy emotion. In the face of fear, your heart rate shoots up, your stomach feels queasy, your palms go sweaty. When you try to channel it into calmness – a low energy emotion – you falter. It’s much easier to channel it into another high energy emotion: excitement!

So how do you channel excitement?

You channel excitement by focusing on the possible outcome. Being optimistic and focusing on the possible positive outcome helps you reappraise anxiety to excitement. And this reappraising actually leads to a higher chance of the outcome turning out positive because excitement elevates your performance.

Stallone could channel excitement by thinking about his future as a successful actor! Focusing on the future gives you hope. It allows you to feel excitement. To dig in and become more alert and fight.

Action Summary:

  • Choose to do the hard thing. 
  • When hard things make you anxious, don’t try to calm down. Instead channel it to excitement. Remember that emotions are a convertible fuel. 
  • You can channel excitement by focusing on the positive outcome. And by simply chanting: “this is so exciting! I am so excited!”