Akshay Nanavati is a marine corps veteran, entrepreneur, speaker, adventurer, ultrarunner, and author. He has been through dark and difficult times that actually pushed him to the brink of suicide but eventually found a way to overcome those, to live and help others experiencing the same struggles. Nanavati is the author of the book Fearvana, a bestselling, highly rated, inspirational book that teaches the science of how to transform fear, stress, and anxiety into health, wealth, and happiness.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I was born in India and have lived all over the world. By the time I was 14 years old, I had moved from Bombay to Bangalore to Singapore to Austin, Texas.
I had a great childhood with loving and caring parents. I couldn’t have asked for more. They weren’t extremely wealthy, but we certainly weren’t poor. Any struggle they might have gone through, I didn’t feel the effects of it. We traveled all over the world together and I went to some of the best schools in every city we lived in.
Moving around so much at such a young age made me very adaptable, but it also made me very impressionable. I didn’t have clarity on who I wanted to be in my younger years, so I was easily influenced by my environment. I take full responsibility for my actions now, but I didn’t know what I was doing back then…
Soon after moving to Austin at the age of 13, I got very heavily into drugs and alcohol. I used to cut myself, burn myself, and was consumed in a world of self-destruction. I even lost 2 friends to that lifestyle. I have headed down that path myself until one day when I saw the movie Black Hawk Down.
Watching that movie made me question the selfish, worthless, and meaningless life I was living. It made me want to test myself and live in an environment where the good of the group matters more than the good of the individual.
That movie was the trigger that led to me stopping drugs almost overnight and enlisting in the US Marines despite 2 doctors telling me boot camp would kill me because of a blood disorder I was born with. I not only survived but graduated from infantry school as the honor graduate in my platoon.
In the Marines, I first learned the beauty of struggle, pain, suffering, adversity, and sacrifice. Joining the Marines transformed my life and to this day, it is an essential part of who I am.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
I wish I would have realized that pain, suffering, and adversity are not to be feared or avoided, they are to be pursued and embraced. I wish I would have known that courage cannot exist without fear, strength cannot exist without struggle and power is birthed only through pain. When I joined the Marines, I started to learn that our greatest accomplishments are born from struggle.
I also wish I knew that reflecting on our voyages into the unknown is as important as embarking upon those voyages itself. Today, when I stretch myself beyond my limits physically, mentally, or spiritually, I make sure to take the time to reflect on the experience once it’s over. One of my mantras is “stretch and reflect.” I didn’t always do this though. I used to just leap from one adventure to the next without pausing to ingrain the lessons into my consciousness before venturing back out onto the edges. That was a mistake I have now remedied.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
The demonization of fear, stress, anxiety, struggle, and suffering of any kind is the greatest problem I see in my industry. So-called “experts”, say things like “how to eliminate stress and anxiety,” “don’t be scared,” “be fearless,” “don’t be afraid to fail,” “kill self-doubt,” “say goodbye to stress and anxiety,” and it goes on and on.
I’ve even seen people in the law of attraction space demonize hard work and effort as something bad. They promote the idea that we can easily “manifest” everything we want in life. It’s beyond absurd.
Fear, doubt, stress, anxiety, and struggle are NOT the enemy. They are normal, human responses to life. It’s what we do with them that matters. Just like the body needs stress to get stronger, so does the mind and spirit. We need both stress, and recovery, to keep evolving into the next greatest version of ourselves.
I have seen some of the biggest names in the personal development industry consistently frame stress, anxiety, or fear as something negative that needs to be overcome or eliminated. That is highly destructive advice. These emotions are not bad, they are a part of the human experience. We don’t even control most of what happens in our brain, so there’s no value in judging or trying to eliminate that which we cannot control. Our point of power is what we do with the emotion, not the emotion itself. These so-called “negative” emotions are not to be destroyed (we couldn’t even if we wanted to), they are to be embraced.
The truth is, there are no bad or good emotions, there are only emotions, and it’s up to us to decide what we do with them. When we believe certain emotions to be bad or negative, because the “experts” said so, we then start to think there’s something wrong with us for feeling these emotions. I once worked with a client who said “I’m just waiting for the fear to go away so I can quit my job and start my business.” I told him “that’s your problem, you’re waiting for the fear to go away.”
He thought he shouldn’t be afraid and should just be confident because that’s what so many “experts” told him. But quitting a job to start a business is a very normal and reasonable thing to be scared of. It’s even a good thing because when you engage it, fear propels you to prepare. Furthermore, you can’t be confident at something you’ve never done before. Confidence is the result of taking action, not the fuel to step into action.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
A few years after coming back from the war in Iraq with the US Marines, I struggled with PTSD, depression, and severe alcoholism. I was at a point in my life where I would drink a full bottle of vodka a day. This would go on for days on end until my body just couldn’t take it anymore. One morning, after 5 days of binge drinking, I woke up and was seconds away from picking up a knife to slit my own wrists.
At that moment, I knew something needed to change. I then began years of research in neuroscience, psychology, and spirituality. Initially, it was just to heal myself, but it led me on a far greater quest to figure out how do we all navigate the experience of human suffering.
During this process, I learned that post-traumatic stress is NOT indicative of post-traumatic stress disorder. Post-traumatic stress is a very normal and human response to an intense experience like war. It does not equate to a disorder. It can just as easily lead to post-traumatic growth. The only difference between growth and disorder is how we relate to the stress itself.
This taught me that stress, anxiety, fear, and suffering of any kind are not the enemy. They are whatever we choose them to be. Any emotion when channeled consciously with purpose and intention toward something worthwhile can be beautiful. Any emotion, even guilt.
For a long time, I had a picture of my friend that I lost in the war up on my wall and it said “This should have been you, EARN THIS LIFE.”
My guilt became my greatest ally on the path to living a meaningful and fulfilling life.
I slowly climbed out of the abyss by dis-identifying myself from my thoughts, feelings, and experiences. So instead of saying things like I have depression or I am depressed, I would say my brain goes through a state of depression from time to time, but I am not my brain and my brain is not me.
We are not our thoughts, feelings, or experiences. We are the thinker of our thoughts, the feeler of our feelings, and the experiencer of our experiences.
By creating a space between the thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and me as the observer of them, I could then choose what I wanted to do with them.
That’s how I turned my pain into a source of power.
The most important thing I learned on my journey was that the best thing we can do to transcend our own pain is to direct our energy toward something greater than ourselves. In the end, I found my peace by devoting my life to be of service to others.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
I consistently venture out onto the edges by taking on purposeful challenges that terrify me and expand the boundaries of my potential in every way possible.
I have climbed mountains in the Himalayas, explored underwater caves, spent 7 days in darkness, silence, and isolation, written a book endorsed by the Dalai Lama, built a global business, conducted humanitarian work in post-conflict zones, worked with former child soldiers, survivors of sex trafficking and people in extreme poverty, run 167 miles across Liberia to help build a school, started a nonprofit foundation, run ultramarathons like a 24-hour run and a 50 miler around a cul-de-sac all night, and I have dragged a 190-pound sled 350 miles across the world’s second-largest ice cap for a month, among many other adventures.
Each of these endeavors forced me to go to war with myself and pushed me to the very edge of my physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual abilities. That’s what made them all worthwhile.
My fundamental ethos is that the path to inner peace is the pursuit of a worthy inner war. I believe the most valuable thing we can do to attain any measure of success is to seek out a meaningful struggle worthy of who we are and who we want to be, for ourselves and others. In that process of confronting our demons, we will discover our divinity.
What is your morning routine?
I wake up between 5:30 and 6:30 depending on my travel schedule and more importantly my training focus for the month. But once I wake up, the routine is the same:
- 25 pushups
- Brush my teeth
- Mirror exercise (where I reinforce the self-identity required to accomplish my next audacious goal)
- Drink 1 glass of water with my morning supplements
- Airofit trainer
- 20-minute meditation
- Review my quarter goals and plan for the day, which was mapped out the previous night
- Write down the top goal as if it has been accomplished, at least 1 thing I’m grateful for, and a message to myself for the day
- Read a Medal of Honor Citation
- Get to the mission for the day…
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
A consistent exercise routine has by far been the best thing I have done for my body, mind, spirit, relationships, and business.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
The extreme clarity of purpose and outcome is essential to being productive. Using my overall life mission as my compass, I map out my year, quarter, month, and week. I have yearly targets, but I focus my mind and energy entirely on the quarter ahead. With my quarterly goals firmly in place, I list out the specific action steps I need to take during the month, week, and day to hit those goals. I then schedule them in my calendar.
I do a monthly, weekly, and daily review to ensure I am working effectively toward my goals and also to plan out the next steps for each time period. At the end of every day, I write down the top 3-5 tasks for the next day. My training, work, meals, everything is planned out for the week and the day ahead.
I also chunk specific kinds of tasks together to maximize my cognitive energy and not waste any of it transitioning from one task to another on a regular basis.
The key to being productive and using time efficiently is to always have a very clear plan of action so that you can then follow the plan without thinking.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl
One way or another we all suffer in life. At some point, we will experience fear, stress, anxiety, pain, and adversity, it’s part of the human condition, It’s easy to handle life when things are going great, but it’s those moments of hardship that define us. The manner in which we navigate suffering will ultimately determine the quality of our life. Consequently, the single most important skill to master is to develop a positive relationship to suffering, or as I like to say, to “suffer well.”
Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the finest examples of our collective ability to overcome any adversity and find the light even in darkness. The wisdom in that book provides a blueprint on how to transcend our suffering. It has guided me through many dark moments in my life.
As Victor Frankl says “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Man’s Search for Meaning is a guidebook on how to embrace that freedom.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
“I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.” – Vince Lombardi
“Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar’s gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through the world. There in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums, and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-halls, in the salons of the elegant, the Stock Exchanges, socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings, and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in his own body, he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give him, and he will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul.” – Carl Jung
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Victor Frankl
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” – Carl Jung