Author Talks: How to conquer fear, prepare for death, and embrace your power

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Eleni Kostopoulos chats with Tareq Azim, founder of Empower Gym, trainer of NFL greats, and creator of the Afghan Women’s Boxing Federation. In his book, Empower: Conquering the Disease of Fear (Simon & Schuster, January 2022), which was coauthored with Seth Davis, Azim discusses how his life experiences as the son of Afghan refugees led him to center his purpose on helping others conquer the disease of fear and prepare for their last breath. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you write this book?

Writing a book has always been a fantasy. I battled with thinking I didn’t have enough to offer to write a book. I thought, “What makes me valuable enough to write one?”

But this opportunity came about from a feature about me that ESPN’s writer Paul Kix released. A handful of friends sent me messages about it after it was released, and I remember reading the article at about 5 a.m., and tears started trickling down my face. I was curious about why everyone who read the article was also so touched, and I realized, as time went on, that people felt understood reading about my life’s story and my position on things.

Fortunately, a handful of very interesting people sent some emails to ESPN, and one of them was from Simon & Schuster. It said: “You’ve got some words that the world needs to hear. You’ve got a story that the world needs to see. We’d love to talk.”

That’s what really pushed me to write this. It opened up a whole new world to me. It helped invalidate some of my internal insecurities and made me feel like I had value to give to the world. It answered these questions I had like, “Is my perspective respected? Am I appreciated? Do I belong?”

Did anything surprise you when writing the book?

I really couldn’t believe the healing power of this book. I’m not a very emotional person, but this book broke me. There wasn’t a moment throughout the writing process when I wasn’t extremely emotional. It helped me understand why I think the way I think today, and it has to do with what some would consider trauma. When I was growing up, I didn’t know it was trauma because it was my normal. I told my coauthor Seth Davis regarding the questions he asked me: “You saved my life.”

This book gave me clarity about and freedom from something I was trying to seek from the outside world, which is an understanding of myself.

Smile at life

What drove you to start a women’s boxing federation in Afghanistan?

What drove me to do what I did in Afghanistan and to come to this understanding of my purpose was an accumulation of life experiences. I came to America as a refugee and was raised in a home that we never really considered home; it was always in our heads that our responsibility was to do something for Afghanistan, to do something for the family name, to do something for the legacies of my grandfathers. Both my maternal and paternal grandfathers had the DNA of dreaming and doing things that weren’t “normal,” and really pushing limits.

When I got to Afghanistan, the circumstances and the situations were almost perfect, in that Afghanistan needed everything and anything. Almost everything and anything you did would be helpful. So I said, “What is it I can do to compete with the media’s narrative around the oppression of women and the Taliban being in power, and Afghanistan not wanting growth? What’s something I could do that’s extremely nonpolitical, that no one would understand the power of?”

That’s when I decided to create a place for women to practice the most male-dominated activity in the most male-dominated society of all time: the Afghan Women’s Boxing Federation. I knew if I created something like that, there wouldn’t be any question of women being oppressed. Especially if it was a registered national program and if there was life behind it. And the more I heard, “No,” the more I heard, “Don’t do that,” the more I heard, “You’re crazy,” the more I knew it was the right thing to do. It was the right thing because it was going to make that noise. I ended up launching the Afghan Women’s Boxing Federation, but the process wasn’t as easy or as simply deciding to choose to launch a federation and go in and register it with the National Olympic Committee. There were a lot of folks I had to get buy-ins from—more like blessings. The opposition needed to have something done that really isn’t done—and what helped was the simple act of communication.

Communication does enough to lower the waterline and integrate a little bit of common respect. The fact that I would sit with these individuals and ask for their blessings, or ask for their participation, or include them in the ideation process made them feel like they had ownership in this mission of proving that Afghanistan was ready for social change. Step one was the integration of women into combat sports.

What are game plans?

Game plans came to life by what I experienced in Afghanistan, which was the power of honest communication and honest conversations. A game plan is just a term for an honest conversation, but if I called it an honest conversation, no one would be at my door.

Game plans are more about self-engagement, self-recognition, and self-understanding. Getting to this was always primarily based on the lack of understanding that exists within the self. I’ve dealt with and met a lot of individuals who feel the world’s against them, which is very similar to what it’s like in Afghanistan.

People say, “The world should look at us like this. This industry should look at me like this. My teammates should look at me like this.” And it’s like, “Fantastic. Do you look at yourself like that?”

A majority of society wants the rest of the world to understand them, so they don’t have to understand themselves. We’re putting out optics. We’re putting out words. We’re putting out videos. And we’re hoping these things fulfill a narrative that people create for us. These game plans dive into very deep questions, primarily based on key mental and emotional deficiencies that are preventing us from feeling content.

A majority of society wants the rest of the world to understand them, so they don’t have to understand themselves. We’re putting out optics. We’re putting out words. We’re putting out videos. And we’re hoping these things fulfill a narrative that people create for us.

Smile at death

How do game plans help your clients overcome their fears?

When I’m working on a game plan with a client and I ask, “What is it you fear?” every single person’s answer is always about the unknown. It’s the fear of being judged. It’s the fear of not having. It’s the fear of X, Y, and Z. So then I push and push with more questions. “What is the ultimate unknown? What is the worst thing that can happen?” And everybody says death—100 percent of the time. That’s when I come back and say, “Death is not an unknown. It’s the only guarantee, and it’s the only thing we should prepare for.” My game plans are primarily about getting to that mindset and getting to that state of consciousness. It’s about, “How do you want to feel on your last breath?” That’s what I work to hold people accountable to.

That’s why a majority of my teammates, who you read about in the book or you’ve seen interviews with, are the definition of “not normal.” They’re never satisfied. There isn’t a dollar amount that they haven’t achieved. There isn’t a public position that they haven’t achieved. Why don’t they stop? Because it’s not objects that bring contentment to these folks; it’s that feeling they’re seeking to have at their last breath.

The game plans help define that. I actually call the document we create for them their “personal philosophies,” and it becomes a tool they integrate into their leadership, their branding, their marketing, their narratives, and their books. There’s structure around their truth. The intention of a game plan is to put some value behind self-truth, not the truth people make for us.

What’s the significance of physical activity in all of this?

There’s a massive correlation between physical capabilities and solving for key mental and emotional deficiencies. Physical activity isn’t something that’s utilized prescriptively when it comes to solving some of these mental and emotional deficiencies.

Physical activity can put you in a very uncomfortable state. Imagine running hill sprints. After two hill sprints, you might say, “My legs are shaking. I’m going to die.” The reality is you know you’re not going to die. You know you’re going to overcome this pain, which I call growth. You’re going to evolve from this.

So then I say, “OK, look at the correlations here. You’ve proven to yourself that you’re capable of embracing and dealing with this fatigue, this pain, this struggle, this high heart rate, and these thoughts going on in your head.” But when you’re sitting over here in this other thought, there is no pain. There is no shakiness. There is no sweating. There aren’t people seeing what’s going on. You’ve proven to yourself that you’re capable of dealing with this here. Why don’t you apply the capability of dealing with it here to dealing with depression, or anxiety, or stress?”

How do we conquer fear?

My answer is very simple when it comes to conquering the disease of fear. It’s about embracing it. It’s not about teaching it like something that doesn’t have to exist. It’s very important for fear to exist. Fear is what makes us conscious. Fear brings nerves. Nerves happen to lead us to being extremely mindful of our capabilities. You become very mindful about things. You approach things with a lot more thought. I don’t think fear is something we should get out of our systems. So the best way to conquer fear is to embrace it and to allow it to have a responsibility in your life.

It makes you conscious of things. You’re usually terrified of things—for example, a presentation or a pitch. You’re terrified of doing this pitch because you’re not prepared. And it’s this fear we have of being rejected, and this fear we have of X, Y, and Z. You feel that if you did everything you possibly could, you wouldn’t necessarily have fear. Don’t get fear confused for nerves. Nerves are just primarily about respecting a process, respecting a moment. But fear is why we choose not to do things. I propose we embrace the fear and do it because fear is actually designed for us to achieve things.

Live with goosebumps

How did your father’s death inform your philosophy on life?

My father passed on January 11, 2014. He had a bit of a rapid decline. The way my father took his last breath made me realize his entire purpose in this world was actually that moment.

We were alone in his room. And I thought I’d get a lot more emotional than I did. It was just such a beautiful moment to see him die with a smile on his face. I looked over to my brother, and I said, “I think dad just went to heaven. He’s smiling.” And my mom put a mirror under his nose, and she looked up at us. She says, “Yeah, your dad just went to heaven.”

So everybody left the room, and I was just sitting there staring at this beautiful, smiling dead man. And I thought his entire purpose in this world was this moment. The 63 years he’d been alive—and at that point, the 33 years I’d been alive—was about this moment in our relationship. I realized that for me to do what I want to do in this world and have my stamp on this world and be able to have a flag as high as my grandfathers’ in this world, my purpose would be about feeling content when I die with how I had touched the world.

That moment showed me how significant that type of exit from this world is for your loved ones. You want to be a selfless human being and work your butt off to die content.

That moment showed me how significant that type of exit from this world is for your loved ones. You want to be a selfless human being and work your butt off to die content.

My father lived his truth. He definitely lived with a lot of fears and with a lot of anxieties and uncontrollable thoughts. But he did come full circle at the end of life and owned up to a lot.

It was a life experience that educated me about delivering this philosophy and this perspective around true optimization as a human being.

There’s some significance to your book’s release date, isn’t there?

Empower Gym is all creative. All I do is deconstruct humans. I built a second company that does that too, and I do that with brands now, so my mind’s always in this creative space. When I got into the marketing component of this book, I had a meeting and I asked, “What’s our marketing strategy and what’s our plan for this book” They obviously laid out a really fantastic plan that they had.

I asked, “What’s the release date?” And they said, “January 11.” I got the biggest goosebumps you can ever imagine. And everyone’s like, “T, why are you so quiet?” And I said, “That’s the day my father went to heaven. This whole book is about my father and my relationship with my father.”

So seven years later, the random Tuesday of my book release happens to fall on the same date as my father’s passing when this entire revelation that the book is based on came to me. Even talking about it now, I’m getting the craziest goosebumps again.

I think this story is really significant to the marketing of this book because it proves something I’ve been pushing so hard to prove, which is the value of intentionality and purity. It results in things money can’t buy, and this is the perfect example.

We all have an opportunity to live with goosebumps. Because it solidifies something much greater than our existence. This isn’t a book-sales thing. A lot of people get very annoyed with me when I don’t capitalize on the influencers in my life. I tell them, “Because they’re not big compared with the reality of everything in this world.” There’s some force that has the power of doing magical things, like I just explained to you, that no human does. I have a very hard time giving that kind of value to humankind. There is something so much greater—something money, or fame, or hype can’t buy.

Watch the full interview

Author Talks

Visit Author Talks to see the full series.

Explore a career with us