A Conversation with Ant Middleton, Elite Forces Soldier, Adventurer & Leader.

A Conversation with Ant Middleton, Elite Forces Soldier, Adventurer & Leader.

Ant Middleton is a remarkable individual. As a soldier, he had a formidable career in the UK’s most elite fighting forces, including the Marines, 9 Parachute Squadron and Special Boat Service (SBS). This career led him to his synonymous role as the Chief Instructor on SAS: Who Dares Wins and on SAS Australia. If this wasn’t enough, 2019 saw him conquer one of the biggest feats known to man, Mount Everest, in the show Extreme Everest, whilst getting trapped in an unexpected, life-threatening storm, he sought to understand the attraction of such a popular, but dangerous challenge.

As a bestselling author, Middleton has published his autobiography, First Man In (2018), followed by The Fear Bubble (2019) and Zero Negativity (2020) which together form The Mindset Trilogy. In 2021, Middleton published Mental Fitness and his first work of fiction, Cold Justice – a thriller that follows an ex-elite soldier facing new, chilling challenges in his life outside the military. 2022 sees the release of his latest book, The Wall, covering his strategies on demolishing fear, seizing control, and reaching our full potential.

In this interview, I speak to Ant Middleton, Elite Forces Soldier, Adventurer & Leader. We explore how each and every one of us is capable of greatness, how we can conquer our fears and find the courage to move beyond the parts of ourselves that hold us back.

Q:  Are we all capable of greatness?

[Ant Middleton]: For all of us, greatness is there from the off, it’s right there in your headspace and mindset. It’s sabotaged either by yourself (self-sabotage) or by what’s going on around you. Society restricts us in a way that doesn’t allow us to operate at our full potential; and there’s certain shackles in society; limitations that people are afraid to push themselves towards. And so they don’t. People get to a limit which they think is acceptable, based on what society thinks, and this means they put a cap on themselves. Once you’re courageous enough to take that cap off… once self-belief kicks in… you find greatness.

Everyone is capable of greatness; it depends on what circle you hang around with, what job you’re in, and whether you’ve self-sabotaged yourself through what others think is a limitation or what society thinks is acceptable. You must find your threshold, at the edge of what you think you’re capable of, and step over.

Q:  What are the walls we hit, and what can we do about them?

[Ant Middleton]: We hit walls more than we think. It might be work-related, in a relationship or in your social circle. When you stop and think about the wall you’ve hit, it can make you feel depressed or anxious, but that is precisely why you need to get past it. The only way we can get past a lot of these walls is through trial and error.

I look at life as a game rather than as success and failure. For most people, failure is a dirty word… they avoid anything to do with failure, they won’t go anywhere near it. it stops them trying – stops them committing – stops them experimenting. I look at life quite pragmatically, you win some, you lose some… you obviously want to win more than you lose, but that’s it.

If you hit a wall, you need to see it as a game. That’s when the trial and error starts. Even if you don’t get to your destination, goal or objective, it doesn’t matter. Committing means you are prepared to learn, grow and enter a new space. It means you will be a better version of yourself.

We all get things wrong, but the more we go through trial and error, the more we succeed. A lot of people fear what people will think if they fail. They worry that if they fail at something, that people will think they are a failure, and so they don’t even commit to try. Ultimately, it’s only through failure that I believe you learn your most valuable lessons.

Q: How should we best understand fear?

[Ant Middleton]: Fear is an emotion and dealing with your emotions is all about emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is understanding emotion for what it is, and making it work for you. Whether it’s fear, anger, whatever it is….

If you feel scared; the starting point is to understand why. You need to then understand how to make the fear work for you – if an emotion doesn’t work for you, it works against you – and a lot of people let their emotions do this. A lot of people may feel fear let’s say, and they don’t like the emotion, and so they’ll never revisit situations that will make them fearful, which are often the situations where progress happens.

When I went into combat, the first time I stood up against a door before going through, you’d better believe I was paralysed with fear, you’d better believe I was thinking every horrid fearful thought you can think of, but I saw that I had positive, experienced colleagues around me. I saw I had training, self-belief, and the tools to get the job done. By going through that thought process, I exposed the emotion and took the layers off. And the more you do it – the more you have exposure and repetition, the more you take the layers off and understand yourself and your emotions. When you go through this process of repetition enough, you can harness your emotions.

Imagine you’re scared of heights. I wouldn’t ask you to go and stand by a cliff-edge, I’d ask you to go as far up the mountain as you can, get close to the cliff edge, turn back, and then next time you go, get closer, and then do it again and get closer, you’ll soon be standing right on the edge, free of fear.  I put myself in uncomfortable positions all the time to understand and learn how I can harness emotions.

What people fail to recognise is that fear is different for everyone. Person A may feel just as scared of leaving the house as Person B does about heights or Person C does about flying. You might think you can relate, but your emotions are unique to you.

Once you understand something, you can start to process it, and once you process something, you can move forward. A lot of people find that hard. People sometimes say, ‘yeah, but Ant, you’re different, you’ve been to combat…’ – no, it’s not different. My fear of going through a door in combat may be just as great as your fear of walking out of your door, or someone else’s fear of crowds. Everything starts with you. Look at yourself. You are so unique and your emotions are unique to you and you’ve really, really got to take time to concentrate on yourself.

Q: How does your assessment of risk in any given situation relate to fear? 

[Ant Middleton]:  I’ve operated at a level where my risk assessment is high. I’ve talked about going through a door in combat; I know someone’s there, they are literally metres away. All that’s stopping me is a wooden door, but I have to risk-assess that situation. What’s the chance of the person shooting one or two bullets? Probably quite high. What’s the chance of those bullets hitting me in the head and killing me straight away? Very, very low. What are the chances that even before a bullet hits me, that one of my pals will come in behind me and get the job done? Very, very high. I’m the aggressor in that situation, so whether it’s 60:40 or 51:49, the odds are with me. So, I’m making these risk assessments and calculations straight away.

Q: What is the importance of taking accountability for our own lives?

[Ant Middleton]: One of the simplest but hardest things to do is to be honest with ourselves. We are works-in-progress from the day we’re born, till the day we die. You should never, ever, stop working on yourself. You should never stop being honest with yourself. You should never stop holding yourself accountable. You aren’t going to get everything right and sometimes, when the shit hits the fan, the easy option is to blame. It’s easy to find excuses, it’s easy to blame. You might be able to fool other people like this – but you can’t fool yourself or lie to yourself because deep down, you know when you’ve lied to yourself and that can make you anxious, depressed, and stop you believing in yourself. When your honest with yourself, you take hold of problems, and dissect them. You take accountability for your actions and start processing. If you lie to yourself, all you’re going to do is live a lie and that’s when you waste time, ruin relationships, and set yourself back.

Q: How can we take accountability when things don’t work the way we want? 

[Ant Middleton]: When we fail at something these days, people go ‘oh well… unlucky, you’ve done well, it just didn’t work out…’ in reality, you need someone to be honest with you and tell you the truth; you could have done better… you didn’t put the work in…. you didn’t do what was asked of you… that’s why you failed. The moment someone says, ‘oh, don’t worry about it…’ you’re lowering your standards, you’re making that kind of behaviour acceptable. This level of integrity is key to any successful business, relationship, friendship or team. Honesty is a tool, like any other.

Q: Do we need to suffer?

[Ant Middleton]: Suffering and hardship are essential, we need suffering in our life to make drastic changes. Change takes discipline, and when you change, your mindset changes, and it gives you a new lease of life. Discipline is really uncomfortable – if you’re disciplined enough to get-up every morning and go to the gym, what are you really doing? You are putting yourself through the hardship and suffering at the gym – it’s a great tool to become a better version of yourself.

The state of your life is purely a reflection of your state of mind. What you’re thinking and living up here is what will you see out there. So if you if you were imagining, if you lived a nightmare in your head, then you’re going to live a nightmare out there. So take charge of what? The one thing that no one can ever, ever take from you.

Q: What is the importance of resilience?

[Ant Middleton]: Resilience is gained through hardship and suffering. As a society, we’ve evolved through learning from hardship and suffering. We’ve got to where we are by building strength of body and mind – it’s resilience. If we take away the challenge, and everything starts to become too easy, things start to devolve. We need to constantly have some challenge in life – to push ourselves past the boundaries and limitations that are set in our had. Resilience and positivity are key to life.

Resilience helps us to become better versions of ourselves. When you go through hardship and suffering and come out the other end, you naturally become more resilient.  You realise what you can endure, what you can get through, and then you develop self-belief and the want to push yourself even more. Resilience is what I love building within myself, even though I’ve done so much to build that resilience. I’ve still got so much more to do.

Put yourself in those awkward situations. And it doesn’t have to be physically. It can be psychologically. Ask yourself those tough questions, because I guarantee you, once you come out the other side, you’ll be like that. You’ll have a new lease of life, a new lease of resilience, and you’ll be like wow, if I can do that, what else can I do?

Q: How do we protect ourselves emotionally? (if, indeed, we need to!)

[Ant Middleton]: I don’t need to protect myself. Who do I need to protect myself from? From morons? From people who don’t even know me? From people that have never met me? From people that I’ve never spoken to in my life? Or who have only worked with me once or twice and don’t really know me? I don’t need to protect anything. What I ned to do is understand who I am, and stay true to my values and message. What I need to do is not worry about external nonsense I can’t control by pretending to be someone I’m not.

I think the reason I get so much scrutiny is because the media and external world know, to an extent, that I’m emotionally bulletproof. Things certainly get in and I process them, but for the most part, people have a pop at me and it bounces off. So to people out there, I’m a bit of a target. If you shoot a paper target, and it makes holes, at some point you’d stop shooting because the target would be ruined. If you could shoot at a target constantly, you would. That’s what the media do to me, and they constantly wait for a crack in my armour, or for me to bite. The media want me to behave like the caricature they paint of me – but that’s just 1-2% of me, they don’t know the 98%. They don’t know the empathetic, compassionate, family man. They don’t know the positive individual. I’ll do anything for anyone. People have this one dimensional personal of me and try to attack that.

I don’t try and protect myself. The moment you try and protect yourself, you’re putting up self-made walls with other people’s bricks.

Q:  What does legacy mean to you?

[Ant Middleton]: Legacy is for egos. I don’t believe in legacy. I just want to be a better man in the next day, week, and month. I want to leave behind an example to my children on what a good man is and I believe that starts with being honest with yourself and upholding the highest standards you can. I also want them to know that through hard-work, honesty and finding a passion, you can achieve anything.

If my children, loved ones and work colleagues realise what they’re capable of, that will make me happy. That’s the power nobody can take away from you – your mindset, and freedom of mind. That’s liberating.

Perhaps by seeing my own journey, people realise they shouldn’t be afraid, shouldn’t limit themselves, shouldn’t be defined by others or by situations. Perhaps through my experiences people might see that you’ll get things wrong and fail, but that you will learn, grow and improve.

My purpose in life is nothing on the exterior. My purpose in life is just to constantly work on myself, on becoming a better version of who I am, because that’s a huge reflection on my children.  Like I say, everything starts with you, my children, and children learn from what they see, not from what they hear. So my job is to come back and just make sure that I try and pass that on. If you want to call it a legacy, that’s all I want to do. I’m so passionate about people and I get so frustrated when I see the potential that some people have that just goes wasted, because I know how phenomenal the human body is. And everything starts with you, it starts with how you look after your mindset.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.