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Good Fear vs Bad Fear

In her TED talk, Karen Thompson speaks about fear.

Fear is a natural device for heightened awareness.

Used rationally, fear can be a good thing.

It keeps us on our toes, prepared.

The problem with fear is when it becomes irrational.

When we begin to fear the wrong things.

Herman Melville’s book, Moby Dick, was inspired by a true story.

But the real story was much more terrifying than his book.

In 1820 the whaleship Essex was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This is several times larger than the Atlantic.

The ship’s three wooden rowing boats were hunting whales.

Suddenly they saw a huge whale, nearly a hundred feet long.

As long as their whaling ship and weighing several hundred tons.

It put its head down and charged the ship at top speed.

While they watched, it rammed the ship, twice.

The ship slowly sank.

But the bad part hadn’t started yet.

Now the men were alone, in tiny rowboats, thousands of miles from anywhere.

The nearest land was seven miles straight down.

They had to choose.

And they let their fear choose for them.

There was one island, a thousand miles away.

But the men were afraid there might be cannibals there.

So they chose to make for South America instead, by a route which was nearly four times as long.

They were so scared of cannibals they let that fear override their fear of storms, starvation, thirst, slow death.

And the twenty men in three boats began to make the impossibly long journey.

Now the bad part started.

Six months later eight of the twenty were still alive.


They survived by drinking seawater, their own urine, and eating the bodies of their dead comrades.

By the end they were even murdering their shipmates so they could eat them.

They’d become cannibals.

They’d become the thing they most feared, by avoiding the thing they most feared.

They’d let fear choose.

The rational choice would have been to make for the closest island.

To be aware of the rumours of cannibals but to know it was the lesser of the evils.

Maybe there weren’t any cannibals.

Even if there were, twenty sailors would stand a good chance.

There would at least be food.

They could rest and provision the boats for a longer voyage.

Either way, it was a better bet than trying to survive four thousand miles without food or water.

But the sailors weren’t being rational.

They let fear of what might be chose for them.

Rather than using knowledge of what actually was to help them choose.

Karen Thompson says that’s how we run our lives.

We let fear of what might be override knowledge of what actually is.

And we make exactly the wrong decisions.

Fear can be a very useful source of awareness.

It can make us spot things we’d otherwise ignore.

It can keep us on our toes and give us an advantage.

Fear can also be a very useful source of motivation.

It can give us the energy to do more then we’d otherwise do.

Again, it can give us an advantage.

But used wrongly, fear turns to dread.

And we no longer run towards reason and logic, just away from our imagination.

That’s what happens if we don’t control fear.


It’s okay to have fear.

It’s not okay for fear to have us.

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