How to ‘Overcome’ Fear: Trevor Ragan (Full Transcript)

Full text of Train Ugly founderTrevor Ragan’s talk: How to ‘Overcome’ Fear at TEDxCedarRapids conference. In this talk, Trevor digs into fear — outlining what it is, where it comes from, and how we can work to put it in its place. Trevor Ragan is the founder of, a free educational website designed to unpack and share the science of learning and development.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Trevor Ragan – Founder,

We learn the best when we operate at the edge of our abilities and a little bit outside of our comfort zone. The truth is I could go in for a few hours about what that looks like and how we can do that.

But today I want to zoom in on sort of an underrated angle, which is: Why do we hate getting out of our comfort zone?

I think if you dig into the research of learning and development, it’s pretty clear that one of our biggest hurdles to become a great learner is fear. The fear of looking bad, the fear of the unknown, the fear of messing up… that’s a huge reason we definitely prefer it in our comfort zone.

The good news is anybody can learn to beat fear. That’s a skill that any of us can develop. But the way that we do that is much different than you might think.

My intent today is very straightforward: it’s just to bridge the gap between what the science says about fear and how we normally think about it and talk about it.

First, we need to talk about where fear comes from; it’s actually wired in. And it comes from a region of our brain called our amygdala. And some people call this our lizard brain. It doesn’t really matter what you call it, we know a few things about this.


First, everybody has an amygdala; it lives right by our brainstem. It’s about the size of two almonds. It’s there for survival; it’s there to keep us alive.

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And one of its most common tactics to keeping us alive is it generates fear to steer us away from danger, which is why if we’re at a baseball game and the batter accidentally throws their bat and it’s flying into the crowd, most people duck. That’s our lizard brain at play. It’s quick and reactive; it detects a threat, generates fear, we duck.

It’s also why I can walk around the edge of this dot and I feel perfectly fine, because it’s about two centimeters high. If this was a 150 feet high, I would be freaking out right now. That’s my lizard brain generating fear saying: “Dude, get away from the edge of the cliff.”

Our lizard brain is great at its job. However there’s a bit of a glitch to the system. The glitch is our amygdala doesn’t really know the difference between the good challenges and the dangerous ones in life. And it doesn’t know the difference between the good and bad risks. So its tactic is really to just avoid them altogether.

There are four sort of triggers that really enhance and create fear: uncertainty; attention; change; and struggle. The idea here is if these four elements are present, fear will be present.

Now I think we can all agree that those four elements could absolutely describe a dangerous situation. But they’re also present in the best learning opportunities as well. They’re present when we perform and compete in art and music. Learning involves lots of these things.

And again if these four elements are present, fear will be present. And more times than not, would we feel fear we find a way to avoid doing the thing, which is excellent when it comes to danger but not ideal for learning.

So yes, this keeps us safe from bats flying at our head but this is also why we don’t like to ask and answer questions in a group. Think about it. If I called on you and you raised your hand to speak up and give an answer, what happens? Most of the people in the room go boom and they look at you: you have attention.

There’s also some uncertainty at play. It might be the wrong answer or a dumb question. With uncertainty and attention comes fear. More times than not, we don’t ask the question; we call that the lizard won the battle. This small little moment would challenge us and stretch us out of our comfort zone, we feel fear, we don’t ask. We’ve all been there.

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This is why back in the day you had a paper due in two weeks, what day would you write the paper? Night before. Same… every time. Procrastination in a big way is coming from the lizard brain, because every day leading up to the due date we have a choice: to sit down and do the research and write or watch Netflix, which one do you think my lizard wants? Netflix.

But let’s talk about why. Through the eyes of the lizard, the world is black and white. It doesn’t really know what we’re doing. In its eyes, it’s either I could struggle right now or not struggle. It’s always going to choose to not struggle.

Another tactic I do, I call it downgrading the struggle, like rather than writing a new article on my website, I’ll vacuum my house three times. I’m staying busy but I’m choosing the option that involves less struggle, uncertainty, attention or change.

This is why I wake up in the morning and say I am definitely going to cook a healthy meal tonight. And then I work all day and I’m driving home feeling tired. And my car does this really weird thing: It sees the Chipotle and go scoop and pulls there. That’s my lizard brain at play.

In that moment, I’m presented a choice: I could have something salty, fatty and delicious right now, or go to the store, buy the ingredients, go home and prepare them. Which one do you think my lizard wants? Chipotle with extra guac.

Now I want to be clear that the tactic of taking what we can get and getting it now, choosing easy over hard, instant gratification, that is excellent back in the day for survival when we didn’t know when our next meal was going to be. It’s great to keep us out of danger.

But we’re playing a different game now but the software is the same. This is also why giving this talk is way harder than the one I did last night in my hotel room. This is also why we’ve all been in our basement watching TV for a couple hours and we know for a fact there are no monsters in the basement.

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But then you turn the TV off and you turn the lights off. And then you walk upstairs like this. That’s our lizard brain. Think about that. We know nothing’s in the basement. But as soon as it’s dark, the lizard goes: look, I’m gone.

It’s kind of funny to joke about. The problem is that’s the force that’s driving lots of our behavior. That’s the force that’s making lots of our decisions.

I guess what I’m getting at is the tactic of avoiding uncertainty, attention, struggle, and change is great if we’re in danger. But most of our life is spent not really in danger. And in this case, that tactic really robs us of amazing opportunities to grow.

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