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 Trainugly.com, a free educational website designed to unpack and share the science of learning and development.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Trevor Ragan – Founder, Trainugly.com
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve had the absolute honor of teaching research like this and principles like this to hundreds of groups all around the world. I’ve worked with major league baseball teams. I’ve worked with hundreds of schools, students of all ages, Fortune 500 companies, and even inside of a prison before.
And when we teach this, we ask a powerful question: When has fear robbed you of an opportunity to grow? The responses I think say a lot: one, everybody has a response, which means no matter who we are, what we do, this happens. Fear robbing us of experiences.
A third-grader, we taught this concept to them, he got up and he shared, he said “I play baseball, and in every game I tell my coach I want to play in right field, because no one ever hits the ball to right field.” He said “I want to play in the infield but I’m afraid if someone hits a ball at me I might mess up. So I always play right field.”
Everybody can relate to that story. But there is something we wanted to do, could do, maybe even should do but when the time comes to do it, we end up in right field. That’s our comfort zone. And we’ve all been there.
A high school student shared she was in the final qualifying round to get on The Voice, the singing show, and that she had to sing one more song. And if it went well she could have made it on. It came time to sing the song, she freaked out and left. She shared this in front of her classmates and many of the students in the room gave her the scrunched up: what are you thinking look?
And they’re kind of right like singing that song could have changed her life.
Here’s the truth about fear. It’s really easy to sit in a comfortable room and talk about what we could do and should do. And it’s even easier to talk about what other people could do and should do.
Like it’s easy to say on paper of course, the third-grader should play in the infield; he’ll be fine. And on paper of course she should have got on the stage and sang the song. That’s easy to say.
But the truth is if we’re in their shoes, with their experiences we’d probably do the same thing, because fear is such a powerful force.
The other angle I want to talk about with her example: we don’t know how it would shake down. But I think we can agree on two things. You can’t make it on the show if you don’t sing the song, just like you can’t get the job if you don’t apply, and you can’t get into the college unless you send in your app.
So fear is robbing us of many potential outcomes, but it also robs us of something else that’s maybe even more important. And that’s the experience. That getting on the stage and singing the song, that applying for the job and going through the interview process. Those are good experiences whether we make it or not and fear is getting in the way of that.
Every day no matter who we are, what we do, fear is robbing us of opportunities to grow. I actually learned about this topic from my hero, that guy right there. His name is Seth Godin. He is my absolute hero, and I had the honor of skyping with him a few years ago. And we had an incredible conversation about fear.
He taught me about the lizard brain and what it does. As he was going through this, it rocked my world big time, because as he was teaching me this, I was flashing back to all the times in my life that fears messed me up.
Here’s my biggest. I actually grew up in Lander, Wyoming which is also called the middle of nowhere and it was my dream since about fifth grade to go to school at Duke University, and I was obsessed with that.
From fifth to twelfth grade, I chased that with everything I had. Long story short I was accepted into the school probably because they needed someone from Wyoming, but I cut in. And I got out to Durham, North Carolina for my first year of college, thousands of miles from home.
I was way out of my comfort zone which meant there was a lot of fear. I felt like everybody there was smarter than me and better than me and richer than me, and that I didn’t really belong.
During my first year of classes at my dream school, I never said a word in a class. I never asked a question, never answered a question, didn’t participate in discussion. On the days I was supposed to get up and present like this, I skipped. Why? Because my lizard was at the wheel generating lots of fear.
I felt if I gave the wrong answer, they were going to know I’m the guy from Wyoming that doesn’t belong here. The way I see it fear robbed me of a year of development at an incredible school.
So let’s go back to this conversation with Seth. As he’s teaching me this and I flashback to that, I think you can start to guess what I asked him next. My question was: how do you get rid of this? Because my thinking was fear made me bad at learning. If I removed the fear, then I could be good at learning.
So the question I asked is: How do you kill the lizard brain? His response changed my life. He said “I’m thrilled you asked the question that way, because that is exactly the wrong question. That if you’re seeking to destroy, defeat, conquer the lizard brain, you will fail. Your brain is nothing but a chemistry experiment; it’s electricity and chemicals.”
And when you push back on the lizard brain, when you try to bargain and reason with the lizard brain, it freaks out, it inflames. You cannot win. But what you can do is dance with the lizard brain. What you can do is realize that our lizard brain is a compass, and then when it freaks out, it’s telling you that you’re on to something, that you’re about to do something that’s brave and bold and powerful. And that we should listen to it by doing the opposite of what it wants us to do.
I think if we zoom out this concept of dancing with fear and using it as a compass is brilliant. If we know our lizard absolutely wants us to stay in our comfort zone, if we ever do get out of our comfort zone, of course it’s going to freak out. The freak-out is a signal that we’re in a learning experience if we know how it works.
So now I’m standing up here in front of you saying we should use fear and feel fear. And to be honest, that’s a 180 from how I used to talk about this.
I used to travel around telling people to be fearless and to not be afraid. Now that we understand how fear works and where it comes from, think about the problems of that approach. I think there are two big ones.
In telling someone to be fearless, we’re really telling them to do something that can’t be done. That if we’re doing something that involves uncertainty, attention, struggle, and change, we’re going to feel fear. And the only way to feel no fear is to not do it, not care or hold back. And that’s not what we want.
So logically if I care and it involves uncertainty, attention, change, and struggle, I’m going to feel fear. I can name it what I want but that feeling is there.
I think the second problem is this creates shame around fear and can make it worse. Let’s say you’re sitting in the lobby before your dream job interview. You’re sitting there before you go in. Do you care about that interview? Probably. Is there some uncertainty? Yeah, you might get it; you might not.
There’s some attention; there’s struggle. Are you going to feel a little something sewn? Without a doubt. The problem is if everyone around you is telling you, you have to be fearless; don’t be afraid; do you see how that can start to snowball and create shame? You might be sitting there and go… oh I’m not supposed to feel like this. Something must be wrong. I must not be ready. No one else feels like this.
And all of that can snowball and make the fear worse. But it’s all coming from this flawed idea of I’m not supposed to feel fear. The big upgrade we’re trying to make is for people to understand feeling fear before a big job interview or a performance or a talk, anything that stretches us and challenges us, it doesn’t mean something’s wrong, it doesn’t mean we’re not ready. It means we’re a human. That’s the human response.
With our old-school approach to fear, we look at it as a very negative thing. So we assume the presence of fear means I can’t or shouldn’t do this.
With our upgraded approach, we realize it’s natural, it’s human. And with that knowledge, you see we’re more likely to put ourselves in those situations. We’re more likely to do the thing which helps us learn grow and get better.
To be honest with you, no topic that I’ve learned about learning has helped me more than this one. That before that conversation with Seth, I was an absolute mess before during and after presentations like this. And I assumed that all the fear that I felt was because I was too young or not smart enough to do this.
Literally since the day he gave me permission to feel fear, it’s totally changed the way that I do this. But it doesn’t mean the fear goes away. I’ve done almost 900 talks like this in the last three years.
Dancing with fear is a skill so the more that we do it the better we get but speaking from experience the fear doesn’t go anywhere. My lizard is freaking out right now. This is a skill, this is something we can all get better at.
I think we need to steal a page from Liz Gilbert’s brilliant book Big Magic where she talks a lot about fear. In fact, she has a letter to fear. And she talks about how we need to keep fear in the back seat of our car.
Knowing that we can’t kick it out of the car, we have to keep it in the back seat. I think it’s brilliant, because the problem is when the lizard is at the wheel, it detects many learning opportunities as threats. Every problem, challenge, obstacle, or change through the eyes of the lizard is a threat. When we detect threats, we find a way to avoid them.
If we can put the lizard in the back seat and we take the wheel, we realize most of those things are actually opportunities. When we frame them as opportunities, we’re more likely to do them, experience them, and it helps us learn grow and get better over time.
Once again this is a skill, which means it’s something that we can build up to. I’m not saying go home tonight and pick the that freaks you out the most and do it tomorrow.
But I am saying in treating this as a skill we can start to get reps and practice of feeling fear and asking the question anyways; feeling fear and volunteering for the project a little bit outside of our comfort zone.
The more that we do that, we’re building that muscle for the bigger leaps we’ll make later. Nobody is perfect with this. My lizard brain still wins lots and lots of battles.
The idea is to be aware of the process and aware of our choices and work to spend a little more time outside of our comfort zone. And that is something that we can all do.
I hope this will help you do that.