Karen Thompson: What Fear Can Teach Us!

Posted on October 25, 2015 by Dr. Lynda

“Imagine you’re a shipwrecked sailor adrift in the enormous Pacific. You have three choices to try to save yourself and your shipmates – but each choice comes with a dreadful possible outcome. How do you choose? In telling the story of the whaling ship Essex through her TED Talk, novelist Karen Thompson Walker forces us to imagine our possible futures and decide how to cope with them.” 1

Image: Engraving of the Whale Ship Essex

Let’s start with a couple better questions:

Is fear a bad thing? And what role do the stories we tell ourselves have to play in our decisions?

To come to some new insight on that, treat yourself to this thought exercise: watch Karen Thompson Walker’s TED Talk below and PAUSE the talk at exactly4:45. That’s just after you understand the choices that the sailors faced. Then really think about which option you would choose. Really… process your choices and jot down your decision BEFORE listening to the rest of her presentation.

Watching this along with someone else makes this even more insightful because the most amazing debate about your choices will arise. See if you can round up a companion to enjoy this rare bit of fun insight.

It’s fascinating and if you are like us, this powerful insight might change the way you consider your options almost every day. Enjoy!

Via: TED 2

Well… how did you do?

It seems like such an obvious insight: Author Karen Thompson Walker simply reminds us to listen to the stories we are telling ourselves. That’s not rocket science in theory, but it is so hard to actually practice.

So how often does irrational fear force us to make bad decisions?

Image: Kids with pots on their headsWe’ve just come back from the most extraordinary “ideas conference” called PopTech.

Everyone we met at the conference is working out on the edges of possibility in their fields, just as we are here at everwideningcircles.com. But no one we met had heard of this concept of what fear can teach us, so we thought we’d share this talk today.

Every week here at EWC we feature numerous innovators who are telling themselves a different story than the one that would make them quit. They are dealing with the fear of failure in a healthier way.

Since watching this TED Talk, I have thought of the cannibals on the island a thousand times and turned my back on them. Instead, I stayed with the facts and made decisions without fear as a motivator.

But why do we gravitate towards telling ourselves the most emotionally charged story of all the possible outcomes? We don’t even stop to ask ourselves how likely that particular outcome is.

We do it in our families, businesses, and communities. It seems to be a leap our brain performs automatically. 

Take a look at the following photo. What’s the story that jumped into your mind about what’s going on there?


Are you telling yourself a negative story, perhaps something a bit fearful? It’s an impulse that is irresistible, isn’t it?

Well, actually, this is our 11-year-old daughter sitting by a campfire in our back yard, pouting a bit because we wouldn’t let her have a 20th marshmallow.

Let’s sort this impulse out in our own lives…

First we have to acknowledge that fear is an entire system of brain pathways, and one of the most important responses that has kept humanity from going the way of the Neanderthal. Yet today –  when we do not have to fear a saber-toothed tiger behind every tree – we are still telling ourselves that a critical level of danger may be right around every corner.

Now our stress is social, ethical and financial, but our brain elevates the challenges to that same fear center.

How often do we have difficult family situations that need attention, but we avoid wading in because we are imagining the worst possible outcome?

How often are our business decisions based on avoiding the worst possible outcome?

And most importantly, have you ever told yourself a scary story ahead of time that caused you to pass up a good opportunity?  (Yikes! That’s the hardest one for me to ponder.)


Dean Potter Rope Walking Over Rocks With Moon Behind

Or do you work in an environment that is so “Risk Conservative” that very little that is meaningful gets done?

Some interesting things to consider. See where this new insight takes you.

If you’d like to see an article that shows us how innovation works when fear of failure is not a part of the equation, check out an article we wrote called DARPA: Removing the Risk of Failure. DARPA is one of the world’s most important centers for cutting-edge technology research and innovation.

Have a great week… and watch out for the stories you are telling yourself.

Scroll down to the bottom of this page to find 6 more articles featuring innovators out on the edges of possibility!

Stay open, curious and hopeful.

~ Dr. Lynda

Dr. Lynda is a dentist, artist, global traveler, and philanthropist who looks for potential and shares it with the world.


  1. Thompson Walker, Karen. “What Fear Can Teach Us.” TED.com. TED, June 2012. Web. 26 Oct. 2015. <https://www.ted.com/talks/karen_thompson_walker_what_fear_can_teach_us>.
  2. Thompson Walker, Karen. “What Fear Can Teach Us.” TED.com. TED, June 2012. Web. 26 Oct. 2015. <https://www.ted.com/talks/karen_thompson_walker_what_fear_can_teach_us>.