Thursday, August 8, 2013

TedX Talk on Fear by Karen Thompson

I ran across this TedX Talk by Karen Thompson recently and I wanted to share it with you.  Karen Thompson is the author of 2012 book The Age of Miracles, a young girl and her family awake one morning to discover that the rotation of the Earth has suddenly begun to slow, stretching the length of the 24-hour day and throwing the natural world into disarray.

Karen's talk focuses on a story of American sailors with a troubled boat that eventually became the basis for the story Moby Dick.  With a broken boat in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean they are faced with a choice between 3 options to survive.  The first is take the closest route to land and end-up somewhere near modern day Tahiti where they have heard stories of cannibals.  The second option is a more intermediate route to modern day Hawaii which in the current season will face certain storms and rough seas.  The third is the longest route towards South America where it is certain they will run out of food and face likely starvation.

Like any good story, her story of the men of the Essex can teach us some important lessons about the impact of fear in a corporate context - specifically its impact on decision making.  The basic premise of her talk boils down to three things:

  1. Fear can be profound and imaginative and that some of the best minds in history were haunted by intense fears
  2. We should think about fears as stories with characters and plots that make us think of the future
  3. By thinking of fears in this way we can apply a filter of better reason to our fears and improve our decision making

While not necessarily wrong, Karen points out the benefits of fears but almost seems to glorify fears as a motivator above the negative realities of our fears.  She references a study of fears in entrepreneurs and glorifies how they study fears and put plans in place for the fears which they think are most likely to come true.  But how much time, effort, resources, and emotional energy go into this process?  These are resources that could have been used to move their business forward and in some cases could even be preventing them from being successful, much like the men of the Essex.

She mentions that sometimes fears do come true but they are statistical anomalies.  Take a look at the picture below that outlines the chances of dying in the following ways.  Notice the paradox that exists between the chances of dying in a horrific way that fuels our fears versus those that are the result of everyday habits.

Much like the men of the Essex, corporations must pay attention to the more subtle and realistic problems facing them and that starts with the components of culture that create a fear mentality so that when faced with a possibly life threatening problem (a manifestation of a fear) you are not distracted by all the other possibilities (that are oftentimes more remote in likelihood) and you stay focused on the task at hand for the best possible outcome.

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