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Episode Transcript


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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.

DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: is it okay to be motivated by fear?

DUCKWORTH: I’m fearful just listening to this. That’s terrifying. 

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DUCKWORTH: Mike, we have a great question from a listener named Jeff, and I’m going to read it to you. 

MAUGHAN: Hello, Jeff. 

DUCKWORTH: “Hi NSQ. My friend and I were recently watching an episode of a show in which the main character jumps into a pit of fear. And while it starts off with creepy creatures and generic fears, it turns into many of the fears we deal with on a daily basis: fear of not being accepted by others, fear of losing loved ones, and fear of failure.” By the way, I have to say that I don’t know what show Jeff is talking about, like, I don’t know what “pit of fear” — like, it’s so metaphorical, but then he mentions “creepy creatures.”

MAUGHAN: I immediately thought of, like, a pit with, like, snakes and spiders. And then suddenly videos come up of your teachers telling you you’re not good enough or something. 

DUCKWORTH: Right. Yeah. So, Jeff goes on to say: “This resulted in my friend and I having a conversation about fear of making the wrong choice, not living life to the fullest, and fear of rejection. These fears seem to dictate our lives to a pretty high degree. So, I’m curious, how much do fears dictate our lives, and what are some of the ways we can overcome them?”

MAUGHAN: Oh my gosh.

DUCKWORTH: Right? Good question, Jeff. 

MAUGHAN: There’s a story I’d love to tell you about a brother of mine, he’s the doctor, he was telling me about these two surgeons. And he said, one of them will never be a great surgeon. And I said, “Why?” And he said, “Because the fundamental premise driving his life is fear.”  

DUCKWORTH: Fear of failure?

MAUGHAN: Well, he said, “He’s always afraid to make a mistake. He’s very cautious. He’s very deliberate. He’s very slow.”  

DUCKWORTH: Isn’t that good for being a surgeon?

MAUGHAN: Yeah, especially a brain surgeon. I said, “Isn’t that kind of what I want?” And so, I asked my brother, I said, “What’s the fundamental premise driving your life?” And he stopped and thought for a minute. And then, he said, “Continual improvement. Every time I’m doing a surgery, I am focused on: How can I do it better? How can I do it more efficiently? How can I do it more safely?” And that’s what flipped for me is the idea of being driven by fear versus the idea of being driven by continual improvement. I will just say that it was uncomfortable for me because as I thought through my life, I was like, “Man, I think I’m motivated by fear a lot more than I was comfortable admitting.”  

DUCKWORTH: Are you, like, even now in this chapter of your life?

MAUGHAN: I’m much better than I was, for sure. But I — I usually don’t care about, like, what people think of me or whatever, but then occasionally you’re like, “Oh, I guess I care about that more than I thought.”

DUCKWORTH: You know, when I started studying grit and high achievers, I assumed that they would say things like your brother did. Like, “I am driven by the desire to continuously improve.” I was surprised when — like, I’m making this up, but, like, maybe 10 percent of them or so would bring up spontaneously that they were driven by fear of failure. And it shocked me. I was like, “What?” And the reason why I was so surprised is that in psychology, there are these two different motivations. Like, when your brother says that he wants to improve, right, he’s kind of chasing achievement — that’s what we would call an “approach motivation.” Being afraid of something — so you can have this image of, like, something chasing you, and you just don’t want to get caught by it, right, like, that’s — an “avoidance motivation.” And I thought that high achievers would be all about approach motivation.

MAUGHAN: A hundred percent, that would be my intuition, is that they’re the biggest strivers on earth and “nothing can touch me.” Like, no fear at all.

DUCKWORTH: Right. But when I had this experience — and I’m really impressed by some of these people’s candor, because they really are at the top of their fields — it has to make you reckon with the possibility that fear, fear of failure and fear of rejection, even, that it’s not necessarily an Achilles’ heel, because otherwise what are these high achievers doing with it?

MAUGHAN: Oh, it’s harnessing it.

DUCKWORTH: Well, you know, I don’t know whether these people, you could argue, like, well they succeeded in spite of —. But maybe, some people did actually find a way to harness it and achieve because of fear. I mean, if we take a step back and we ask ourselves this question, like, “Why do we even have fear?” Like, I think in today’s day and age, the discomfort people have with negative emotions is, perhaps, in some cases unhealthy, right? Like, “Let’s try to live a life that has no fear, no anxiety, no sadness, no loneliness.” It’s like, “Well, you know, that’s not life.” And I think fear is an important part of life, and actually it’s an important part of your psychology.

MAUGHAN: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting. I mean, I may have shared this with you before, but my sister, who is a therapist, always talks about giving yourself space to feel things. So, when there’s a loss, so many people think, “Oh, I got to get over this.” And she said, “No, you have to give yourself space to mourn. Feel the feeling, and then you can deal with it.” And so, I think what you’re saying is fear, fear is there —.  

DUCKWORTH: For a reason, right? Because what emotions are, including fear, is they’re information, or they’re signals that something is good; signals that something is bad; signals — in the case of fear, it’s that you think something could be bad in the future. That’s where the emotion of fear comes from. You have a sense that something bad is not happening right now but is about to happen. And if you ignore that, you know, that’s a problem. 

MAUGHAN: So, fear is a good thing. I think, obviously, when it goes into anxiety, or whatever, it can be crippling if we don’t —.

DUCKWORTH: No! No, that’s not true either. Anxiety can be good. I’m not saying, like, chronic anxiety or unwarranted extreme anxiety. You know, I read this book recently by this psychologist named Lisa Damour, and she studies adolescent emotional health. And, she’s clinically trained, so she’s talked to an uncountable number of teenagers. And she had this one thing that she said in her writing that really, I was like, “Whoa!” She was like: So many parents, when they call their kids to see how they’re doing in college or they’re checking in with them, there’s, like, a gauge. When they’re happy, and they’re confident, and they’re proud, and they’re energetic, that’s good. And when you check in with your kids and they’re fearful, or they’re anxious, or they’re sad, or they’re lonely, that’s bad. And it’s understandable that we’d feel that way because, of course, it feels better — and it does mean that your life is going better — when you’re experiencing a lot of these positive emotions. But she said a mistake that parents make is to think that the name of the game is to maximize positive emotions and completely minimize all experience of negative emotions. And when I read that, I was like, “I have been doing that.” Like, if I call Lucy or Amanda — because, as you know, they’re in college — and they’re having a bad day or a bad week, I go into, like, “alert mode,” and I’m like, “Oh, this is terrible,” and, like “Let’s fix the problem. Squash the negative emotions.” And it’s important to understand that these feelings are signals. Like, even anxiety. You know, like, having anxiety doesn’t mean you have a mental health disorder. You know what not having anxiety is? It’s being a psychopath. And I’m not kidding. Psychopaths are not able to experience anxiety. And that’s a problem. They have some other problems, too. But, I don’t know, that stopped me in my tracks. When I was like, “Lisa Damour, you have a point.” All those things are — they’re okay, actually.

MAUGHAN: There’s a really interesting author — I’ve just been reading a book called Permission to Feel.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, by Marc Brackett?

MAUGHAN: Yes, yes.

DUCKWORTH: I know Marc. Are you literally reading that book? He’s going to be so happy! I’m going to text him.

MAUGHAN: I am. A dear friend recommended it. So, I tweeted out, a year ago — to my 17 followers, just kidding — but I tweeted out, and I just said, “What is a book that changed your life?” Like, I don’t want “a book I like,” or “here’s a fun book that I read.” What’s a book that legit changed your life? And a dear friend who I admire deeply wrote back and said it was Permission to Feel.

DUCKWORTH: I think Marc would say, on behalf of emotion researchers — and Marc does run the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence — I think he would say, on the topic of fear, that we do have to have the permission to feel fear, as well as these other negative emotions. And since you brought up Marc, I’ll just say that he has this “mood meter.” It’s actually not just his. The field of emotion has said that “look, you can think of any emotion” — jealousy, pride, calm, bliss, boredom, frustration — like, any emotion — “and you can place it somewhere in one of four quadrants.” So, you can think of a horizontal and a vertical axis. And, the horizontal axis is often just negative on the left, positive on the right. The vertical axis is “arousal.” So, high-arousal emotions to, at the bottom, like, not a lot of energy. Now that gives you four quadrants, and I think where most people, especially Americans, want to be is the upper right quadrant, like, “high arousal: positive.” Excitement, giddiness. But where we don’t want to be is high arousal negative — like, fear. And we might not even want to be in the low arousal negative, right? That’s like boredom. And then, the fourth quadrant is “low arousal positive,” and that’s things like “calm.” And anyway, the reason I asked permission from Marc for use of the mood meter is that I wanted to start every single class with these four quadrants. So, it’s just, you know, the first slide that is in my PowerPoint. And what the students do is they put themselves somewhere on the mood meter and it’s kind of auto-populated, so you can kind of see where their little dot shows up on the screen in real time. And, as I say to the students every time, “As you can see, all four of these quadrants are populated, maybe not equally. And I know where you want to be. You want to be in the top right. So do I. I want to be there all the time. But that’s not life.” So, I think this permission to feel fear and to reckon with its function in our life, and even to, like, embrace the fact that, like, really high achievers, super achievers, the most gritty people — they are sometimes driven by fear of failure — for me it was, like, surprising but also very enriching. I was like, “Oh, this is a much more complex view of emotion and even achievement.”

MAUGHAN: Yeah, it’s interesting. There was an article written about a bunch of Winter Olympic athletes in The New York Times back in 2022 called “What Scares the World’s Most Daring Olympians.” I mean, think of how fast Lindsey Vonn is skiing down the mountain. Think of how high Shaun White jumps on the halfpipe in snowboarding. Like it’s actually crazy. 

DUCKWORTH: It’s crazy! And Mikaela Shiffrin just got carted off the slopes to the hospital. And Lindsey Vonn — that’s happened to her a number of times. It’s terrifying. Don’t they reach speeds that, like, cars don’t always reach, like, in normal driving? I mean, it’s crazy.

MAUGHAN: Can I tell you the dumbest thing I’ve ever done, and then we’ll go back to this?

DUCKWORTH: Yes, please. Like, of course! 

MAUGHAN: I was skiing with my friend, Josh. I still can’t believe I did this. Anyway, we’re at the top of this hill, and he says to me, “I’ll race you to the bottom.” And I say, “Okay, cool.” We start going, and I take a couple turns, and I realize that Josh is doing what’s called “straightlining.” He is just — his skis are straight. 

DUCKWORTH: He’s bombing down the mountain.

MAUGHAN: Bombing down. And I’m like, “Well, I’m not going to lose.” So, I start bombing down the mountain, and I get into the best tuck I can. If I wiggle a ski at all, I’m going to lose my knee, I’m going to — it’s going to be a bad situation. We get to the bottom. We still debate — I beat him if you count the finish line as further. Anyway, we looked at our, like, Strava after showing how fa — I broke 70 miles an hour. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh my God. Mike! 

MAUGHAN: That is so stupid.

DUCKWORTH: I’m fearful just listening to this. That’s terrifying. 

MAUGHAN: I think the world record is, like, 160 miles an hour, but that person was wearing all the — I don’t know what it’s called — Lycra suits or whatever. But anyway, the point is, they go very fast. I should never do that again. I did not feel fear in that moment, because pure adrenaline and stupidity took over. But going back to this New York Times article, they interviewed all these athletes doing these crazy daring feats. And it said, “They are scared. Every one of them.” Quote, “Fear of injury is the invisible weight on athletes. Fear might limit the top athletes, but it also might save them.”

DUCKWORTH: And they’re listening to that emotion, right? Like,   I have a mild fear of heights. And so, I just almost can’t believe what these athletes do. But what those interviews suggest is that what they do, they do, even though they are feeling fearful. And I think that’s actually what some psychologists, who study courage, in particular, would say, like: that’s the answer. Not that you don’t ever feel fear. Not that you feel ashamed of feeling fear. But you permit yourself to feel fear, and then your actions are not necessarily dictated by that.”

MAUGHAN: Yeah, look, I mean, to your point of why fear is helpful — and I just think this is a fascinating story — there’s a woman who’s been studied a lot who just doesn’t experience fear. They just call her “SM” to protect her identity, but she has this rare genetic condition that has completely destroyed her ability to feel fear. She’s completely incapable of it. 

DUCKWORTH: She has, like, an impaired amygdala? Because the amygdala is the brain structure that is — actually has lots of jobs, but one of them is fear.

MAUGHAN: But it’s called Urbach-Wiethe disease. And with this disease, the big thing is that they have these deposits in their brain where the amygdala is calcified. And so she has all these stories of, like, being held at knifepoint. And they’re like, “Hey, I’m going to kill you,” and she’s just like, “Okay.”


MAUGHAN: Because she just doesn’t have fear.

DUCKWORTH: Is it getting in, in the way of her life?

MAUGHAN: It is getting in the way of her life in that she’s been held at knifepoint, she’s been held at gunpoint twice, her first husband nearly beat her to death.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, by the way, I don’t want to blame the victim but, it might be that this statistically anomalous frequency of life-threatening situations could have something to do with the fact that she doesn’t have the fear response that gets us to avoid situations that are bad.

MAUGHAN: Like, it doesn’t process in her head like it would most people, “Hey, it’s dark. There’s an alley. This should be a place that should cause fear.” So, fear in that sense would be very valuable. What they found kind of makes up for it is logic, but she’s had to learn, logically, “Hey, don’t do that.” Whereas, for most people, it’s this automatic response of fear that would protect you from these things.

DUCKWORTH: Well, look, Mike, you know, whether it’s fear of heights, or snakes, or planes, or getting rejected, you and I would both love to hear what our listeners have to say about how fear plays a role in their life. We want to know: what makes you feel afraid? How do you manage those feelings? Record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone, and email us at Maybe we’ll play it on a future episode of the show. Also, if you like this show and want to support us, the very best thing you can do is to tell a friend about it. You can also spread the word on social media or leave a review in your favorite podcast app.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: what are Mike and Angela afraid of?

MAUGHAN: I can hardly breathe. People are trying to talk to me, and I’m like, “Don’t — don’t talk to” — I can’t cognitively function. I’m just — it’s just pure fear.

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Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about fear.

DUCKWORTH: So Mike, I think this, um, has some grounding in the modern science of exposure therapy. I’m sure you’ve heard of exposure therapy for fear, yeah? 

MAUGHAN: Yes. Yes, of course. 

DUCKWORTH: I assume you haven’t experienced it, because it’s usually only for people who have severe fears.

MAUGHAN: I’ve never experienced it. Definitely heard about it. I will say, you say you have a small fear of heights. I always tell people I have a crippling fear of heights.

DUCKWORTH: Wait, what? You ski! You went 70 miles an hour down a mountain! 

MAUGHAN: I know. But, like, there’s a lot of hikes that I just — I don’t know, I can’t do. I maybe should get exposure therapy for that, but I haven’t.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, so tell me about skiing. And what do you feel when you are — like, you know that part where the chairlift drops you off at the top of the mountain, and it’s like, flat for, like, two feet and then it’s, like, on all sides, the mountain just goes down. I, I, like, want to pee my pants, which is why I don’t ski.

MAUGHAN: So, I will say, I — in skiing, there’s the green circle, the blue square, and then the black diamond. And the black diamond is —. 

DUCKWORTH: The hardest. 

MAUGHAN: And double black diamond. So, I tend to be more of a blue skier — I ski on blues, and I go safely, but fast. And I do some black diamonds, but I will say, for me, given the fear of heights thing, it’s the issue of standing on the edge, and you can’t really see the slope.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, it’s that steep? Suffice to say that I’ve never gotten off a ski lift other than on a green.

MAUGHAN: Okay. You can see the whole way down on a green. But there’s a moment sometimes where you can’t quite see until you go over the edge, and that for me — it’s not that I can’t ski it. I actually can ski it. It’s that I don’t want to go over the edge like that.

DUCKWORTH: Okay, so you do experience fear. And on a scale from zero to 10, when you get off the ski lift and you’re at the top of a black diamond, how strong is your fear?

MAUGHAN: So, I will say: maybe this is my exposure therapy. Probably seven years ago when I picked up skiing again, I just wouldn’t do it. Now, I will go do it. Yeah. So, I guess I’ve gotten better.  

DUCKWORTH: Can you give me a number? Is it possible to tell me?

MAUGHAN: Yes. This is like when they say, “How much pain do you have?” And they’re like, “I don’t know, compared to what? Childbirth? I’ll just give a different example: when I’m hiking this mountain — there’s a mountain in Utah called Mount Timpanogos. The last mile is along this ledge. Everybody does it. It’s safe. Kids are fine. Like, but in my head, it’s nearly crippling. And I would say I’m at, like, a “nine.” And in fact, I’ve decided never to finish the hike again, because I get up there — there’s a structure built there that, everyone’s sitting there eating lunch, and I saw someone get engaged last time I was on top of the mountain — and I’m sitting there, and I can’t move. I can hardly breathe. People are trying to talk to me, and I’m like, “Don’t — don’t talk to” — I can’t cognitively function. I’m just — it’s just pure fear. 

DUCKWORTH: And with skiing you don’t feel the same way? 

MAUGHAN: Not as much. 

DUCKWORTH: Because then you’re on top of a mountain. And the mountain is covered with snow and ice. And you have slats on your feet. So, rationally, you should feel more fear, right, for skiing?

MAUGHAN: I guess, but I know that that’s how I’m supposed to get down, where the other, I think I’m just going to blow off and fall into a crevice.

DUCKWORTH: Do you think that’s because of your practice in skiing? Because that’s really what exposure therapy is. I mean, I am not an expert, but what I know, a lot of it is from reading these old articles by Albert Bandura. So, Al Bandura is known for a lot of his major discoveries on confidence. He thought that so much of what we do in life is because we believe that we can. He called it “self-efficacy.” I think the lay term would be “confidence.” But he was also, for a period of his life, interested in phobic patients — people who had debilitating fears of heights, or snakes, or blood or, you know, fill in the blank. And he was among the first psychologists, at least, to develop exposure therapy — meaning that, for example, if you have a fear of snakes that it would be, probably, terrifying to you to even look at a photo of a snake, right? If you have this severe phobia. But he would expose that to you. So, you would, like, be forced to look at some photos of snake — and then, what you would do, is you would experience the fact that it was okay. So, it’s like: okay, well, now let’s watch a video, let’s watch a whole documentary on snakes. And so, you don’t want to do it. You want to look away, but you’re forced to. And then, you experience that that was okay. And then, Al says, “Hey, in that tank over there behind glass, and with a sealed top, is an actual snake. And we’re going to go look at it from 40 feet away. And now, we’re going to look at it from 30 feet away. And now we’re going to look at it from 20 feet away. Now, we’re going to come right up to the glass of this.” And the exposure therapy proceeds all the way through I think, like, holding a snake in your hands. And exposure therapy is one of the huge victories of modern clinical therapy, like, because it really works incredibly well. So, I’m wondering whether you ski so much because of where you live in Utah that you have been able to pair the experience of heights with, “Okay, you get to the bottom of the mountain. It was okay, ” enough times that you have diminished, in some respect, the fear itself, but also you have learned to do the courageous thing, which is act in a way, even when you do have some fear.

MAUGHAN: I think that’s true, and what’s interesting is you’re talking about it. I’ve learned to do it in the context of skiing. I don’t think I’ve learned to do it in the context of, for example, maybe some of these hikes.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah! It’s specific. The one thing that is actually an enduring truth about human nature is that we are very context-sensitive. And what I mean by that is that human beings, by our nature, are always trying to figure out, like, “What do I do in a situation like this?” So, a hike is different from skiing. You know, skiing is different from a cocktail party. A cocktail party is different from when you walk through a preschool classroom. So, we’re always trying to adapt our behaviors to the context. And so, one of the challenges of trying to generalize to someone, like, courage when they are around something that they’re afraid of is that you have to actually practice in all different scenarios. I was talking to this coach recently — an Olympic coach — and one of the things that elite coaches learn is that if you only have your athletes practice the kind of tempo, and the level of noise, and the energy, and the pressure of practice, which is pretty low — it’s a quiet gym, you have all the time in the world, you can have do-overs — they never get good at playing. So, professional and Olympic coaches simulate the game day, highest-pressure situations because we’re so context-sensitive. Like, you know, if you’re going to do exposure therapy, you have to practice in the context that’s problematic. But, Mike, I just want to say: I am so afraid of heights while hiking. Like, I don’t have a problem when I’m in a skyscraper. I don’t have a problem flying. But, I think I told you that I was on vacation with Lucy, and Amanda, and Jason, and it was a hiking vacation. And I am not kidding, there were times during that hike that I was on all fours. I was, like, crawling, like a baby, and everybody was laughing at me — meaning, my family. And I was like, “We are going to fall off this mountain!” They’re like, “Mom, you cannot fall off this mountain.” And I told them — I was like, “I am never going on a hike like that again, and I don’t want to go on a vacation like this again.”   So, I will say this: exposure therapy is great, but sometimes you just say to yourself, like, it’s also not worth it. Like, I don’t care to pair the experience of being on an alpine precipice with, “Oh, it turned out okay.” Like, I’m okay with just being terrified and never hiking in The Alps. 

MAUGHAN: Never doing something like that again. I hear you. Can I give you an example? I had not — I’d never thought of this this way when you were talking about exposure therapy, but I admitted earlier that my life has often been dictated by fear — or at least more than I would like to admit or, or be conscious of, right? And so, when I was thinking of Jeff’s question — “How much does fear dictate us, and how do we overcome it?” — one area for me that’s been helpful is kind of tackling a hard situation or a hard conversation instead of avoiding it. I’ve often had a fear of, like, “Oh, I don’t know how that’s going to end.” And so, I just exercise pure avoidance. And for me, that’s been very — well, I think probably for everyone, it’s pretty unhealthy. But the exposure therapy of, of every time I’ve gone and had the hard conversation, then the anticipation and all the buildup — you’re just like: “Oh wow!”

DUCKWORTH: “That wasn’t so bad!” 

MAUGHAN: “That was not worth what I just put myself through.” And so, that exposure therapy — maybe that’s different, but — has been very helpful to me to say, “Hey, guess what? Every time you do this, it’s okay. So, stop avoiding. Stop going through so much unnecessary anxiety.” 

DUCKWORTH: So, with all the things that we said about, like, “It’s okay to have fear. Life would be difficult and dangerous if you didn’t have fear, so fear in some ways is a good thing.” But yeah, I think fear can prevent us from experiencing things that are worth it, and one of the reasons why exposure therapy needed to be invented is that the natural response, often, is just to avoid the thing that’s causing the fear. It’s like a road you never go down. So, it’s, like, you never learn that it’s not as bad as you think it was going to be. And I think that’s what a snake-phobic individual or somebody who has a paralyzing fear of flying — they just navigate their lives around snakes and planes. And so, they never learn. And so, that’s what exposure therapy really is. It’s learning through experience that things aren’t so bad.  And I think you are describing, in a sense, like, self-administered exposure therapy. And it reminds me, actually — so I was just talking to Lucy. So, whe has no fear of hiking —.  

MAUGHAN: But her mother does.

DUCKWORTH: Her mother thinks she should have a little bit more fear of heights than she does. But she called me the other day, because she’s in this psychology class. And the homework assignment is that she and a group of students in her team have to come up with a psychologically-wise intervention. And the idea is that if you really understand psychology, then you can actually create interventions for yourselves — or sometimes public policy — that make life better. And so, she and her friends are sitting around thinking about, like: what do they really know? Like, what do they know from their own experience? And I think these are all — she’s a junior, so I think these are upperclassmen. They’re like: “You know, when you first get to college, you’re afraid. You’re afraid, first and foremost, of being rejected.” And by the way, as she was telling me this, I was like, “Oh, this makes so much sense.” Like, an older person would be, like, “Are you afraid of failing your classes?” “No, just being socially rejected.” So, I asked Lucy for examples, because I was, like, trying to remember what it was like, and it’s been a while. And she was like, “Oh, you know. Like, you walk into the cafeteria, and you don’t know where to sit.”

MAUGHAN: Oh my gosh. Yes. Yes. I hate this.

DUCKWORTH: Doesn’t that just bring it right back? You’ve got the tray in your hands, and you see this empty seat.

MAUGHAN: You’re just begging for any friendly face anywhere. 

DUCKWORTH: Could someone please wave me over? There could be a table of people, and there’s an empty seat. And in your head, you are thinking, “Oh, they’re probably saving it for someone else. I’m going to sit down, and they’re going to, like, look at me like, ‘Oh God, we have to have a conversation with you? We don’t even know you.'” And that fear, she says, prevents people from sitting down at a table that they don’t know most, if not everyone. And so, she and her friends, classmates, have this idea of creating an intervention where you go through an activity and you read statistics, like — I’m making this up, but like, you know: 95 percent of Stanford freshmen when given the following scenario said that they would be afraid to take the seat at the table. But by the time you ask juniors, only 20 percent say that. And, like, quotes — and so I was like, “By the way, these things have to be true. You can’t lie to people.” She’s like, “Yeah, I know.” But I just thought that was really interesting, because I think for somebody her age, it’s not heights, and it’s not planes, and it’s not snakes: it’s rejection. You know, she and her friends were saying that, like, you know, somehow they got exposed to the fact that, like, (a) most people are not going to reject you, and (b) — and I thought this was really important — she and her friends learned that on the rare occasion that you are rejected, and they actually are saving that seat for somebody else, and they actually don’t want you to be in their conversation, it’s okay.  

MAUGHAN: That’s what I love, is that I think maybe by your junior year or whenever you also learn that, like, 90 percent of the time, people will be happy you sat down. And the 10 percent of the time it doesn’t, it’s not that big a deal.

DUCKWORTH: So, Mike, look, we’ve talked about how fear is part of the emotional repertoire. I guess where I want to end is — I want to end with this idea of courage.   I think this courage research is interesting. I remember back in the day, when I was first starting graduate school, there was a psychologist, who’s no longer alive. His name was Chris Peterson. And he was creating the inventory of character strengths for positive psychology. And he was working with my advisor, Marty, researching courage as one of the key human virtues — and he told this story always about firefighters. He said, “What courage is — it isn’t not being afraid of dying in the fire.   It’s going into the burning house, despite the fact that you are feeling fear.” And I always thought that was just Chris Peterson’s insight or maybe from his interviews. But it turns out that there is a literature on courage, and there’s a psychologist named Stanley Rachman who was a lifelong scholar of fear and courage, and he wrote a book of the same title, Fear and Courage. And he said, “People have the misunderstanding that courage means lack of fear.” And I think what Rachman would say is that there may be a class of people who have a minimal fear response, but that is not the only way to be courageous, because any of us can learn to experience fear and do things, nevertheless. There was actually a New York Times article called, “Searching for the Source of a Fountain of Courage,” where the journalist talked a lot about Rachman’s research. I thought it was a very nice lay summary. This is about paratroopers, actually, who were being studied by Rachman as they prepared for their very first parachute jump. So, the article says, “The work revealed three basic groups: the preternaturally fearless, who displayed scant signs of the racing heart, sweaty palms, spike in blood pressure, and other fight-or-flight responses associated with ordinary fear, and who jumped without hesitation.” The second group was “the handwringers, whose powerful fear response at the critical moment kept them from jumping.” That’s a direct quote from the article. 

MAUGHAN: Oh, wow. So, they just didn’t do it.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, that would be me. “And finally: the ones who reacted physiologically like the handwringers but who acted like the fearless leapers.” So, this study by Rachman, so nicely summarized in this article, I think gives us some hope. Those of us who feel like we have the racing heart; we have the sweaty palms; we have the spike in blood pressure; we have the fight-or-flight response; we feel like we have a highly-functioning amygdala. I feel like, for me, that is the only kind of courage I’m ever going to be capable of. And, if I had to choose a surgeon, or a collaborator, or a friend, honestly, I think I would choose those courageous jumpers who did it despite the fear — not because of the absence of fear. So, um, I don’t know, “Permission to Feel” seems like a good — well, it’s a great book, but it’s also just a good one-liner for this question that Jeff gave us. And maybe for life.

MAUGHAN: So Jeff, there you have it. Permission to feel.

And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:

In the first half of the show, Mike and Angela wonder which television show — in which a character jumps into a quote, “pit of fear” — inspired listener Jeff to write in. I reached out to Jeff and learned that he was thinking of Season 7, Ep. 10 of Adult Swim’s animated science-fiction sitcom Rick and Morty in which the titular character Morty Smith, voiced by Harry Belden, jumps into a “fear hole” in the men’s bathroom of a Denny’s restaurant.

Later, Angela states that clinical psychopaths do not experience anxiety. This isn’t necessarily true. Recent research has indicated that there are at least two distinct subtypes of psychopathy. According to work published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, “‘primary’ psychopathy is characterized by low anxiety and thought to result from a genetic predisposition,” and “‘secondary’ psychopathy is characterized by high anxiety and thought to develop in response to environmental adversity.” Also, Mike says that he thinks that professional speed skiers wear suits made out of Lyrca, a highly elastic synthetic material also known as Spandex. These athletes actually wear airtight red suits made of latex, a naturally occurring rubber harvested from the Pará rubber tree, along with aerodynamic helmets to help them reach maximum speeds.

Finally, Angela says that Stanford University professor Albert Bandura was among the first psychologists to develop exposure therapy. Bandura’s paper on patients suffering from ophidiophobia, a fear of snakes, published in 1969, actually built on a model of systematic desensitization developed a decade earlier by South African psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe, who paired incremental exposure to feared stimuli with relaxation techniques. We should also give an honorable mention to the ninth-century Persian scientist Abu Zayd al-Balkhi, who wrote in his essay, “Sustenance of the Soul,” that quote, “the best methods for tranquilizing fear and panic are to acquire much knowledge and information of fearsome things… and to force oneself to repeatedly expose one’s hearing and sight to noxious things, though disliking the practice, until one’s senses are familiarized by them.”

That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on routines.

Kyle GRONE: Hi, Mike and Angela. Interesting conversation around routine. Ironically, I have no routines. I find it difficult to do almost anything consistently. In fact, I take a different route to work almost every single day. Inversely and maybe related or unrelated, I have the ability to find flow state to do highly-detailed technical work basically on command. Love the show. Thanks so much. 

Alicia SNIDER:  Hey, Mike and Angela, this is Alicia from Ontario, Canada, and I recently heard your episode on the need for routine, and it got me thinking of something my husband suggested when we were still dating, and he said we should go on a date every single week, and I was kind of skeptical at first because money doesn’t grow on trees, and I was thinking how are we going afford that and kind of jumped to imagining a very elaborate, sort of romantic, well-planned thing every week, which didn’t feel sustainable. However, we workshopped it a bit. And sometimes it was very, very low key, and when kids came along, it definitely changed. However, we have been very consistent about it being every single Monday night and it being a line on our budget, because it’s something that we’ve prioritized and thought was healthy for a marriage. And so we did it. We made it work. So, I’m really thankful that there is a really good spot in between routine and flexibility that can be found and that can actually be really beneficial. As somebody who loves spontaneity and surprises and thought that it would not be compatible with this idea, I have had my mind changed and happily so. Alright, thanks guys! 

That was Kyle Grone and Alicia Snider. Thanks to them and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear about your fears — and how you deal with them. Send a voice memo to, and you might hear your voice on the show!

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: do we place too much emphasis on grades?

DUCKWORTH: How much of college is trying to get a perfect G.P.A., and how much of it is actual learning?

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.

*      *      *

No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. The senior producer of the show is me, Rebecca Lee Douglas, and Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Greg Rippin. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening!

DUCKWORTH: Hello, stranger! 

MAUGHAN: There she is!

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  • Albert Bandura, professor of psychology at Stanford University.
  • Marc Brackett, founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and professor in the Child Study Center at Yale School of Medicine.
  • Lisa Damour, clinical psychologist and senior advisor to the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University.
  • Christopher Peterson, professor of psychology and organizational studies at the University of Michigan.
  • Stanley Rachman, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.
  • Mikaela Shiffrin, Olympic alpine skier.
  • Lindsey Vonn, Olympic alpine skier.
  • Shaun White, Olympic snowboarder.
  • Joseph Wolpe, 20th-century South African psychiatrist.



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