Like much of the planet right now, I'm obsessed with HBO's fantasy series, Game of Thrones. I think about it pretty much every waking minute, but there was a moment in last Sunday's episode that has really stuck with me. It even puts a lump in my throat.
Robb Stark, the honorable King of the North, is remembering his father, the brave Ned Stark, who was so loved before getting unjustly beheaded for trying to save his family and the people of Winterfell.
Robb's speech went like this:
He was the best man I ever met.... He once told me that being a lord is like being a father, except you have thousands of children. And you worry about all of them: The farmer plowing the fields is yours to protect, the charwomen scrubbing the floors, yours to protect, the soldiers you order into battle. He told me he woke with fear in the morning and went to bed with fear in the night. I didn't believe him. I asked him, "How can a man be brave if he's afraid?"
"That is the only time a man can be brave," he said.
The passage brings tears, I think, because it's a conclusion I've been slowly drawing myself. When I began doing research for my book The Fear Project a few years ago, I thought I wanted to be fearless -- a superhero. Like Robb, I would've asked my father, "How can a man be brave if he is afraid?" But after reading hundreds of studies about fear and talking to some of the world's experts on fear science, my view has evolved.
First off, fear is very complex. But the young Robb was right that fear can keep us from being brave. One of the features of our fight-or-flight-or-freeze response is that we can become paralyzed and simply do nothing under threat -- a deer in the headlights. Not very brave. Another feature is that we might go into complete autopilot and harm someone we don't mean to: a scuba diver who, panicking, inadvertently steals his partner's air supply; a police officer who thinks a man's cell phone is a gun and mistakenly pulls the trigger. Again, not brave. Study after study has shown that fear and self-doubt also make us perform less than our best. If you tell a group of math students they're being filmed while taking a test, or that there's some money on the line -- as psychologist Sian Beilock describes in her excellent book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When We Have To -- most will underperform from the raised stress. And how can you be brave like Ned Stark if you can't perform up to par? Ned had to be ready for battle at any moment.
It's a tough question, and in some ways, Ned is wrong. Fear can be extremely negative. Fear keeps us from living our dreams, makes us scared of people who are different, creating war and racism. It lies to us about our potential. We want to be fearless, right?
Yes, but Ned Stark was talking about a fear for others. If I didn't fear dropping my newborn son, I'd be more careless with him. If I didn't fear hitting someone with my car, I'd speed through residential neighborhoods where kids are playing. When I think about the fact that I'll die, or that my wife won't be here forever, it makes me a little scared, but it also makes me appreciate the precious time we have together. That makes me a better husband. Fear -- in this useful form, the kind Ned Stark was talking about -- is not the opposite of love (as so many people oversimplify). It is love.
That said, our stress and fear response is a rather brutish part of our biology. As neuroscientist Daniela Schiller recently told me, the amygdala (the ancient part of our brain associated with fear) sends the same signals -- increased adrenaline and cortisol -- to the body whether you're afraid of losing money or afraid for your child's life. The result is a faster heart rate, sweaty palms, etc. And again, that sort of fear will likely hinder performance whether it's selfish fear or selfless fear. Imagine a golfer who is stressed about losing a tournament or stressed about his wife's cancer. Both types of stress might mess with his game.
So, how is Ned Stark right in saying that fear is the only way a man can be brave?
Well, for one, as sports psychology consultant Paige Dunn told me in our recent interview, if you're not a little afraid, you're probably not pushing yourself to your potential. Fear comes when we're doing something new, stretching our limits. Ned Stark was such a good knight and lord -- and so loved by the people -- because he was constantly pushing himself to do the right thing for his family and his people. He was often tired. He usually looked haggard. But that was why we all loved him. You knew Ned was going to lay it on the line to do the honorable thing.
Fortunately, now some more nuanced scientific studies are beginning to show how the Ned Starks of the world might also perform at the top of their game despite their fear. Beilock's lab at the University of Chicago, for example, recently showed that performance may not be hindered by fear and stress so much as how we interpret fear, how we frame it. In the Beilock study (page 141 of Choke), math students were asked to take a challenging test and had their cortisol -- or stress hormone levels -- measured just after the exam. Students who have a pattern of anxiety about math did more poorly with higher stress responses, but students who love math actually did better with higher stress. The reason, Beilock theorized, is that "if you can manage to interpret your body's [fear] response to the situation as positive, as a call to action, you are likely to thrive. But if you interpret your body's response as a sign that you are in a bad place with no way out, the worries and ruminations that result may send you into a 'choke.'" (I recently wrote more about framing stress in ESPN Magazine.)
I relate this type of positive fear to surfing. When I'm in waves that scare me, I generally get excited and the adrenaline focuses me. It makes the surf session fun, and I surf better. The fear is transformed to focus (just like professional skier JT Holmes told me). But if I interpret the adrenaline as a sign that I'm going to get injured, I risk freezing up. I become hesitant, and my performance suffers.
I think Ned Stark was able to use fear to be brave because he learned to interpret it positively, which, in a way, transforms fear from the kind that makes us suffer to the kind that makes life exciting. He took his fear for his people -- those "farmers plowing the fields, the charwomen scrubbing the floors, the soldiers he ordered into battle" -- and he interpreted the fear as a call to action. That was how he used fear to be a great leader. That's why he was loved. And that's why his love was so great.
Now if only I could get over my fear of season two of Game of Thrones ending. How can anyone possibly see this as a positive?
For those who haven't watched yet, here's a little visual of the brave Ned Stark. May he rest in peace.
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