“Fears are educated into us, and can,
if we wish, be educated out.”
Karl A. Menninger

We all know there are plenty of reasons to fear people from time to time. The question is, what are those times? Far too many people are walking around in a constant state of vigilance, their intuition misinformed about what really poses danger. It needn’t be so. When you honor accurate intuitive signals and evaluate them without denial (believing that either the favorable or the unfavorable outcome is possible), you need not be wary, for you will come to trust that you’ll be notified if there is something worthy of your attention. Fear will gain credibility because it won’t be applied wastefully. When you accept the survival signal as a welcome message and quickly evaluate the environment or situation, fear stops in an instant. Thus, trusting intuition is the exact opposite of living in fear. In fact, the role of fear in your life lessens as your mind and body come to know that you will listen to the quiet wind-chime, and have no need for Klaxons.

Real fear is a signal intended to be very brief, a mere servant of intuition. But though few would argue that extended, unanswered fear is destructive, millions choose to stay there. They may have forgotten or never learned that fear is not an emotion like sadness or happiness, either of which might last a long while. It is not a state, like anxiety. True fear is a survival signal that sounds only in the presence of danger, yet unwarranted fear has assumed a power over us that it holds over no other creature on earth. In Denial of Death, Ernest Becker explains that “animals, in order to survive have had to be protected by fear responses.” Some Darwinians believe that the early humans who were most afraid were most likely to survive. The result, says Becker, “is the emergence of man as we know him: a hyperanxious animal who constantly invents reasons for anxiety even when there are none.” It need not be this way.


I learned this again on a recent visit to Fiji, where there is less fear in the entire republic than there is at some intersections in Los Angeles. One morning, on a peaceful, hospitable island called Vanua Levu, I took a few-mile walk down the main road. It was lined on both sides with low ferns. Occasionally, over the sound of the quiet ocean to my left, I’d hear an approaching car or truck. Heading back toward the plantation where I was staying, I closed my eyes for a moment as I walked. Without thinking at first, I just kept them closed because I had an intuitive assurance that walking down the middle of this road with my eyes closed was a safe thing to do. When I analyzed this odd feeling, I found it to be accurate: The island has no dangerous animals and no assaultive crime; I would feel the ferns touch my legs if I angled to either side of the road, and I’d hear an approaching vehicle in plenty of time to simply open my eyes. To my surprise, before the next car came along, I had walked more than a mile with my eyes closed, trusting that my senses and intuition were quietly vigilant.

When it comes to survival signals, our minds have already done their best work by the time we try to figure things out. In effect, we’ve reached the finish line and handily won the race before even hearing the starting pistol—if we just listen without debate.


Admittedly, that blind walk was in Fiji, but what about in a big American city? Not long ago, I was in an elevator with an elderly woman who was heading down to an underground parking garage after business hours. Her keys were protruding through her fingers to form a weapon (which also displayed her fear). She was afraid of me when I got into the elevator as she is likely afraid of all men she encounters when she is in that vulnerable situation.

I understand her fear and it saddens me that millions of people feel it so often. The problem, however, is that if one feels fear of all people all the time, there is no signal reserved for the times when it’s really needed. A man who gets into the elevator on another floor (and hence wasn’t following her), a man who gives her no undue attention, who presses a button for a floor other than the one she has selected, who is dressed appropriately, who is calm, who stands a suitable distance from her, is not likely to hurt her without giving some signal. Fear of him is a waste, so don’t create it.


I strongly recommend caution and precaution, but many people believe—and we are even taught—that we must be extra alert to be safe. In fact, this usually decreases the likelihood of perceiving hazard and thus reduces safety. Alertly looking around while thinking, “Someone could jump out from behind thathedge; maybe there’s someone hiding in that car” replaces perception of what actually is happening with imaginings of what could happen. We are far more open to every signal when we don’t focus on the expectation of specific signals.

You might think a small animal that runs across a field in a darting crisscross fashion is fearful even though there isn’t any danger. In fact, scurrying is a strategy, a precaution, not a reaction to a fear signal. Precautions are constructive, whereas remaining in a state of fear is destructive. It can also lead to panic, and panic itself is usually more dangerous than the outcome we dread. Rock climbers and long-distance ocean swimmers will tell you it isn’t the mountain or the water that kills—it is panic.


Meg is a woman who works with violently inclined mental patients every day. She rarely feels fear at her job, but away from work, she tells me, she feels panic every night as she walks from her car to her apartment. When I offer the unusual suggestion that she’d actually be safer if she relaxed during that walk, she says, “That’s ridiculous. If I relaxed, I’d probably get killed.” She argues that she must be acutely alert to every possible risk. Possibilities, I explain, are in the mind, while safety is enhanced by perception of what is outside the mind, perception of what is happening, not what might happen.

But Meg insists that her nightly fear will save her life, and even as she steadfastly defends the value of her terror, I know she wants to be free of it.

GdeB: When do you feel the fear?

Meg: As I park my car.


GdeB: Is it the same every night?

Meg: Yes, and then if I hear a noise or something, it gets ten times worse. So I have to stay extra alert. Living in Los Angeles, I have to stay alert all the time.

(Note her reference to Los Angeles—a satellite.)

I explain that if she’s scared to death every night, focused intently on what might happen, then no signal is reserved for when there actually is risk that needs her attention. Ideally, when there is fear, we look around, follow the fear, ask what we are perceiving. If we are looking for some specific, expected danger, we are less likely to see the unexpected danger. I urge that she pay relaxed attention to her environment rather than paying rapt attention to her imagination.

I know Meg is feeling anxious, and that is a signal of something, though not danger in this case. I ask her what risks she faces as she walks from her car each night.

Meg: Isn’t that a dumb question coming from you? I mean, there are so many risks. Los Angeles is a very dangerous city, not a place I’d choose to live.


GdeB: But you do choose to live here.

Meg: No, I have to; I’m trapped by this job. I have to live here, and it’s so dangerous, people are killed here all the time, and I know that, so I’m afraid when I walk to my apartment, terrified, actually, and I should be!

GdeB: Certainly anything could happen to anyone anytime, but since you’ve made that walk more than a thousand times without injury, the terror you feel is likely a signal of something other than danger. How do you normally communicate with yourself?

An agitated Meg says she doesn’t understand my question, but that she doesn’t want to discuss it anymore—she’ll think about it overnight. When she calls the following afternoon, she not only understands my question about how she communicates with herself, but has found her answer. She agrees that her intuition is indeed communicating something to her, and it isn’t imminent danger; it is that she does not want to stay in Los Angeles or in her job. Her nightly walk from her car into her apartment is simply the venue for her inner voice to speak most loudly.

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Every day, my work brings me into close contact with people who are afraid, anxious, or just worrying. My first duty is to figure out which it is. If it’s real fear they feel, there is important information for me to glean, possibly relevant to safety.


There are two rules about fear that, if you accept them, can improve your use of it, reduce its frequency, and literally transform your experience of life. That’s a big claim, I know, but don’t be “afraid” to consider it with an open mind.

Rule #1. The very fact that you fear something is solid evidence that it is not happening.


Fear summons powerful predictive resources that tell us what might come next. It is that which might come next that we fear—what might happen, not what is happening now. An absurdly literal example helps demonstrate this: As you stand near the edge of a high cliff, you might fear getting too close. If you stand right at the edge, you no longer fear getting too close, you now fear falling. Edward Gorey gives us his dark-humored but accurate take on the fact that if you do fall, you no longer fear falling—you fear landing:

The Suicide, as she is falling,
Illuminated by the moon,
Regrets her act, and finds appalling
The thought she will be dead so soon

Panic, the great enemy of survival, can be perceived as an unmanageable kaleidoscope of fears. It can be reduced through embracing the second rule:


Rule #2. What you fear is rarely what you think you fear—it is what you link to fear.

Take anything about which you have ever felt profound fear and link it to each of the possible outcomes. When it is real fear, it will either be in the presence of danger, or it will link to pain or death. When we get a fear signal, our intuition has already made many connections. To best respond, bring the links into consciousness and follow them to their high-stakes destination—if they lead there. When we focus on one link only, say, fear of someone walking toward us on a dark street instead of fear of being harmed by someone walking toward us on a dark street, the fear is wasted. That’s because many people will approach us—only a very few might harm us.


Surveys have shown that ranking very close to the fear of death is the fear of public speaking. Why would someone feel profound fear, deep in his or her stomach, about public speaking, which is so far from death? Because it isn’t so far from death when we link it. Those who fear public speaking actually fear the loss of identity that attaches to performing badly, and that is firmly rooted in our survival needs. For all social animals, from ants to antelopes, identity is the pass card to inclusion, and inclusion is the key to survival. If a baby loses its identity as the child of his or her parents, a possible outcome is abandonment. For a human infant, that means death. As adults, without our identity as a member of the tribe or village, community or culture, a likely outcome is banishment and death.

So the fear of getting up and addressing five hundred people at the annual convention of professionals in your field is not just the fear of embarrassment—it is linked to the fear of being perceived as incompetent, which is linked to the fear of loss of employment, loss of home, loss of family, your ability to contribute to society, your value, in short, your identity and your life. Linking an unwarranted fear to its ultimate terrible destination usually helps alleviate that fear. Though you may find that public speaking can link to death, you’ll see that it would be a long and unlikely trip.


Apply these two rules to the fear that a burglar might crash into your living room. First, the fear itself can actually be perceived as good news, because it confirms that the dreaded outcome is not occurring right now. Since life has plenty of hazards that come upon us without warning, we could welcome fear with “Thank you, God, for a signal I can act on.” More often, however, we apply denial first, trying to see if perhaps we can just think it away.

Remember, fear says something might happen. If it does happen, we stop fearing it and start to respond to it, manage it, surrender to it; or we start to fear the next outcome we predict might be coming. If a burglar does crash into the living room, we no longer fear that possibility; we now fear what he might do next. Whatever that may be, while we fear it, it is not happening.

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Let’s go one step deeper in this exploration of fear: In the 1960’s there was a study done that sought to determine which single word has the greatest psychological impact on people. Researchers tested reactions to words like spider, snake, death, rape, incest, murder. It was the word shark that elicited the greatest fear response. But why do sharks, which human beings come in contact with so rarely, frighten us so profoundly?


The seeming randomness of their strike is part of it. So is the lack of warning, the fact that such a large creature can approach silently and separate body from soul so dispassionately. To the shark, we are without identity, we are no more than meat, and to human beings the loss of identity is a type of death all by itself. In his book Great White Shark, Jean-Michel Cousteau calls the shark “the most frightening animal on earth,” but there is, of course, an animal far more dangerous.

Scientists marvel at the predatory competence of the Great White, praising its speed, brute strength, sensory acuity, and apparent determination, but man is a predator of far more spectacular ability. The shark does not have dexterity, guile, deceit, cleverness, or disguise. It also does not have our brutality, for man does things to man that sharks could not dream of doing. Deep in our cells, we know this, so occasional fear of another human being is natural.


As with the shark attack, randomness and lack of warning are the attributes of human violence we fear most, but you now know that human violence is rarely random and rarely without warning. Admittedly, danger from humans is more complicated than danger from sharks; after all, everything you need know about how to be safe from sharks can be spoken in five words: Don’t go in the ocean. Everything you need to know about how to be safe from people is in you too, enhanced by a lifetime of experience (and hopefully better organized by this book).

We may choose to sit in the movie theater indulging in the fear of unlikely dangers now and again, but our fear of people, which can be a blessing, is often misplaced. Since we live every day with the most frightening animal on earth, understanding how fear works can dramatically improve our lives.


People use the word fear rather loosely, but to put it in its proper relation to panic, worry and anxiety, recall the overwhelming fear that possessed Kelly when she knew her rapist intended to kill her. Though people say of a frightening experience, “I was petrified,” aside from those times when being still is a strategy, real fear is not paralyzing—it is energizing. Rodney Fox learned this when he faced one of man’s deepest fears: “I was suddenly aware of moving through the water faster than I ever had before. Then I realized I was being pulled down by a shark which had hold of my chest.” As the powerful predator took him from the surface, a far more powerful force compelled Rodney to caress the shark’s head and face, searching for its eyes. He plunged his thumbs deep into the only soft tissue he found. The shark let go of him immediately, but Rodney embraced it and held on tight so it couldn’t turn around for another strike. After what seemed like a long ride downward, he kicked away from it and swam through a cloud of red to the surface.

Fear was pumping blood into Rodney’s arms and legs and using them to do things he would never have done on his own. He would never have decided to fight with a Great White shark, but because fear didn’t give it a second thought, he survived.


Rodney’s wild, reckless action and Kelly’s quiet, breathless action were both fueled by the same coiled-up energy: real fear. Take a moment to conjure that feeling and recognize how different it is from worry, anxiety, and panic. Even the strongest worry could not get you to fight with a shark, or follow your would-be murderer silently down a hallway.

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Recently I was asked to speak to a group of corporate employees about their safety, but as is often the case, it quickly became a discussion about fear. Before I began, several people said, “Please talk to Celia, she’s been looking forward to this meeting for weeks.” Celia, it turned out, was eager to tell me about her dread of being followed, a topic her coworkers had heard a lot about. When people come to me in fear (of a stranger, a coworker, a spouse, a fan), my first step is always to determine if it actually is a fear as opposed to a worry or a phobia. This is fairly simple since, as I noted above, real fear occurs in the presence of danger and will always easily link to pain or death.


To learn if Celia was reacting to a fear signal (which is not voluntary) or if she was worrying (which is voluntary), I asked if she feared being followed right then, right in the room where we sat.

She laughed. “No, of course not. I fear it when I’m walking alone from my office to my car at night. I park in a big gated lot, and mine is always the only car left because I work the latest, and the lot is empty and it’s dead silent.” Since she had given me no indication of actual risk, her dread was not the fear signal of nature but the worry only humans indulge in.


To get her to link the fear, I asked what about being followed scared her. “Well, it’s not the following that scares me, it’s the being caught. I’m afraid somebody will grab me from behind and pull me into a car. They could do anything to me, since I’m the last one here.” She launched this satellite about working the latest several times.

Since worry is a choice, people do it because it serves them in some way. The worry about public speaking may serve its host by giving him or her an excuse never to speak in public, or an excuse to cancel or to do poorly (“because I was so scared”). But how did Celia’s worry serve Celia? People will always tell you what the real issue is, and in fact, Celia already had.


I asked why she couldn’t just leave work earlier each evening: “If I did, everybody would think I was lazy.” So Celia was concerned about losing her identity as the employee who always worked the longest. Her frequent discussions of hazard and fear were guaranteed to quickly carry any conversation to the fact that she worked the latest. And that is how the worry served her.

The wise words of FDR, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,’ might be amended by nature to “There is nothing to fear unless and until you feel fear.” Worry, wariness, anxiety and concern all have a purpose, but they are not fear. So any time your dreaded outcome cannot be reasonably linked to pain or death and it isn’t a signal in the presence of danger, then it really shouldn’t be confused with fear. It may well be something worth trying to understand and manage, but worry will not bring solutions. It will more likely distract you from finding solutions.


In the original form of the word, to worry someone else was to harass, strangle, or choke them. Likewise, to worry oneself is a form of self-harassment. To give it less of a role in our lives, we must understand what it really it is.

Worry is the fear we manufacture—it is not authentic. If you choose to worry about something, have at it, but do so knowing it’s a choice. Most often, we worry because it provides some secondary reward. There are many variations, but a few of the most popular follow.

  • Worry is a way to avoid change; when we worry, we don’t do anything about the matter.
  • Worry is a way to avoid admitting powerlessness over something, since worry feels like we’re doing something. (Prayer also makes us feel like we’re doing something, and even the most committed agnostic will admit that prayer is more productive than worry.)
  • Worry is a cloying way to have connection with others, the idea being that to worry about someone shows love. The other side of this is the belief that not worrying about someone means you don’t care about them. As many worried-about people will tell you, worry is a poor substitute for love or for taking loving action.
  • Worry is a protection against future disappointment. After taking an important test, for example, a student might worry about whether he failed. If he can feel the experience of failure now, rehearse it, so to speak, by worrying about it, then failing won’t feel as bad when it happens. But there’s an interesting trade-off: Since he can’t do anything about it at this point anyway, would he rather spend two days worrying and then learn he failed, or spend those same two days not worrying, and then learn he failed? Perhaps most importantly, would he want to learn he had passed the test and spent two days of anxiety for nothing?

In Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman concludes that worrying is a sort of “magical amulet” which some people feel wards off danger. They believe that worrying about something will stop it from happening. He also correctly notes that most of what people worry about has a low probability of occurring, because we tend to take action about those things we feel are likely to occur. This means that very often the mere fact that you are worrying about something is a predictor that it isn’t likely to happen!

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The relationship between real fear and worry is analogous to the relationship between pain and suffering. Pain and fear are necessary and valuable components of life. Suffering and worry are destructive and unnecessary components of life. (Great humanitarians, remember, have worked to end suffering, not pain.)

After decades of seeing worry in all its forms, I’ve concluded that it hurts people much more than it helps. It interrupts clear thinking, wastes time, and shortens life. When worrying, ask yourself, “How does this serve me?” and you may well find that the cost of worrying is greater than the cost of changing. To be freer of fear and yet still get its gift, there are three goals to strive for. They aren’t easy to reach, but it’s worth trying:

1) When you feel fear, listen.


2) When you don’t feel fear, don’t manufacture it.

3) If you find yourself creating worry, explore and discover why.

▪ ▪ ▪

Just as some people are quick to predict the worst, there are others who are reluctant to accept that they might actually be in some danger. This is often caused by the false belief that if we identify and name risk, that somehow invites or causes it to happen. This thinking says: if we don’t see it and don’t accept it, it is prevented from happening. Only human beings can look directly at something, have all the information they need to make an accurate prediction, perhaps even momentarily make the accurate prediction, and then says that it isn’t so.

One of my clients is a corporation whose New York headquarters has an excellent safety and security program. All doors into their suite of offices are kept locked. Adjacent to each entry door is a plate over which employees wave a magnetic card to gain ready access. The president of the firm asked me to speak to an employee, Arlene, who persistently refused to carry her access card. She complained that the cards scare people because they bring to mind the need for security. (Call this fear of fear.) Yes, she agreed, since many employees work late at night, there is a need for a security program, but the cards and locked doors should be replaced with a guard in the lobby because “The cards make the place seem like an armed camp, and they scare people.”

Trying to link this fear of the cards to pain or death, I asked Arlene what it is that people fear. “The cards increase the danger,” she explained, “because their presence says there’s something here worth taking.”

Could it be, I asked, that the cards actually reduce fear and risk since their use means that the offices are not accessible to just anyone off the street? No, she told me, people don’t think that way. “They’d rather not be reminded of the risk.” Arlene explained that metal detectors at airports conjure the specter of hijacking as opposed to reassuring people. Tamper-proof packaging does not add comfort, it adds apprehension, and, she noted, “It’s just an invitation to tamper.”

At the end of her confident presentation about human nature and why the cards scared people, I asked if she agreed that there could be hazard to employees if the doors were left unlocked. “Of course I do. I was assaulted one night when I worked late at my last job. The doors weren’t kept locked there, and this guy walked right in. There was nobody else in the whole building—so don’t tell me about danger!”

With that story, Arlene revealed who was afraid of the cards. She also clearly stated her philosophy for managing her fear: “Don’t tell me about danger.” Later, after questioning me extensively about safety in her apartment, and on the subway, and while shopping, and when dating, she agreed to use the cards.

▪ ▪ ▪

Occasionally, we answer fears that aren’t calling; other times we ignore those that are, and sometimes, like physician Bill McKenna, we fall somewhere in the middle.

“My wife, Linda, was on a business trip, so I took the girls out to dinner. We got home late; I made sure they got to sleep and then got into bed myself. As I was dozing off I heard a noise downstairs which for some reason really scared me. It wasn’t that it was loud, and I don’t even recall exactly what it sounded like, but I absolutely couldn’t shake it. So I got out of bed and went downstairs to be sure everything was all right. I made a quick walk around and then went back to bed. A half-hour later, I heard a sound so quiet that I still don’t know how it woke me; it was the sound of someone else’s breathing. I turned on the light, and there was this guy standing in the middle of the room with my gun in his hand and our CD player under his arm.”

If Bill’s mission on his walk downstairs was “to be sure everything was all right,” as he put it, then he succeeded admirably. If, though, it was to answer the survival signal—to accept the gift of fear—he failed. When he heard that noise downstairs, if he had consciously linked the fear he felt to its possible dangerous outcomes—as his intuition had already done—he would have recognized that the stakes were high, and he might have conducted his search with the goal of finding risk as opposed to the goal of finding nothing.


Had he responded to his fear with respect, he would have found the intruder before the intruder found his gun. If he had said, in effect, “Since I feel fear, I know there is some reason, so what is it?” then he could have brought into consciousness what his intuition already knew and what he later told me: The living room light was on when he got home, the cat had somehow gotten outside and was waiting on the porch, an unusual old car was parked near his driveway, its engine clinking as it cooled, and on and on. Only in the context of all these factors did that noise, which have been inconsequential at another time, cause fear.

Bill McKenna and his daughters (four and five years old) were held at gunpoint by the intruder for more than an hour. The man let the girls sit on the floor of the master bedroom and watch a videotape of Beauty and the Beast. He told Bill that he needed time to make what he called “the most difficult decision of my life.” He asked, “Have you ever had a really tough problem?” and Bill nodded.

Bill told me he was alert until the intruder left, but that he did not feel any fear whatsoever. “When someone’s already got you at gunpoint, it’s too late for fear. I had more important things to focus on, like keeping the girls calm by showing them that I was okay—and keeping this guy calm. Anyway, my fear had come and gone, and after a while, that guy had come and gone too.”

Bill’s lack of dread, just like his original fear on hearing the noise, made sense. First, the burglar did not bring a gun with him, so he was not an intruder who expected or was prepared to kill. Second, his goal was fairly lightweight theft, as evidenced by the CD player he’d taken. Finally, he spoke his conscience when he said he was weighing “the most difficult decision” of his life. A man willing to kill would have little need to discuss his personal exploration of right and wrong with his intended victims. In fact, he would dehumanize and distance his victims, certainly not bring them into his deliberations.


The intruder not only left, but he left the CD player. He did the family another favor too: He took the gun, which now won’t be available to some more dangerous intruder in the future. (Bill is not replacing it.) Bill let the girls watch the rest of the movie before putting them back to bed. They still recall the night the “policeman with the gun” visited, and it is not a traumatic story they tell. They didn’t sense fear in Bill because, just as he told me, he didn’t feel it.

Real fear is objective, but it’s clear that we are not. Meg was afraid of being killed, and Celia was afraid of being followed, even when there was nobody there. Arlene was afraid of access cards even though they added to her safety. Bill was not afraid of an intruder even when the man was standing in his bedroom with a gun. This all proves, as I noted early in the book, that we have odd ways of evaluating risk. Smoking kills more people every day than lightning does in a decade, but there are people who calm their fear of being struck by lightning during a storm—by smoking a cigarette. It isn’t logical, but logic and anxiety rarely go together.

I recently met a middle-aged couple from Florida who had just obtained licenses to carry concealed handguns. The man explained why: “Because if some guy walks into a restaurant and opens fire, like happened at Luby’s in Texas, I want to be in a position to save lives.”

Of course, there are plenty of things he could carry on his belt that would be far more likely to save lives in a restaurant. An injection of adrenaline would treat anaphylactic shock (the potentially lethal allergic reaction to certain foods). Or he could carry a small sharp tube to give emergency tracheotomies to people who are choking to death. When I asked him if he carried one of those, he said, “I could never stick something into a person’s throat!” But he could send a piece of lead into a person’s flesh like a rocket.


Statistically speaking, the man and his wife are far more likely to shoot each other than to shoot some criminal, but his anxiety wasn’t caused by fear of death—if it were, he would shed the excess forty pounds likely to bring on a heart attack. His anxiety is caused by fear of people, and by the belief that he cannot predict violence. Anxiety, unlike real fear, is always caused by uncertainty.

It is caused, ultimately, by predictions in which you have little confidence. When you predict that you will be fired from your job and you are certain the prediction is correct, you don’t have anxiety about being fired. You might have anxiety about the things you can’t predict with certainty, such as the ramifications of losing the job. Predictions in which you have high confidence free you to respond, adjust, feel sadness, accept, prepare, or to do whatever is needed. Accordingly, anxiety is reduced by improving your predictions, thus increasing your certainty. It’s worth doing, because the word anxiety, like worry, stems from a root that means “to choke,” and that is just what it does to us.


Our imaginations can be the fertile soil in which worry and anxiety grow from seeds to weeds, but when we assume the imagined outcome is a sure thing, we are in conflict with what Proust called an inexorable law: “Only that which is absent can be imagined.” In other words, what you imagine—just like what you fear—is not happening.

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Donna is a twenty-nine-year-old filmmaker from New York who courageously left her job and drove to Los Angeles hoping to make significant documentaries. She used her brightness and enthusiasm to get a meeting with a prominent film executive. About ten miles from the meeting, her old car decided it wasn’t going to take her any farther, and she was stuck directly in the center of the street. Immediately, she linked being late to all of its worst possible outcomes: “I will miss the meeting, and they won’t agree to reschedule. If you keep someone like this waiting, your chances of a career are nil, so I’ll be unable to pay the rent, I’ll be tossed out of my apartment, I’ll end up on welfare,” and on and on. Because this type of imaginative linking builds a scenario one step at a time, it feels like logic, but it is just an impersonation of logic. It is also one of our dumbest creative exercises.


A passing car carrying a man and woman slowed to look at Donna, and the man called out an offer of help. Donna waved them on. Very stressed, she got out of her car and ran down the street looking for a service station, along the way adding inventive chapters to the story of her financial ruin. She noticed the same car driving alongside her, but she just kept running. Reaching a pay phone, she called the studio executive’s office and explained she’d be late. As she predicted, they told her the meeting could not be made rescheduled. The career that she envisioned ended in that phone booth.

Donna slumped and started crying just as that same car pulled up slowly toward the phone booth. Even though these people had been following her, she wasn’t afraid. The man stayed in the car while the woman got out and tapped on the glass, saying, “Is that you?” Through tears, Donna looked up to see the face of Jeanette, a friend with whom she’d shared an apartment in college.


Jeanette and her boyfriend rushed Donna to the meeting (she didn’t get the job) and then took her to lunch. Within a few weeks, Donna and Jeanette were partners in a new business of finding art and antiques around the world for resale in America. They became so successful that within two years, Donna had saved enough money to co-finance her first documentary film.

Amid all of Donna’s creative projections when her car broke down, she hadn’t included the possibility that it would lead to a reunion with an old friend with whom she’d form a business that would take her around the world and give her the resources to make her own films.


Few of us predict that unexpected, undesired events will lead to great things, but very often we’d be more accurate if we did. The history of invention is filled with perceived failures that became unpredicted successes (a’la James Watt’s failure to get a pump working and his inadvertent success at inventing the vacuum). I have gotten great benefits from taking the voice of skepticism that I used to apply to my intuition and applying it instead to the dreaded outcomes I imagined were coming. Worry will almost always buckle under a vigorous interrogation.

If you can bring yourself to apply your imagination to finding the possible favorable outcomes of undesired developments, even if only as an exercise, you’ll see that it fosters creativity. This suggestion is much more than a way to find the silver lining our grandmothers encouraged us to look for. I include it in this book because creativity is linked to intuition, and intuition is the way out of the most serious challenges you might face. Albert Einstein said that when you follow intuition, “The solutions come to you, and you don’t know how or why.”

A young man named Andrew had promised to take a much-anticipated date to a particular movie she wanted to see. At first he couldn’t locate a theater showing it, and once he found where it was playing, he couldn’t get tickets. He and the thus-far-unimpressed girl waited in line for a second-choice film, which they learned after forty minutes of standing was also sold out. Andrews’s date was a failure, and his hopes of what young men hope for were dashed. He was, predictably, very disappointed, and he was also annoyed at the hassle of trying to see a film. He did not immediately say to himself, “Maybe this discouraging evening will compel me to develop a new computerized phone-in system through which moviegoers can choose the film they want to see, learn where it’s playing, and actually purchase the tickets in advance.”

But that’s exactly what Andrew Jarecki did, founding MovieFone, (which you may know as 777-FILM) the innovative service used each week by millions of people in cities all over America. (He also married that date.)

Having told so many stories of risk and harm, I share some with more favorable outcomes to make this point: Worry is a choice, and the creative genius we apply to it can be used differently, also by choice. This truth is mildly interesting when the stakes are low, like worrying about a job interview or a date, but in the situations with the highest stakes, this same truth can save your life.

▪ ▪ ▪

I’ve spent much of my career trying to make accurate predictions of which bad thing might happen next. Admittedly, this skill has been a powerful asset, because people are eager to hear forecasts of every possible tragedy. Just one indication of this is the fact that television in large cities devotes as much as forty hours a day to telling us about those who have fallen prey to some disaster and to exploring what calamities may be coming: “NEW STUDY REVEALS THAT CELLULAR PHONES CAN KILL YOU. LEARN THE FACTS AT ELEVEN!” “CONTAMINATED TURKEY DINNER KILLS THREE! COULD YOUR FAMILY BE NEXT!?”

Silly and alarming news promos are of more than passing interest to me because understanding how they work is central to understanding how fear works in our culture. We watch attentively because our survival requires us to learn about things that may hurt us. That’s why we slow down at the scene of a terrible car accident. It isn’t out of some unnatural perversion; it is to learn. Most times, we draw a lesson: “He was probably drunk;” “They must have tried to pass;” “Those little sports-cars are sure dangerous;” “That intersection is blind.” Our theory is stored away, perhaps to save our lives another day.

Ernest Becker explains that “man’s fears are fashioned out of the ways in which he perceives the world.” Animals know what to fear by instinct, “but an animal who has no instinct [man] has no programmed fears.” Well, the local news has programmed them for us, and the audience is virtually guaranteed by one of the strongest forces in nature—our will to survive. Local news rarely provides new or relevant information about safety, but its urgent delivery mimics importance and thus gets our attention, much as someone would if they burst into your home and yelled, “Don’t go outside or you’ll be killed! Listen to me to save your life!” That’s the way local television news works as a business. Fear has a rightful place in our lives, but it isn’t the marketplace.

(On a personal note, even though I have a professional interest in hazard and risk, I never watch the local television news and haven’t for years. Try this and you’ll likely find better things to do before going to sleep than looking at thirty minutes of disturbing images presented with artificial urgency and the usually false implication that it’s critical for you to see it.)

Electronic scare tactics come in several forms. When news is scarce, they march out an update on some old story. You might recall the bizarre kidnapping of a busload of schoolchildren in a California town called Chowchilla. The perpetrators buried the bus—with the children inside—in a massive ditch at a rock quarry. The story ended with the rescue of the twenty-six children and the arrest of the kidnappers. A year later came the update: All the same footage was shown, the original incident was told again in its entirety, and a reporter walked down a Chowchilla street offering this foreboding wrap-up: “But the people of this little town still awaken in the night, worried that it could all happen again.”

They do? Worried that what could all happen again—another mass kidnapping with a busload of their children buried in a rock quarry? I don’t think so. These often ridiculous summaries are used to give news stories significance, or to leave them uncertain and thus open for still further stories, e.g., “Whether more will die remains to be seen.” In the world of local news, frightening stories never end. We rarely hear the words “And that’s that.”

Local news has several favorite phrases, one of which is “Police made a gruesome discovery today in [name of local city].” The satellite age has increased the library of available shocking footage, so that now, if there wasn’t a something grisly in your town, you might hear, “Police made a gruesome discovery today in Reno,” or Chicago, or Miami, or even Caracas. It may not be local, but it is gruesome, and there’s some footage, so what the hell. Whether they go back in time to find something shocking or go around the planet, in neither case is the information necessarily valuable or relevant to your life. Local news has become little more than what Information Anxiety author Richard Saul Wurman calls “a list of inexorable deaths, accidents, and catastrophes—the violent wallpaper of our lives.”

I discuss all this here as much more than a pet peeve. Understanding how the television news works and what it does to you is directly relevant to your safety and wellbeing. First, the fear of crime is itself a form of victimization. But there is a much more practical issue involved: Being exposed to constant alarm and urgency shell-shocks us to the point that it becomes impossible to separate the survival signal from the sound bite. Because it’s sensationalism and not informationalism, we get a distorted view of what actually poses a hazard to us.

Imagine a widely televised report: “Dolphin attacks swimmer!” Such a story would make a new connection in the minds of literally millions of people: Dolphins are dangerous to man (which they are not). Though unusual animal-attack stories are good news fodder, humans are not the favored prey of any predator. (We are somewhat bony, low on meat, and smart as the Dickens.) The point is that your survival brilliance is wasted when you focus on unlikely risks.


Unfortunately, just giving a criminal hazard a name gives it a place in our minds and gives us another reason to feel unwarranted fear of people. Think back to the so-called freeway shootings in Los Angeles. Though television news was full of interviews with motorists pointing out bullet holes in their windshields, the fact is that there were fewer freeway shootings that year than there had been the year before. There was no trend, no rash of attacks, no criminal fad, nothing any different than what had happened before or has happened since. But we don’t hear anything these days about freeway shootings. Are there no more hot days and angry armed motorists stuck in slow traffic? Have freeway shootings really stopped, or have the reports stopped because that story is an episode from last season?

The only real trend is the way local news finds two similar stories with some striking visuals or an overly excited interview, gives the risk a name, and repeats it for a while with different victims. When such a crime succeeds, the local news will tell people how it was done. Thus, supposedly new forms of criminal violence can indeed become fads—through the very same method that other fads do: It’s called advertising.

A serious-looking news celebrity tells of the most current danger we simply must know about to save our lives: “I’m standing at the scene of the latest follow-home robbery to hit this posh west-side neighborhood, part of a growing trend of random attacks. How can you avoid this terror?” This will be followed by a list of cautions, some of them so obvious as to be comical (e.g., “Don’t let strangers into your car”). There will be an interview with someone seriously billed as a “follow-home robbery expert.” Then suddenly one day you’d think such robberies had just stopped, because local television will move on to the next criminal hazard. Soon it will be “Robbers who hide out in your purse until you get home!” followed by a checklist of warning signs to look out for: “Purse feels extra heavy; purse difficult to close; unusual sounds coming from purse…”

Though television news would have us think differently, the important question is not how we might die, but rather “How shall we live?” and that is up to us.

▪ ▪ ▪

In my life and work, I’ve seen the darkest parts of the human soul. (At least I hope they are the darkest.) That has helped me see more clearly the brightness of the human spirit. Feeling the sting of violence myself has helped me feel more keenly the hand of human kindness.


Given the frenzy and the power of the various violence industries, the fact that most Americans live without being violent is a sign of something wonderful in us. In resisting both the darker sides of our species and the darker sides of our heritage, it is everyday Americans, not the icons of big-screen vengeance, who are the real heroes. Abraham Lincoln referred to the “Better angels of our nature,” and they must surely exist, for most of us make it through every day with decency and cooperation.

Having spent years preparing for the worst, I have finally arrived at this wisdom: Though the world is a dangerous place, it is also a safe place. You and I have survived some extraordinary risks, particularly given that every day we move in, around, and through powerful machines that could kill us without missing a cylinder: jet airplanes, subways, busses, escalators, elevators, motorcycles, cars—conveyances that carry a few of us to injury but most of us to the destinations we have in mind. We are surrounded by toxic chemicals, and our homes are hooked up to explosive gasses and lethal currents of electricity.


Most frightening of all, we live among armed and often angry countrymen. Taken together, these things make every day a high-stakes obstacle course our ancestors would shudder at, but the fact is we are usually delivered through it. Still, rather than be amazed at the wonder of it all, millions of people are actually looking for things to worry about.

Near the end of his life, Mark Twain wisely said, “I have had a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

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You now know a great deal about predicting and avoiding violence, from the dangers posed by strangers to the brutality inflicted on friends and family members, from the everyday violence that can touch anyone to the extraordinary crimes that will touch only a few. With your intuition better informed, I hope you will have less unwarranted fear of people. I hope you’ll harness and respect your ability to recognize survival signals. Most important, I hope you’ll see hazard only in those storm-clouds where it exists and live life more fully in the clear skies between them.




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