While studies show that choosing to have a positive outlook in life can make you healthier and more successful, there are times when dwelling on the worst possible outcomes of a situation will work to your advantage.
In a speech at the 2009 Google I/O Conference, entrepreneur and productivity guru Tim Ferriss explained how the “practical pessimism” taught by the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome was integral to his success as an author and speaker.
Ferriss explains the Stoic technique of “negative visualisation,” as the writer William B. Irvine called it in his book “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.”
To practice it, consider in full detail the worst-case scenarios in any given situation. Seneca, for example, taught his students to remind themselves that their loved ones would one day die. The thoughts may be dark, but they can allow you to appreciate all that you have without taking it for granted.
Ferriss used a tangible negative visualisation exercise to help put him on a path to success.
In 2004, he explains, he was “trapped” in his own company, an online nutritional supplements retailer. He felt like he needed to take some time off from work to determine whether to streamline or leave the company, but he avoided doing so because he was plagued by fear of failure.
Then after being inspired by Seneca, he says, he took a sheet of 8.5″ x 11″ paper and divided it into three columns. In the first column, he listed everything bad that could happen if he took the break. In the second column, he wrote down ways he could minimize each of those negative results. And in the final column, he determined a way he could recover from each of the setbacks.
When he finished the exercise, he says, it was clear that the potential pain he would struggle with after taking time off from the company he founded far outweighed what he stood to gain.
Before he took Seneca’s advice and imagined what it would be like to deal with potential drawbacks of the retreat, they grew totally out of proportion in his mind and made him stressed out and miserable.
“It’s very important that you practice your worst-case scenario, and what you’ll find is that many of the fears you have are based on undervaluing the things that are easily obtainable,” Ferriss says.
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