What's the worst that could happen?

The next time you're overrun with anxiety about something that could go terribly wrong, don't try to reassure yourself that everything is going to be ok. 

First of all, it's not going to make you feel better. Positive visualization doesn't work all that well. If it did, we would all just positively visualize away our fear of public speaking. 

Secondly, everything may not actually be ok. If your anxiety is the result of a speech you'll soon be giving to a large audience, a lot could go wrong. Your slide deck may not work. You could misspeak. You could forget words. You could trip and fall into the audience. 

When you try to reassure yourself that everything is going to be ok, you're lying to yourself. You can't possibly know everything is going to be ok, and deep down, you know that. Hence the anxiety you can't quite shake. 

Instead of trying to visualize the best case scenario, or convince yourself that everything is going to be ok, consider leaning into the uncertainty by asking, "What's the worst that could happen?" Then be honest with yourself. What is the worst that could actually happen? 

If you're terrified about a public speech you'll soon be giving, consider the worst case scenario and think about it in very vivid detail. You could forget your words and be left standing in front of the audience, frozen both in mind and body, sweating profusely. Then consider that possibility all the way through. What would happen then? You may, in utter embarrassment, run off the stage. Some people (read: assholes) may actually have a few laughs at your expense. Someone may catch it on video and share it on Facebook. Maybe the video goes viral and you're branded with the terrible experience for a long time. It wouldn't feel great, but life would go on, just as it has for others in similar situations. Some time far, far in the future, the video on Facebook may actually make you laugh. 

This approach of embracing negative visualization dates back thousands of years. It was referred to as "the premeditation of evils" by Stoics. It works because the specificity of the visualization strips the future of its uncertainty, and uncertainty fuels anxiety. It also works because, unlike positive visualization, it doesn't require the future event you're worried about to go ok for everything to actually be ok.  

With practice, this technique works incredibly well for any event in your life causing you angst, large and small. Nervous about not making a deadline on a project? Afraid of losing your job? Waiting on cancer test results of a loved one? Visualizing the worst case scenario prepares you and your mind for what could actually happen, which is particularly important if any part of your fear could actually happen. Positive visualization does no such good, meaning when something bad actually happens, you are left emotionally and intellectually unprepared, which makes matters worse. 

So ask yourself, "What's the worst that could happen?" 

Some additional, more in-depth resources on this to help get your started: 

The Antidote, by Oliver Burkeman

The Power of Negative Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman

The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday

The Surprising Value of Negative Thinking, by Ryan Holiday

The Practicality of Pessimism, by Tim Ferriss

The white polar bear

Try not to think about a white polar bear. 

No, actually try it. For a full minute, try not to think about a white polar bear. 

How'd it go?

Generally speaking, if you try not to think about a white polar bear, the one thing you're going to think about is... a white polar bear. It's called ironic process theory, and it was introduced to me in The Antidote, Oliver Burkeman's book about happiness for people who can't stand positive thinking. The polar bear exercise originates from Fyodor Dostoevsky's 1863 account of his travels in Western Europe and was popularized by Harvard University's Daniel Wegner. 

The white polar bear thought experiment teaches us a lot about thought suppression. Namely, that it doesn't work. Some research even suggests that it could be counter-productive. This highlights one of the problems with using "positive thinking" to achieve so-called happiness. Positive thinking that requires the suppression of negative thoughts is doomed to fail because suppressing thoughts, be them negative or about white polar bears, doesn't work

Two effective alternatives to thought suppression are fairly counterintuitive, but surprisingly effective.

One is to simply embrace the thought you're trying to avoid. Fully embrace it and spend a specified amount of time thinking about nothing but that white polar bear. It's a technique known as "exposure" and confronting the thoughts you're trying to avoid tends to be a relatively effective way of getting more control over your thoughts. 

A second approach is to distract yourself. It's easier said than done, but if you're trying to not think about a white polar bear, try thinking about a red Volkswagen or going to a CrossFit class instead. Distraction, through thought and/or action, serves to proactively refocus the mind on something, which research (and experience) suggests is more effective than trying to actively not focus on something. Which makes sense given that the very act of forcing a particular thought out of your mind requires some awareness of that thought to begin with. 

More on this and other techniques can be read about in one of my favorite books of all time, The Antidote, which I routinely reference. Sometimes multiple times in one post. 


This post is part of my #BestAdvice blog series, which is a personal project of mine to document the best advice I come across in a retrievable manner. Read more about it here

A single thought

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.

- Wilfred Arlan Peterson, The Art of Living, Day by Day: Three Hundred and Sixty-five Thoughts, Ideas, Ideals, Experiences, Adventures, Inspirations, to Enrich Your Life

Love this quote, which is often misattributed to Henry D. Thoreau. It speaks to the importance of perseverance and patience, both in action and in thought. A single day of meditation has no more impact on the mind than a single day in the gym does on the body. That's not to say it does no good. But to make a deep, significant impact with lasting gains, we have to make the effort consistently and continuously. 

The curse of knowledge

Interesting experiment: 

The next time you're with a friend or your spouse, tap out a song for them. Start with your favorite song. Try a national anthem.  

No other sounds or gestures. Just tapping.  

The song will be clear as day, in your head. And statistically speaking, your friend or spouse won't be able to guess what it is. You may even wonder how they can't hear what you hear.  

This is called "the curse of knowledge," which I learned about reading Chip and Dan Heath's terrific book, Made to Stick

Wikipedia defines the curse of knowledge as: 

The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when, in predicting others' forecasts or behaviors, individuals are unable to ignore the knowledge they have that others do not have, or when they are unable to disregard information already processed.

It's a challenge for marketers, writers, creators, story tellers, sales professionals, managers, parents, and, well, just about anyone that wants to deliver a message about a subject they know a great deal about to someone who knows less.   

The curse of knowledge results in messages falling on deaf ears. Overcoming it isn't simple, though it does ironically require simplicity. Most importantly, however, it requires acknowledging it exists. 

The man in the arena

I was introduced to this quote by Brene Brown in Daring Greatly

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. - Theodore Roosevelt, 1910

Profound inspiration to be brave. 

Brene Brown's insanely popular TedTalk can be viewed below: 

Fear and failure

In Tribes, Seth Godin wrote: 

Fear of criticism is higher than fear of failure.

It's incredible how a simple observation can be so profound. After reading this I began really observing how often my fear of failure was really fear of criticism. Generally speaking, I've observed that I'm perfectly fine with an idea not panning out, or a project not getting traction. Failure is ok. It's failing in front of people that bothers me, and that is a massive limitation on what I'm willing to try. If I'm unwilling to fail publicly, I will always limit my exposure, and thus my upside along with it.  

They say, dance like no one's watching. After reading this, I say do everything like no one's watching. 

I could, of course, take lessons from Cato and embrace the criticism, but that's another subject.