My Friend the Worst-Case Scenario

Note: Day something something of the #Trust30 initiative. I sort of lost track after 18 consecutive posts on overcoming fear.

When I was growing up, my dad was really into Neuro-Linguistic Programming. NLP is this sort of wacky pseudoscience that mixes hypnosis and psychology to elicit a desired outcome from a person.

I don’t know how he got into it, but I assume he thought it would make him a better salesman. Over time, he discovered the techniques worked, and they became a part of his interactions with everyone, including his kids.

One of the techniques he would use is the concept of the “worst case scenario”. As a teenager, I would stress to the point of illness over asking a girl out on a date, and he would run through this exercise with me:

“OK, imagine yourself asking her out. Now, what’s the worst possible outcome? She says no. She doesn’t want to go out with you. She doesn’t even like you. You’re embarrassed. Now, imagine yourself surviving that. Imagine your life going on after that.”

I hated having this used on me, but it did work. Being able to accept the possibility of the most dire consequences allowed me to take risks I would have avoided if I’d left that door closed.

Today, I run into “worst case scenario” situations nearly every day. When people are unfamiliar with the technique, it sort of stuns them that I almost instantly go to the worst possible outcome, and they think I must be a pessimist or fatalist.

But it’s the opposite: Imagining the worst possible outcome allows you to dredge out the darkest fear you have about taking a risk, shine a light on it, and realize that the worst case is never as bad as it seems in the pit of your stomach. It’s actually probably the number two reason for my optimism (after my belief that people are generally intrinsically good).

At work, I often think about the risks I take. I’m not in there to please my boss, I’m there to get things done (which will probably ultimately please my boss, but that’s another story). So when I worry about taking a risk at work, I think about my worst-case scenario.

I take a risk. The risk doesn’t pay off. It wasn’t what the boss wanted. In fact, it blows up on me, and he fires me. I freak out a little bit, then call my wife and apologize for being an idiot. I start looking for a job, but none come up. I can’t pay the mortgage. Our house goes into default. Our credit goes into the toilet and we have to rent an apartment while I get a lower-paying job.

That’s a lot of stuff to keep in the pit of your stomach while making a decision as small as whether to take a minor risk at work. But running that scenario out and imagining yourself surviving it and still being happy is the key to realizing that you’re the one in charge of your destiny.

Because this is the real worst case scenario:

I don’t take any risks at work. My boss is happy enough with me to never fire me, and I am promoted until I make so much money that I become addicted to it. I do just enough to never get fired, because I feel like I have nowhere else to go, and never do anything exceptional with my life, and then I die.

That’s the possibility that truly worries me. Running those two scenarios out makes me a bit more brash and daring at work. It certainly puts me in the “higher risk to be fired” category, but I’ve been fired plenty of times, and I’m still here, a bit wiser each time. I’m also constantly more likely to find work environments that have a higher tolerance for risk-taking and boldness.

Imagining the unimaginable is a technique I use over and over again to remind myself that I have a limitless field of options in front of me.

If you have something that seems too intimidating or high-risk to you, try the technique. You’ll most likely find that you hadn’t been suffering from a lack of courage, but simply a lack of perspective.

  • Chad

    “I don’t take any risks at work. My boss is happy enough with me to never fire me, and I am promoted until I make so much money that I become addicted to it. I do just enough to never get fired, because I feel like I have nowhere else to go, and never do anything exceptional with my life, and then I die.”

    I have worked with too many people who work exactly that way.