The roots of the Stoic exercise premeditatio malorum — premeditation of evils and troubles that we may encounter — go back around two millennia. It’s an exercise where we imagine things that could go wrong, and the losses that we may need to deal with in case of a crisis, catastrophe or a calamity. In other words, it’s simply an extrapolation of Murphy’s law and making it super real in our heads.
You may think that this exercise represents the zenith of pessimism but in reality it helps us prepare for life’s inevitable setbacks. As much as we’d like to believe, life is not easy and straightforward and things might spiral out of control at any time. We may come across times when we do not get what we deserve, even if we’ve earned that thing. If we keep living in our dreams and fantasies, we set ourselves up for disappointment and despair. That’s why it’s important that we prepare ourselves, both mentally and emotionally, for these occurrences to happen. As Ryan Holiday writes in his book The Obstacle is the Way, “The world might call you a pessimist. Who cares? It’s far better to seem like a downer than to be blindsided or caught off guard. It’s better to meditate on what could happen, to probe for weaknesses in our plans, so those inevitable failures can be correctly perceived, appropriately addressed, or simply endured.”
The unexpected blows of fortune can be brutal and immensely painful, which is the exact reason why a wise person contemplates on them beforehand. As Seneca said, “What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. The fact that it was unforeseen has never failed to intensify a person’s grief. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events.”
This Stoic exercise of negative visualization is an incredibly useful tool in building confidence as well as cultivating self-reliance. Because we train ourselves in advance, we prepare ourselves to face anything that may happen and work towards solving problems beforehand so that we don’t encounter them later on.
So, if you want to live an easier life and live well, not only today but every day from now onward, meditate on what might go wrong. Get yourself prepared. Think about what steps you’ll take and how you’ll handle the situation. The main thing is to desensitize yourself in advance so that if things do go sideways, you’ll be calm and not overwhelmed in the chaos.
We can keep Benjamin Franklin’s words at the back of our mind to motivate ourselves to become ready for anything that may happen: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
It’s important to remember that we’re not only doing this Stoic exercise for ourselves, but for our loved ones as well. And that’s why it’s crucial that we train ourselves so that we respond in the right manner without breaking under the pressure.
Go ahead and expect to have a successful, pleasant and prosperous day ahead, but if things go south, be ready for that. In the words of Maya Angelou, hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.