The Owl's Perch

Stoicism and Fear Setting - Old Tools for Today's Issues

Sunday, May 13, 2018

When you think of a Stoic, you might create a picture in your mind of a boring, emotionless person. Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are a few famous Stoics from a few thousand years ago, and they were anything but boring. Having studied Stoicism recently, I think there is great relevance of the philosophy today. Seneca is quoted as saying, “Think your way through difficulties: harsh conditions can be softened, restricted ones can be widened, and heavy ones can weigh less on those who know how to bear them.” One tool stoics used is imagining the worst-case scenario and clarifying fears.

In today’s age of optimists tending toward naiveté and pessimists tending toward cynicism, it makes sense to reach back 2000 years to this tool when entering a negotiation, making a big decision or preparing for a difficult conversation. Further, I believe it’s a key leadership tool when setting strategy.

In a nutshell, here’s the process: First, imagine the worst thing that could happen if you took a certain course of action. Be specific in defining what might happen. Next, specifically name the fears that may attend such an occurrence – really feel what it might be like to experience the emotions. Then, consider what you might do to prevent such an occurrence and then repair it. That’s it.

A quick example: Recently I had some friends I hadn’t seen in a while over for dinner. Truth is, I felt very judged by them for many years and was unsure how to invite them into my home. I considered topics we might discuss and how I wanted to show up. Using this process, I defined the worst things that might happen if I brought up uncomfortable subjects and how I might prevent things from going off the rails. I tried to sense what it would be like to feel judged and to continue the status quo of not seeing them. Damage repair began to feel better than doing nothing, if in fact they even stayed for dessert. I chose to consider discussion topics that were interesting and thoughtful. Perspectives on current events, thought-provoking recent books and family updates beyond just where and when. I steadied myself for twists and turns that may happen and had a few kind words ready in my back pocket should things go sideways

Because I first considered a few worst-case scenarios, I showed up full of compassion and heart rather than with fear and trepidation – and that made all the difference. At the end of the evening, one of them said to me, “Wow – you really did this well. Thank you.” By the way, if you’re interested, Tim Ferriss describes a Stoic process he calls “Fear Setting” in his TED talk. It’s worth a listen. I’m curious how you might consider using this ancient tool to help solve some of your big decisions?

 




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