“What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. 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…
Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.”
The great Booker T. Washington rose from humble origins in Hale’s Ford, Virginia to a position of immense responsibility. He ran a school with some 1,500 students, he employed hundreds of people, he advised politicians and activists and traveled across the country giving speeches. How did he manage it all? And with such equanimity and strength? He had a little exercise:
“When I begin my work in the morning, I expect to have a successful and pleasant day of it, but at the same time I prepare myself to hear that one of our school buildings is on fire, or has burned, or that some disagreeable accident had occurred, or that someone has abused me in a public address or a printed article, for something that I have done or omitted to do, or or something that he had heard that I had said—probably something I had never thought of saying.”
The origins of this exercise go back some two thousand years. It’s the Stoic premeditatio malorum—the premeditation of the evils and troubles that might lie ahead. It’s the exercise of imagining things that could go wrong or be taken away from us. It helps us prepare for life’s inevitable setbacks. We don’t always get what is rightfully ours, even if we’ve earned it. Not everything is as clean and straightforward as we think they may be. Psychologically, we must prepare ourselves for this to happen.
As Seneca would say, the unexpected blows of fortune fall heaviest and most painfully, which is why the wise man thinks about them in advance. It’s also impossible to prepare for or prevent something you’re unaware of. The Stoic doesn’t see this act of negative visualization as pessimistic, but simply a feature of their self-confident optimism: I’m ready to face anything that happens and I’m also ready to do the work necessary now to ensure I don’t waste energy on problems that could have been solved in advance.
So if you want to have a great day today, think about all the ways it might go sideways. Be prepared for that. Think about how you’d handle it, all the things you would need to do in response. Practice being calm in the face of how overwhelming it might seem. Remember that people will be depending on you and that’s why you need to respond right. Consider what steps you can take now in anticipation.
Expect to have a successful and pleasant day, of course, just be ready in case it isn’t.
The premeditatio malorum coin we make is a great reminder for this.
Explore Our Daily Stoic Store