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The Stoic Art of Negative Visualization

Stoic Exercises, Wisdom, and More

A CEO calls her staff into the conference room on the eve of the launch of a major new initiative. They file in and take their seats around the table. She calls the meeting to attention and begins, “I have bad news. The project has failed spectacularly. What went wrong?”

The team is perplexed: What?! But we haven’t even launched yet…!

I know it seems strange and maybe even counterproductive to demand that employees think negatively instead of optimistically, but in business circles today, everyone from startups to Fortune 500 companies and the Harvard Business Review are doing this exact exercise. In a direct response to optimistic, feel-good thinking, these leaders are encouraging their employees to think negatively.

The technique that the CEO above was using was designed by psychologist Gary Klein. It’s called a premortem. In a premortem, a project manager must envision what could go wrong—what will go wrong—in advance, before starting. Why? Far too many ambitious undertakings fail for preventable reasons. Far too many people don’t have a backup plan because they refuse to consider that something might not go exactly as they wish.

In fact, I think more companies need a Chief Dissent Officer, someone to shoot down the bad ideas that our blind spots and naive optimism too often obscure. They can catch us when we are puffed up with visions of our own greatness and preordained success. Remember Netflix’s aborted attempt to split into two separate companies? Or when Google Wave was marketed as “the next Gmail,” only to be shut down in a little over a year? If only these great companies had stopped to envision the possible travails that awaited them, they might have been able to prevent them.

No one has ever understood this better than former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, who, reflecting on the collapse of his fortune and fame, told a reporter, “If you’re not humble, life will visit humbleness upon you.”

The practice goes back much further than just psychology though. It dates back many thousands of years, in fact—to the great Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca. And they had an even better name for it: premeditatio malorum