How to Embrace the Power of Negative Thinking

July 11, 2018

 

What will you do if it really happens? 

 

What will you do if over the course of the next several years, the projections hold true and automation and artificial intelligence combine to displace a significant percentage of the current jobs in the United States?

 

What will you do if after sending out hundreds of resumes, attending dozens of jobs fairs, you still can’t find employment?

 

What will you do if you go back to school to get more marketable skills only to discover that there are not enough jobs for people possessing those skills?

What will you do?

 

Right now, you’re probably thinking that I’m overstating the case, that I’m being alarmist and hyperbolic.

 

That there’s not enough solid evidence that what I’m suggesting will actually come about.

 

That at worst, it’s all speculative.

 

And maybe it is.

 

But what would you do it your home was on a collision course with a Category 5 Hurricane?  Would you simply sit back and do nothing because the probability of the storm not hitting was just as high as the probability that it would?

 

Would you roll the dice?  Or would you prepare for the worst, hoping that it would never happen?

 

He Never Saw it Coming

Jim has been a friend for more than fifteen years. 

 

We met at a time when I worked for an IT staffing agency.  Jim was one of the company’s salespeople; bright, aggressive, determined to succeed. 

 

And he did, rising to the position of senior vice president with an income that exceeded a quarter-million-dollars annually. 

 

For a time, we fell out of touch but recently, Jim has reappeared, calling me on average twice a day: for advice, referrals, connections to people and companies that might help him get back on track. 

 

What happened? 

 

About a year ago, Jim’s company was bought by a larger firm and Jim was let go.  Since that time, Jim has been unable to find work.  According to Jim, he never saw it coming.  Really? 

 

As far back as fifteen years ago, during the time we were at the same firm together, I could see that the staffing industry was changing – and not for the better. 

 

Foreign competition was crushing margins while the Internet was automating the sales and recruiting process, making it increasingly difficult to differentiate one firm from another.  That’ why I made a move to another industry. 

 

But no matter how hard I argued that Jim should consider doing the same, he refused to even entertain the possibility that I might be right.  Things were good and the future would be even better. 

 

Sure, there would be bumps in the road; there always are.  But Jim was no longer a salesperson; he was a senior manager whose experience and connections would remain invaluable no matter what the future would bring.

 

We All Make the Same Mistake

It would be easy to call Jim foolish.  He wasn’t. 

 

He was the same as everyone else:  hopeful for the future and resistant to change.

We work hard, achieve our goals, then settle in expecting to reap the benefits of our labors.

 

But as we all eventually discover; the future is rarely considerate of our expectations.

 

Imagining the Future

Around 300 B.C., the Greek Philosopher Zeno established the School of Stoicism in Athens.  For many, the word stoicism summons up images of individuals devoid of laughter or emotion.

 

Stoicism, however, is a much more positive philosophy, one that forces you to engage rather than retreat from the world.

 

Stoics believe that it is important to know what you can control, and what you cannot. One of the key tenets of their philosophy is to imagine negative future events so as to prepare yourself if they actually occur.

 

Given the uncertainty of the future, as well as our inability to control the flow of events outside our limited powers, stoicism is a useful tool for our times.

 

Focus on What’s in Your Control

Consider my hurricane analogy.  Whether or not it hits your property is out of your control.  But not the ability to fortify your home with storm shutters, hip roofs and other features in anticipation of such an occurrence.

 

Similarly, my friend Jim had no way of knowing that his company would be sold.  But had he entertained the possibility that something could go wrong down the road, he would have been able to better prepare for the rupture.

 

Today, we live in a world in which probability has overtaken possibility.

 

Anything can happen and usually does: from Category 5 Hurricanes arriving at your doorstep to your job disappearing overnight.

 

So, what do you do?

 

Sit back and complain that you never saw it coming?

 

Or accentuate the negative by preparing for the storm?

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