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Negative Visualization


These are the last words you’ll ever read.
Too dramatic?
If that were true, I’d have spent more time writing this for you.  You deserve that much.  Regardless you might appreciate these words more if they were your last.  That’s negative visualization.  You might call it “appreciating what you have” but for the stoics who practiced this technique, it’s deeper.
A stoic conjures images of a glum-faced assassin and this technique won’t shake that image at first glance.  You can only appreciate the useful benefits when you…practice.
  • What if you lost your job?
  • What if your home burned down?
  • What if your spouse, your parent, your child were taken?
Glum-faced assassin :(
Uncomfortable as these thoughts may be, sitting with them enables us to reset our ‘expectation baseline’.  Instead of focusing on more, more, more, negative visualization challenges you to reimagine what’s special about your life right now.  The beauty of each moment bursts out clearly against the backdrop of a mind fully aware of the photo-negative alternative.
How often should you practice?  Weekly is a good dose or a perpetual glum-faced assassin you’ll be.
When are good opportunities to practice?
  • When you sit down in your work chair
  • When you take your first step into your home
  • When you hug or handshake or fist-bump ‘your people’
Break free of sleepwalking through life by resetting your ‘expectation baseline’.  Revel in the deepest intensity of each moment with a mind prepared for gratitude.

My Dad and a Duck

My favorite application of negative visualization is imagining each moment with someone you love is your last.  I practiced this with my Dad.  I learned it from losing my Mom.  I didn’t call it negative visualization.  When someone you love dies sooner than you think they should, you learn to adapt.  I learned to appreciate most head-scratching, mind-bending, smile-hurting moments with my Dad.
Like the month he almost convinced me there was a duck living in his apartment.  “I swear there’s a duck.  Just wait a minute…” he said when I entered his room.  Five minutes later.  “Quack, quack…quack, quack”  Hmmm?  If it sounds like a duck but doesn’t smell like a duck or look like a duck, what is it?
An iPhone.  My Dad could barely tap a touchscreen to call you with his bulbous-mechanic claws but changed the ringtone like a pro.  I tweaked my phone to ring like a duck to demonstrate the problem to my wife.  Later that week at work I’m sitting in a big meeting and “quack, quack”.
A duck staring right at you.
What, you thought I was real? A duck chillin’ in an old dude’s apartment. Living the mallard dream…
While it’s fun to laugh at the duck story, the fantastically quirky oddities of your people may frustrate you in the moment.  Imaging life without them prepares you for the worst and improves the chances that you’ll appreciate when a duck stares you in the face.
Read the detailed description below for more on Negative Visualization.  The resources and books below have much deeper insight into this concept.  The Tail-End, Unhappy Gen Y Yuppies, and Fear-Setting technique are three of the most impactful concepts and techniques I’ve learned in the last few years.

Detailed Description

This excerpt comes from A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B Irvine.
[The Stoics] recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value—that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would. This technique—let us refer to it as negative visualization—was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus. It is, I think, the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological toolkit.
Seneca describes the negative visualization technique in the consolation he wrote to Marcia, a woman who, three years after the death of her son, was as grief-stricken as on the day she buried him. In this consolation, besides telling Marcia how to overcome her current grief, Seneca offers advice on how she can avoid falling victim to such grief in the future: What she needs to do is anticipate the events that can cause her to grieve. In particular, he says, she should remember that all we have is “on loan” from Fortune, which can reclaim it without our permission—indeed, without even advance notice. Thus, “we should love all our dear ones . . ., but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever—nay, no promise even that we may keep them for long.” . . .
To see how imagining the death of a child can make us appreciate her, consider two fathers. The first takes [this] advice to heart and periodically reflects on his child’s mortality. The second refuses to entertain such gloomy thoughts. He instead assumes that his child will outlive him and that she will always be around for him to enjoy. The first father will almost certainly be more attentive and loving than the second. When he sees his daughter first thing in the morning, he will be glad that she is still a part of his life, and during the day he will take full advantage of opportunities to interact with her. The second father, in contrast, will be unlikely to experience a rush of delight on encountering his child in the morning. Indeed, he might not even look up from the newspaper to acknowledge her presence in the room.

More Resources

These resources are arranged roughly in order from the least to the most time required.  I’d scan the descriptions to see what’s most applicable to you.

Tail End Post

Read Tim Urban’s Tail-End post with memorable visuals of your remaining lifespan and a simple reminder to appreciate time with people you love.

Unhappy Gen-Y Yuppies Post

Read Why Generation Y Yuppies are Unhappy also from Tim Urban to dig a bit deeper into the psychology of why negative visualization works.  If you dabble the depths of unhappiness from overachievement or high expectations, learning that “Reality = Expectations – Happiness” and assessing whether your expectations are realistic is a powerful way to increase happiness or at least reduce misery.  “Bad” things will happen.  If ten “bad” things each have a low probability chance of happening in one year, you might think you’re safe.  But if low probability means a ten percent chance of each “bad” thing happening in one year, then it’s highly likely at least one “bad” thing will happen.  That’s not the universe conspiring against you.  That’s probability.  Over time you might even relabel the “bad” events to just events.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. – Hamlet by Shakespeare

Pre-Mortem Technique

Learn the premortem technique for anticipating project issues before they happen.

Mindful Mark Speech

Watch my speech The Mindful Mark of Stoicism to learn three more stoic techniques (Practice Misfortune, Turn Obstacles into Opportunities, See More Clearly).

Fear-Setting Technique

Practice the Fear-Setting technique from Tim Ferriss(exercise details are in Q&A section or use the tables below) to channel your fear and anxiety with a pen, paper, and your mind.  To learn more about this technique check out Ferriss negative visualization audio description from his podcast or watch his TED talk on suicide and the Fear-Setting technique.

Use the first table to define your fears, options, and benefits of acting now.

  • What are you worrying about?
  • What’s the worst-case scenario?
  • How might you avoid this problem?
  • What could you do now to avoid the worst case?
  • How would you fix this problem if it happens?
  • What actions might you take to recover?
  • What are the benefits of overcoming your fears?
  • What might your future look like?

Use the second table to describe your future using the questions below and weigh the tradeoff of not acting versus acting.

  • What are the physical, emotional, financial impacts of not acting to mitigate the impact of your fears OR pursuing your goals despite your fears?
  • What does your future look like in 6 months, 1 year, 3 years if you don’t act? What does the future look like if you act?
6 Months1 Year3 Years
Don’t Act

There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction. – John F. Kennedy

Stoicism Books

If you’re undecided about which book to pick, you can search for book summaries or decide if you want an introductory or deep source.  If you want an easier to digest introduction to Stoicism, read the William Irvine book or Ryan Holiday’s the Obstacle is the Way.  If you want to choose from the core written sources for Stoicism, read about the classics below.