What’s the Worst That Could Happen? Using Action and Momentum to Achieve Your Goals

by J.D. Roth

Tyler K and Katie, sailingLast night I met long-time reader Tyler K for dinner at a local Portland restaurant. Tyler is a software engineer and a sailing nut. He’s also a man of strong (and vocal) opinions. As sometimes happens during these meetings, a casual conversation about something unrelated provided a flash of insight about personal finance.

Over Khao Soi and caramelized pork, we talked about goals and having direction in life. Tyler’s not a big fan of my mission statement concept — hey, nobody’s perfect! — and he thinks too many people have big dreams without taking action. I agree. A wise man once said, “Faith without works is dead.” So too, goals without acts are dead.

Action is the cornerstone of achievement. Consider:

That last point is so important. You aren’t what you think or say. You are what you do. If you never did anything, you wouldn’t be anybody. If you have goals but don’t work toward them, those goals don’t mean anything.

Tyler told me that he meets lots of people who dream about sailing around the world. “It’s almost a cliché,” he said. “Tons of people share this dream. They have a romantic notion of what it’d be like. But nobody ever does anything about it. They don’t take sailing lessons. They don’t save to buy a boat. They don’t do anything to make it happen. All they do is dream about it.”

“Why do you think that is?” I asked.

“People are afraid. They make excuses,” Tyler said. “They’re not afraid of what might happen at sea — although maybe they should be — but afraid of what might happen at home. What would happen to their job? What would happen to their friends? You know, that kind of thing.”

“I think the same thing prevents a lot of folks from doing long-term RV trips,” I said.

“Exactly. But in reality, the worst-case scenario isn’t that bad. People imagine it’s terrible but it isn’t. What’s the worst that could happen? You’d probably end up back where you started. Maybe a little behind.”

Negative Visualization: What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

The conversation reminded me of a book I’m reading, A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine. This fantastic guide to the Greek philosophy of Stoicism is destined for the future Money Boss Library. Irvine talks about the importance of having a “grand goal for living”, developing an internal locus of control, expressing honest emotion, and learning to love what you already have.

Irvine says it’s vital to master the psychological skill of “negative visualization”. Learn to ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” This not only helps you to value what you already have, but can lead you to take action in support of your personal mission.

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.

Sounds a little gloomy, right? Irvine says that’s not the case. You’re not meant to dwell on these things, but to occasionally ponder them as a thought exercise.

For instance, I used to imagine what it would be like if I lost my job. “I could always go to work at McDonald’s,” I thought. “And I grew up in a run-down trailer house. Worst case, I could always live in something like that again.” This line of thinking drove my ex-wife crazy but gave me comfort. I knew that if disaster struck, I’d be fine flipping burgers and living in a trailer park. I’ve done it before and can do it again.

The Stoics took this line of thinking even further. Seneca the Younger encouraged followers to live as if each moment were their last. That’s not to say that he wanted people to descend into debauchery. Here’s how Irvine explains it:

Living as if each day were our last is simply an extension of the negative visualization technique: As we go about our day, we should periodically pause to reflect on the fact that we will not live forever and therefor that this day could be our last. Such reflection, rather than converting us into hedonists, will make us appreciate how wonderful it is that we are alive and have the opportunity to fill this day with activity. This in turn will make it less likely that we will squander our days.

Too many people squander their days. They spend their time on things that don’t matter, not even a little. When you die, will you be glad you caught every episode of Game of Thrones? Or will you regret not having used that time for something better aligned with your purpose?

All of the folks who want to sail around the world but are afraid to take the first step could profit from negative visualization. So could you. And me. We all could.

Action and Momentum

A Guide to the Good LifeTyler’s wife Nicole chimed in to share her experience: “After college, I spent two-and-a-half years in the Peace Corps. While all of my friends graduated and went to work, I was doing volunteer work in Swaziland in southern Africa. I knew people who wanted to do something similar, but they were afraid. They thought if they took time off, they’d never catch up with their peers. As if it were some sort of a race.”

“When you came back, did you feel like you were behind?” I asked.

“A little,” Nicole said. “Sure. I mean, my friends had three years of on-the-job experience. I was starting from scratch. But you know what? When I was doing interviews, my Peace Corps experience set me apart. Employers found it interesting. It didn’t keep me from getting jobs. Maybe I started off a little behind, but eventually I was able to catch up.”

“I think this goes back to taking action,” Tyler said. “I feel like a lot of people don’t do anything with their spare time. They have un-productive hobbies. They watch a lot of TV. Or they play videogames. That sort of thing. That’s time they could be using to pursue their goals.”

“Like sailing,” I said.

“Exactly,” he said. “Or exercising. I know for me, it’s easy to lose momentum when I’m pursuing a goal. Last year, for instance, I did a lot of cycling. I loved it. I’d cycle every day. It was easy to keep at it because I had momentum. I cycled yesterday, so of course I’m going to cycle today.”

“The inertia kept you going.”

“Yes. I had fitness momentum. But the reverse is true too. Once I missed a couple of days of cycling, it was tougher to get back on the bike. Then eventually I wasn’t riding at all.”

“Yeah,” said Nicole. “The bike was just sitting there in the hallway. I had to move it every time I wanted to get by. I didn’t mind when he was biking, but it became a nuisance when he wasn’t.”

Tyler nodded. “I guess my point is that action isn’t just important for pursuing goals. Yes, you need to take action if you want to achieve your dreams. But action leads to more action. Does that make sense? This momentum is a very real thing.”

“I agree,” I said. “I’ve found that to be true in my own life. If I don’t write, it’s tough to sit down and write. If I don’t exercise, it’s tough to make it to the gym. And so on. But if I write one thing, I want to write another. If I make it to Crossfit on Monday, I want to go to Crossfit on Wednesday.”

This is the bottom line: Action is the key ingredient to success. Whether your aim is to achieve Financial Independence, to sail around the world, or to lose fifty pounds, the most important thing you can do is act.

What is it that you want to accomplish? Forget your excuses and fears. Take one step toward that goal today.

Updated: 09 August 2016

Do what's right. Do your best. Accept the outcome.
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