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

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:

  • Action creates luck.
  • Acton builds confidence.
  • Action destroys fear.
  • Action manufactures motivation.
  • Action is character.

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.

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  1. OMG, this is so me! I say it all the time, stop thinking too much, start doing. And that whole sitting drives me crazy. Even when I watch TV, I knit non-stop (though I wish I didn’t turn TV on at all, but alas, I don’t live alone). Same with exercise – back when I was a competitive runner, I never had off-season. Now that I don’t race at all, I still never stop doing something. As long as I wake up at 5:30 am, it’s either gym or run or yoga. Take a couple days off – and the momentum is lost. Injured? Go for a walk.
    I remember whining about my first marriage, when somebody said: walk away or stop complaining. I imagined the worst that could happen and took the plunge. Same with career change at the age of 45 (sort of “down” by conventional standards too!). Couldn’t have been happier and can not even imagine not having done that!
    I always wanted a solo long backpacking trip. Job, family, responsibility…last month I hiked Oregon section of PCT. 450 miles. 15 days. Living the dream. Actions speak, words are cheap. Walk the talk:)

  2. I hate when people tell me about their religion or life philosophy; it so rarely aligns with what I see them doing. A trick I learned in high school is that people will re-iterate things they want to believe about themselves that are not true. Anyone who tells stories about how they are the most faithful of friends is just plain not. It was a good thing to learn. Show me what you are and let others tell you.

  3. Really love this post as it’s something I firmly believe in. It also made me realize I’ve unknowingly been a stoic since my elementary school days. I would lie in bed at night and imagine bad things that could happen (fire, robbers, etc.) and then how I would deal with those scenarios if they did occur. Nothing like that ever did happen (thank goodness!), but this thought process has remained throughout my life. It allowed me to let go of a “planned” career path right after college and spend three years traveling the world working on cruise ships.

    This way of thinking is also probably why I’m feeling slightly frustrated currently. I made the decision to aggressively tackle my student loan debt, which means I’ve pursued higher paying jobs in a particular field. I’ve been thinking how I’m really ready for a career change, but that would mean less income to go towards paying off my debt. So I’m staying the current course, but definitely envisioning and planning for the future.

    Thanks for this very thought provoking post!

  4. Who gets to decide what an unproductive hobby is? I used to be someone who kept my life absolutely jam packed with responsibilities. I decided to cut back and leave some breathing room in my life for relationships and to do other things I enjoy (reading a fiction book, knitting, indulging in a favorite tv show, or playing super nintendo). But I kept finding that I would feel guilty the entire time, because I felt like I was avoiding productivity. And the guilt made me unhappy and unhappy people are definitely less productive. I’m working hard to enjoy being in the moment. I find I’m much happier, less anxious, and more refreshed. And I think I’m using those things less as a distraction when I really need to be productive.

    I assume Tyler isn’t suggesting everyone needs to be productively working on their goals all the time, but the quote your chose to share seems to imply that if you choose to spend your time indulging in ‘unproductive hobbies’ that you must be avoiding some bigger goal. That we can’t have happy, on our death bed, thoughts about the hours we spent all excited about our favorite books/movies/TV shows; the hours we challenged ourselves and laughed about video games; and the time wasted watching stupid cat videos with our spouse. Those hours might all blend in to one big general memory, but I don’t think they mean any less. They’re the in-between moments, that give us the energy we need to tackle those larger goals.

    • I understood the comment as saying that many people dream of big things they’d like to do, but don’t even take the first step to make the dream a reality, never mind the second. I don’t think he meant that one has to be productive every waking moment in a Puritan kind of way.

      For example, I dreamed of understanding mathematics better, because I sucked at it in school. First I started reading books about maths. Then I decided to look for online courses. Then, I did free online learning materials from the Open University, and grade school books.

      Then I enrolled for my first paid course with the Open University, and nearly broke out in hives from fear I would not master the material. But I told myself that the worst that could happen would be that I would do no better than in school, and at least, at this stage of my life, I wouldn’t have my mother berating me for my grades, so the “worst” was already one better than my past. 😉

      Fast forward to June 2017, and I’ll be completing a Certificate in Higher Education in Mathematical Sciences from the Open University, and my grades look quite good as well, if I say so myself. So I fulfilled my dream of healing my crap relationship with maths, and a good bit of my self-esteem as well. The whole project cost me approximately $7000 in tuition and has no real money-earning potential. But I still thinks it underscores the point Tyler was making.

      And I still have interests outside maths, waste time on social media, etc. 😉

    • Generally I think most people are well aware of which of their hobbies are unproductive. They know, on some level, that binge-watching a TV show, or leveling up in a video game, may be fun and may give them something to talk about with their spouse/partner and may even make for a good memory, but it isn’t intrinsically “productive” the way knitting or quilting or carpentry or cooking or [insert hobby here] can be.

      Building on that, I think – again generally – that “productive” is understood to mean that the activity produces something. It is constructive; it is intended to actively improve something. How and what is entirely subjective – it could be a person’s individual economy, by keeping track of their spending and making sure it’s in budget; or their household, by doing the yard work; or their community, by picking up litter on the hiking trail – but the definition of “productive” is not.

      The point can be stretched to cover a certain amount of downtime. It’s productive to improve your mental health, and downtime is necessary for that. But *too much* downtime generally makes mental health worse, not better. That’s where a hobby can become unproductive or counter-productive.

  5. Re. traveling the world in a yacht. I have a friend…..English woman in her 40s plus who dreamed of doing this. She got in contact with somebody in the yachting world through couch surfing.com, planning on trying to find someone who would take her on as free crew to learn the ropes. Next thing I hear she is is off crewing on a yacht around Indonesia….Three years later she is still traveling the world….changes yachts occasionally…..she is also trained in scuba diving which is a helpful skill on board.

  6. Great post. This applies the saying “watch what they do, not what they say” on an individual basis. Take action on your goals. It really can be that simple. What is the next step? Journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So true.

  7. Good post. Fear paralyzes most people into inaction and keeps them in the same rut. Without action, there can be no results. Even the most brilliant strategy is worthless without execution. Forget sailing, something far simpler as taking a new job in a new place stresses people out. Yet that’s what they must do to push their own boundaries and prepare for a comfortable retirement through ‘geographical arbitrage’.

  8. Not just “the worst that could happen” but people often have a very low discomfort threshold. You see this when you talk to anyone about going back to school or getting into activities like backpacking. Often when people realize that improvement, while potentially rewarding, takes sacrifice it suddenly isn’t as attractive. I’ve seen it over and over with people in my field who want a degree, and manage to sign up for class after class that they eventually drop because X or Y happened. They think if you make it through a whole program you must be super lucky and have a super supportive boss, family, etc that they don’t have.