‘Without Hope’ (1945) by Frida Kahlo. (Alamy)
‘Without Hope’ (1945) by Frida Kahlo. (Alamy)

Opinion: How to make negativity work for you

  • The Stoics, back in the third century BC, practised negative visualization. They believed in imagining the worst possible outcomes and preparing for them
  • In contemporary managerial strategy, there’s a concept called “pre-mortem”. Teams imagine a project has failed and then work backwards to determine what could potentially lead to failure

An Indian writer I consider a fitting philosopher for our times once equated anger with surprise. We were discussing the managerial aspect of editorial jobs and he said: “If you appear angry, you betray surprise. Good managers are never caught by surprise."

A friend seeking advice on her EdTech startup from a seasoned Marwari textile trader was told that in order to launch forth with Plan A, she should first fully flesh out scenarios for Plans B, C and D. It wouldn’t mean she didn’t “believe in her product". Visualizing scenarios B, C and D, he told her, would give her the confidence and gumption to throw all her weight into Plan A. The way the awareness of a safety net allows a trapeze artist to go higher, and get more ingenious with swings and returns.

In other words, training yourself to see the glass as half empty every once in a while can be a good thing (for one, you would order the next carton of milk on time).

The Stoics, back in the third century BC, practised a form of negative visualization. They believed in imagining the worst possible outcomes and preparing for them. In contemporary managerial strategy—how much more of this is borrowed from Hellenistic philosophers, I wonder—negative visualization has mutated to a concept called “pre-mortem". In this, teams imagine a project has failed and then work backwards to determine what could potentially lead to failure.

To present his idea of pre-mortem, the pioneering research psychologist Gary Klein cites studies conducted in the late 1980s by researchers from Wharton and Cornell, which found that prospective hindsight increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%. In a 2007 article in the Harvard Business Review, Klein says a pre-mortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be “improved rather than autopsied".

Boardrooms shouldn’t have a monopoly over pre-mortems. It would be a great tool for stand-up comics to practise their jokes on the humourless.

An Atlantic article from the January/February 2018 issue synthesizes studies from several international psychology journals: Married couples who were extremely optimistic about their relationship’s future were more likely to experience relationship deterioration; data from British households found that across two decades, especially optimistic self-employed people earned about 25% less than their pessimistic peers; and people who lowballed their risk of heart disease were more likely to show early signs of it.

This strategy of “defensive pessimism", as it has come to be coined, is all about harnessing anxiety for self-improvement at best or self-preservation at worst. Three weeks ago, for instance, we carried an interview with Kiran Nagarkar for his new book, The Arsonist, published by Juggernaut. As a man accused by three women of inappropriate conduct at the height of India’s #MeToo movement, featuring an interview with him was not a casual decision. Over several pre-mortems, we reasoned that by carrying an interview with him we would be doing our jobs by asking him pertinent questions, presented in the best possible format and context. In the worst-case scenario, we would be trolled via Sarahah screenshots posted by an anonymous Twitter account. In the best-case scenario, people would actually read the interview.

I must add that young millennials’ natural propensity for anxiety and obsession with image and perception makes them very useful for pre-mortem teams. If you want to imagine a worst-case scenario for any given situation, I would suggest involving a 26-year-old with a healthy appetite for social media. The things you will hear.

There’s a quote in the new best-seller that fashions itself as a “book about hope": “Instead of looking for hope, try this. Don’t hope. Don’t despair, either.... Just be better. Be something better. Be more compassionate, more resilient, more humble, more disciplined." In the best-case scenario, I would have liked to end with Chanakya or even Alain de Botton. But I am ending with Mark Manson and I think it works.

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