There’s an exhilarating freedom and motivation in having nothing to lose. History is full of amazing tales of underdog ingenuity. Likewise, stereotypes abound of the mighty falling flat, trying desperately to protect what they’ve got.
But even more insidious than actively trying to protect what you have, is frequent fretting about how to do so in your mind. It’s so easy to fall into an endless churn of worries about how your precious gains could vanish tomorrow.
This is known as loss aversion. It’s the default routing of our evolutionary brains, and it can lead to unnecessary stress, lost opportunities, and poor decision-making. But it doesn’t have to be your destiny – it is indeed possible to reroute.
The stoic practice of negative visualization is one way to do this. If you imagine, clearly and frequently, the worst case scenario, you can work on coming to terms with its consequences. Usually they’re far less dire than your worries would lead you to believe.
I’ve employed this technique from the get-go with everything I hold dear in my life. As an example, here’s how I’ve applied this to the thought that a terrible end could prematurely doom Basecamp.
It’s easy to contemplate all sorts of spectacular ways this could happen: A massive hack that destroys all data, all backups. Some sort of epic fraud that indicts the entire company. I let my mind seek out all sorts of terrible corners.
Then I consider what’s left: I got to work with amazing people for over a decade. I grew as a programmer, as a manager, and as a business person immensely. I enjoyed most days, most of the time. I helped millions of people be more productive doing all sorts of wonderful things.
I’m so much better off for having been through this, regardless of how a possible end might occur for the company. This makes whether circumstances allow us to continue for another decade (or five!) a lesser deal than the fact that we did for one.
This brings a calmness, a tranquility as the stoics would say, that’s incredibly liberating. A head free of fear or dread. I believe this not only is a saner, healthier way to live (stress wrecks havoc on the body and soul), but also better for the company.
We’re not running Intel, and I don’t want to have Grove’s “only the paranoid survive” as my modus operandi. I want to retain the underdog sense of having nothing to lose, even when conventional thought might say I (and the company) have everything to lose.
That’s the tranquil freedom of the stoic way.