The uncertainty and fear of the past few months has highlighted the importance of our internal resilience, calm, and flexibility in mitigating involuntary risks like this pandemic, and it has provided a proving ground for our ability to stay in the present like a deep water swimmer, despite the unknown. It is also showing us how to scale back the fear associated with considering a worst case scenario.
Nathan is an insurance adjuster, so it is not surprising that he bases many personal decisions on the worst possible outcome. His job, his dating life, even booking his vacation. His refrain is “what’s the worst that can happen” and then he takes actions (or inactions) to avoid that outcome. Even though Nathan understands that he’s looking at a tail-event with a low likelihood of happening, his fear of the worst case scenario usually persuades him to stay away from experiences he actually wants.
When we focus on a singular, extreme outcome, we amplify the size of the outcome and the probability it will happen. We become so intent on studying the worst case scenario and thinking it through, it manifests from imagination into reality. In limiting our focus exclusively to a singular outcome, it appears to be the only outcome; it’s not viewed in the continuum of potential outcomes or contrasted against the best case or most likely case scenario. Our perception transforms an unlikely worst case scenario into a probable outcome. In some situations this might feel prudent – “better safe than sorry” – but it can skew our decision-making.
Imagine holding a lottery ticket. A lottery is the polar opposite of a worst case scenario, but like a worst case scenario, it is an extremely unlikely event. Regardless, with that ticket in hand, we realize there is a chance that we could win. After all, why would we buy a ticket if we didn’t think we had a chance to win? Like the New Jersey Lottery slogan: Give Your Dreams a Chance. So, what do we do? We begin daydreaming about how we will spend the winnings. Pay off the house, car, and college! Exotic travel! Super yacht! Personal Chef! Diamond encrusted cowboy boots!
The more we immerse ourselves in the prospect of winning, the more we believe that we have a good chance of winning. However, the probability did not change at all; it is still infinitesimal. Yet, because we only considered that option and intensely focused on it, we amplified the probability in our head to the point where we are disappointed if we don’t win
It is the same process we use when considering the worst case scenario. Through this lens, we can apply the same logic and wrangle in our fears about the worst case scenario happening and ultimately be able to accept reasonable levels of risk. Winning the lottery is equivalent to having the worst case scenario happen. For the lottery, we project what we would do if it happens, making plans on how to use the winnings. For a worst case scenario, we can theorize on all the potential impacts if it came to pass. When we daydream about the lottery, we don’t immediately go on a spending spree as if we already won. We don’t buy a ticket and then quit our job before the drawing. Yet, when we obsess over the worst case scenario, we avoid taking action because we see the worst case scenario as a very likely occurrence. The lottery and worst case scenario both represent the farthest extreme possible outcome. We don’t take the lottery as a given, but we do for the worst case scenario.
The key distinction between the two is the fear associated with the worst case scenario, compared to the opportunity presented by the lottery. In order for us to move beyond this fear of the worst case scenario and be bold enough to pursue the experiences we want, we can add a final thought to our assessment of the worst case scenario. Begin with the premise that we survive the worst case scenario and then explore how we can stabilize and get back to thriving. The purpose of this is to create a new certainty to overwrite the certainty ascribed to the worst case scenario. This new certainty says, “if we can handle the worst case scenario, then we can handle every other possible outcome.” By challenging the worst case scenario, we can shift our mindset from fear to opportunity, which allows us to put the worst case scenario back into its proper size – an unlikely tail event. When Nathan begins approaching the worst case scenario like a lottery, he will see opportunities as more likely and be more willing to pursue his desires without fear.