Stop Asking, “What’s the Worst That Could Happen?”

Andrew Perri profile photo

Andrew Perri, President & Founder

aperri@pinnaclewealthonline.com
Pinnacle Wealth Management
Andrew : 810-220-6322

Think back to a time when you tried to do something that scared you. Perhaps you had to give a high-stakes presentation in front of a big group of people. Maybe you worked up the courage to ask your boss for a raise. Or maybe you took a big risk — like quitting a toxic job without another opportunity lined up yet. Fear is a universal emotion, and it arises when we think we may experience physical or psychological harm.

If you spoke to someone about how you were feeling in the lead-up to the event that was making you fearful, chances are a well-meaning friend said to you, “Ask yourself: What’s the worst that could happen?”


iStock-1363741180.jpg

iStock-1363741180.jpg


Summary   

Fear is a universal emotion, and it arises when we think we may experience physical or psychological harm. It shows up at work, too. Think about the time when you’ve debated if you should ask for that raise. Or when you’ve accepted working on tough project but eventually asked for an out. Thinking about the worst that could happen has often held us back.

  • Imagining the worst-case scenarios causes us to catastrophize all the bad things that might happen should we take the scary, less-trodden route. If we actually want to face a fear, and do it with the best attitude, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What’s the best that can happen?’ instead of dwelling on the worst.
  • A research found that when people thought about a positive event they hoped would happen in their future just six times in the space of a month, they reported feeling more resilient and less depressed compared to those who didn’t.
  • The next time you’re feeling nervous about an event or activity, take a few minutes to think and write down the best outcomes. Then spend some time really internalizing all the positive possibilities. Look at your list and gather the courage to act, to face your fear.


When I interviewed Michelle Poler (the founder of Hello Fears, a social movement that has reached over 70 million people worldwide) for my How I Work podcast, she told me that she, too, has heard this advice hundreds of times. Poler was doing her master’s degree in branding back in 2015 when she started a project to conquer 100 fears in 100 days. She had recently moved to New York City and found that her fears were getting in the way of her truly enjoying and embracing her new home. Later, the project turned into a global movement and received coverage on the NBC’s Today show, Fox News, CBS, and CNN, to name a few.

Poler told me that, along the way, while she was conquering fears like performing stand-up comedy, cliff diving, and swimming with sharks, people often asked her, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” While Poler could concede that perhaps she wouldn’t die, there were many other bad things this question brought to mind. Maybe I won’t die, but I will embarrass myself, she would think. I might fail. I might get rejected. I might hurt my ego and my self-esteem. There are so many things that can go wrong when we take a risk.

The main problem with this oft-asked question is that its entire purpose is to make us imagine worst-case scenarios. It can cause us to catastrophize all the bad things that might happen should we take the scary, less-trodden route.

Upon realizing this, Poler decided to initiate a change.

“If we actually want to face a fear, and do it with the best attitude, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What’s the best that can happen?’ instead of dwelling on the worst,” Poler told me. When we think about the worst thing that could happen, our brain gets filled with negative thoughts and images that ignite our fears, worries, or anxieties. When we think about the best-case scenarios, the opposite happens. “We’re reminded of the reasons why we thought that taking a risk was a good idea,” Polder said. We might get a pay rise, we might have a really positive impact our team, or we might feel a huge sense of pride (not to mention adrenaline) from having the courage to walk away from a demoralizing job.

Research published in the Journal of Positive Psychology supports this reframing. Duke University’s Kathryn Adair Boulus, who led the research, found that when people thought about a positive event they hoped would happen in their future just six times in the space of a month, they reported feeling more resilient and less depressed compared to those who didn’t. Adair also found that for the “positive future event” group, when they did experience disappointments, their feelings subsided more quickly.

In summary, the more confident we feel about uncertainty, the happier we feel in the present and the more prepared we are for the setbacks that life will inevitably throw our way in the future.

The next time you’re feeling nervous about an event or activity you’re tasked with doing, try it. Ask yourself, “What’s the best thing that could happen?” Take a few minutes to think and write down your answer. Then spend some time really internalizing all the positive possibilities. Looking at your list will help you gather the courage to act, and to face your fear.

———

Dr Amantha Imber is the author of Time Wise, the founder of behavioural science consultancy Inventium and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful people.

c.2022 Harvard Business Review. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group.

This HBR article was legally licensed through AdvisorStream.

Andrew Perri profile photo

Andrew Perri, President & Founder

aperri@pinnaclewealthonline.com
Pinnacle Wealth Management
Andrew : 810-220-6322