Contemplation vs. Worrying

Stephen Covey asked us to imaging our own funeral in great detail – the flowers, the casket and guests reading our eulogies. To live a meaningful life, he said, was to live with the end in mind.

If you thought that was morbid, stoic philosophers kissed their children goodnight while considering how they might not be alive the next morning. They practiced negative visualization to be grateful for everything they had rather than taking them for granted.

The psychologist Gary Klein invented the pre-mortem. Several teams do a post-mortem after a project has ended to glean relevant lessons. He flips this around. Before a project starts, he asks the team to imagine, in vivid and specific ways, how the project could fail. The team can then take preemptive action to avoid this failure.

All this time tested advice goes against the grain of ‘thinking positive’. They argue with good evidence about how contemplating negative events can have positive consequences.

However, we all know people who wear themselves out by imagining disastrous scenarios. All that negativity doesn’t seem to help. So what is the truth? Does thinking of negative events help us or cripple us?

The distinction here is between contemplation and worrying. Contemplation is a deliberate act done with calmness and curiosity. Worrying is the antithesis of these very feelings. A worried person wants to have nothing to do with the fears that haunt her. While contemplation is an act of acceptance, worrying is one of rejection.

The first step to solving a problem is to acknowledge it. To contemplate is to say ‘yes’ to a problem. To worry is to say ‘no’ and deny its existence.

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