David Heinemeier Hansson

October 30, 2023

Negative visualization in practice

The most counterintuitive of the Stoic mental exercises is that of negative visualization. Willfully imagining all manner of terrible things that might befall you, but haven't yet. Described like this, it sorta sounds like a fancy word of anxiety, but if you look closer, it's in fact its opposite.

The point of visualizing the consequences of an accident, the loss of a loved one, or the bankruptcy of your business is not to stew in despair, but to prepare yourself for the inevitability of hardship. Nobody makes it through life entirely on easy mode, and if you haven't done any manner of mental preparation, even small setbacks can seem calamitous. So you really ought to prepare.

In this way, negative visualization is like the dojo in The Matrix. It's a way to level up your skills inside a simulation running within your mind's eye. A chance to realize that "there is no spoon" in the sense that a given external event forces a given internal response. With enough training, you can disconnect the two, and become far better at choosing your response to almost any stimuli. In my book, that's even better than knowing Kung Fu!

In addition to building up your resilience, negative visualization also offers a path to gratitude. However bad things might seem in the moment, you can usually imagine something even worse, which should make the present seem far more tolerable.

That ideal of being able to bear any hardship life has to offer is key to Stoicism in general. One which it shares with plenty of other philosophical traditions. The modern self-help guru Jim Rohn, for example, presents this as "don't wish it was easier, wish you were better". Exactly.

But beyond all the inner work you can do with negative visualization, I really enjoy putting the insights into external practice as well. That's how I've become so attached to the concept of The One Person Framework in my open source work. I'm putting my negative visualization into action, and getting ready for the end of my life's work. I've been getting ready like this for the better part of twenty years, even though things have, actually, mostly been both easy and prosperous.

But businesses go bankrupt all the time. Markets change, accidents and malice happens, and entropy is always at the door. I want to be ready, because being ready is the ticket to being calm. If you know and accept that the gravy train might stop at any station, you dissipate the fear associated with not knowing when or where it might do so. That's incredibly powerful and liberating.

So that's what I'm doing when I charge at the merchants of complexity, working on tools and frameworks to empower the individual. I'm setting up my own situation for starting over from scratch with no capital, no staff, no advantages. Only the tools and the skills I've built and learned along the way.

It's ironic that it becomes so much easier to enjoy working on the business after you've accepted that it might end at any time, but it's true. The Buddhists have this as key to their teachings, that attachment is suffering, too. (Proving that most of the deepest insights into the human condition were uncovered by multiple traditions independently.)

So I encourage you to give negative visualization a try. And after you've done that, to put it into action. Things can always get worse and you can always get better.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.