Premeditatio malorum

A Pre-meditation of Evils

Premeditatio malorum, a premeditation of evils, is the Stoic exercise of imagining what can go wrong. Think of it as the opposite of ‘positive thinking’ – the practice of negative thinking that allows us to imagine the worst, get all the emotion out of they way, and then begin preparations to either avoid or ameliorate the damage of the worst case scenario.

It was a Thursday morning. I was sitting in an old, well worn leather guest chair in my lawyer’s office. I remember the chair because my hands were slick with sweat and kept slipping off the arm rests as I tried to grip them. My business was in its death throes and I had turned to this man for legal advice. His recommendation: make the decision to close my business down, before somebody made it for me. Then I asked this significant question: What’s the worst case scenario? And he told me. “Well, one of your creditors, probably one of the bigger, more experienced corporate ones, will realise that you can no longer honour your payments, and then will try to recover their losses. If you have their capital equipment, they will repossess them. If you owe more than what they can recover, then they will look to you personally to honour the debt, as you signed personal surety.

So how did this premeditatio malorum exercise work for me?

Because I had imagined the worst ‘evil’, I had already experienced the unpleasant emotions. My brain had already been flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. I had already played out a dozen scenarios about how best to deal with this situation. That meant that when the Sheriff arrived at my door, I was calm, could assess this as not my nightmare but just an unpleasant situation. I already had my paperwork and figures ready. And I could put my fears aside and be polite to another human being doing his job instead of being reactive and angry and embarrassed. That means that his response to my behaviour was better than anticipated. He coached me to a better outcome than if he had just delivered the papers and encountered the typical response that a person in that extreme situation would face. By imagining the worst case scenario and preparing for it, I created an event better scenario than predicted. This is the value of strategic foresight – not just making a business plan for ideal circumstances but also planning for non-ideal scenarios.