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.
“You can expect a visit from a Sheriff of the Court with a court order to take possession of your personal assets so that they can sell them in a public auction to cover the debts. “The sheriff will arrive early in the morning, before you take the children to school. They know that people in your situation normally duck and dive, so they want to get to you before you leave your house for the day. “He will serve you with the papers, and then come in with some police officers. You and the children will probably sit in the lounge while they take an inventory and then they will get you to sign for the assets that they take.” By this stage I was no longer listening – it was difficult to hear over the roar in my ears and the nausea was making it difficult to concentrate. Then he leans back in his chair, waves his hand in the air and says “But then again, it may not be that bad.” I sat up again and paid attention as he outlined a less-than-worst-case scenario. I took action after that meeting, drew up a list of all my assets and all my liabilities, both personal and in the business. I liquidated what I could, retrenched staff, including my parents, made arrangements to pay the smaller accounts. Then I approached some of the bigger ones, armed with total transparency. In the face of a clear statement of accounts and facts, we made certain arrangements. But one day, the Sheriff of the Court did come knocking at my door. It was 11 am, not first thing in the morning. And my children were already at school and did not have to experience this. Immediately I recognised that this situation was not the worst case scenario that I had envisioned before. The Sheriff was a very polite, older man and accompanied by only a uniformed driver. Strike two against the threat of ‘worst case’. He came in, showed me the paperwork and explained it patiently. The Court Order did not in fact say that my assets could be taken. I listened, showed him my accounts and my paperwork and explained what I had done to address my situation. He advised me how to approach the woman responsible for payment arrangements as he had dealt with her often. His advice helped me to secure a simple and affordable repayment plan which immediately resolved the threat and pressure of that debt. Two weeks later, the Sheriff returned. This time he apologised – to me – for having to bother me again. This Court Order did say that, at his discretion, my assets could be seized. He came in for a cup of tea at my old, round kitchen table. We discussed the paperwork and he looked around, casually, from his chair, without taking inventory. And then he uttered magic words. Have you ever heard something said to you that creates two opposing emotions at the same time? He said to me “There is nothing here worth claiming to settle your debts.” My immediate emotions were relief as well as “What’s wrong with my stuff that its not worth enough for you!” But of course I kept that to myself. I was very relieved to keep my old, round kitchen table, second hand piano and ancient TV set. His report to the suppliers, was that I had nothing worth taking. His advice to me, was precious. Again, he advised me how to approach the suppliers and negotiate with them, and again I was able to create a payment plan that relived my immediate situation, even if it has become a long term commitment.

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.

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