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Is The Worst Case Scenario Really That Bad?

For every emotional state, I find I have a different physical reaction. And no state is more exhausting to me than worry.

Librarians, in my experience, excel at hand-wringing more than anyone else on earth. Change averse, allergic to risk, and elite worriers, they move–at least at my library–through their day in a high-strung state that is equal parts stress and even-more-stress.

We do good stuff, but it’s not life and death.

I’ve been trying something new. Whenever someone tells me what they’re worried about, I ask them what the worst case scenario would be.

It’s never that bad.

In my own life, when I get stressed out about something and I ask myself what the worst case scenario would be, it’s rarely that bad.

Most of the things I worry about aren’t, in the end, worth the effort of worrying about them. They aren’t worth the toll they take.

I treat them like the fate of the universe rests on their outcome, when in fact they are usually mere annoyances or headaches. When in fact only my universe rests on their outcomes. And even then, when the worst happens and my worries are validated, it’s rarely that bad.

It doesn’t mean the worries aren’t real and sometimes the worst case scenario is truly horrible. But I’m trying to do better at recognizing when my feelings are not consistent with reality.

Think about something that’s bothering you. Is the worst case scenario that bad? If not, is there a way to do yourself a favor and let it go?


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  • Amy Harrison June 11, 2010, 5:09 am

    I would love a way to find comfort in the “what’s the worst that could happen” but my imagination will really conjure up something awful.

    I once got conned into buying a car by someone else signing the paperwork and I was adamant that I was going to be in jail for it. I could smell my cell and was thinking about getting a teardrop tattoo.

    Today, I don’t imagine the worst case, I think of all the worst case scenarios I’ve had in the past that have never happened and trust that nothing will get that bad.

    Just, don’t ask me “what’s the worse that could happen” I just don’t sleep on a night. 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne June 11, 2010, 8:13 am

      Amy, I’m actually the same way and that’s why I’m trying to work on it. If I open the door to a really negative scenario, it usually becomes a worse scenario, and then I’m fixating.

      But I want to change it. Mental mastery is important to me, and this is one area I really don’t have control of yet.

      • Amy Harrison June 11, 2010, 8:33 am

        I’m getting better, and like Srinivas am trying to use my imagination for the positive. We did a gig last night and I wanted to ask for donations for a charity half marathon I’m running. I nearly didn’t ask because I thought people wouldn’t like it and I had to force myself to think that people would be receptive and encouraging.

        It turns out that they were, and though actually saying outloud to myself “They will be positive, and smile and donate willingly” made me feel daft at the time, it made me feel more confident about asking.

        Am off to look in a mirror now and say “i love you i love you I love you.”…

  • Todd June 11, 2010, 6:49 am

    Sage advise, Josh. Rarely is the worst case that bad. I tend not to be a worrier. I find nothing constructive with worry. I lean heavily on my faith. Then I just move along, ‘cuz there’s nothing to see.

  • ami June 11, 2010, 7:32 am

    I think lawyers can be elite worriers. Not only can we imagine worst case scenarios in great detail – we can convince everyone around us that they are highly likely so we better mitigate that risk. (perhaps one reason many business people are reluctant to talk to us) This makes us a bit risk averse and resistant to change. It doesn’t help that clients sue lawyers when they get things wrong (how many professions get sued for being human enough to make mistakes?). Some of my people get so worried, they give only risk-free (and almost useless) advice.

    One of my best bosses changed my world when he said, “I know you’re going to make a mistake sometime, we’ve all made mistakes. We’ll deal with it when it happens. Until then, do your best and give great (not risk-free) advice .”

    • Josh Hanagarne June 11, 2010, 8:14 am

      Ami, I think I might feel differently if my job had higher stakes. Your best boss sounds pretty smart:)

  • Srinivas Rao June 11, 2010, 8:01 am


    I find that the worst case scenario is never truly that bad. In fact we have such vivid imaginations that we are probably capable of making things seem much worse than they really are. In my mind, I tend to use the power of questions to my advantage ask myself what’s the best that could happen?

  • John June 11, 2010, 8:05 am

    Great post Josh. I find that when I imagine the worst case scenario, it dawns on my how ridiculous I am being. Then I can focus on actually facing the situation at hand with a clearer head.

  • Tyler Tervooren June 11, 2010, 10:38 am

    Not only is the worst case scenario rarely as bad as we imagine it could be, it’s also incredibly unlikely to happen.

    Take skydiving, for instance. Worst case scenario is very easy to picture and quite worrisome on top of that, but the average American that drives a car 10,000 miles a year is FAR more likely to die in an accident than if they go skydiving once a summer.

  • Bamboo Forest - Tick Tock Timer June 11, 2010, 10:39 am

    What I try to do is ask myself: What is this worry going to COST me?

    If my energy is being channeled into this worry, how are my important goals going to be effected?

    Worry is really bad. I don’t advocate being callous, but either do something about now, later, or let it go.

    But don’t worry. You have a life to live, and you won’t be able to live it optimally if you worry. Is that a price you’re willing to pay?

  • Larissa June 11, 2010, 10:42 am

    So true. For example: My husband has lost two jobs in three years. He is currently seeking employment in Texas. The worst case senario for me would be to move in the middle of August, in the heat, right before school starts, with less than two months to prepare. What’s funny is that this might actually happen, but it’s not going to kill me.
    What has helped me in the last few months is stopping myself from thinking about the “what ifs”. I take one day at a time, trusting that something will work out sooner or later. 🙂

  • Patricia Pentecost June 11, 2010, 10:44 am

    Man! You couldn’t possibly be more timely. And THAT is why you’re my favorite librarian. 😉

    Thanks Josh!!

  • Daisy June 11, 2010, 6:10 pm

    Worry is the misuse of imagination.

    I can’t remember where I read that or who might have said it, but it’s true. Worrying about “what if?” type scenarios can be a creative pastime or a waste of energy and creative imagination.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 12, 2010, 10:11 am

      That is the best quote I’ve heard in a while. Love it.

  • cinderkeys June 12, 2010, 2:09 am

    Funny, I’m the opposite. I try to put important worries out of my mind, and through inaction make the worse-case scenarios more likely.

  • Piers McCarney June 13, 2010, 2:55 pm

    I remember having a period in my life where I really identified with the common “Eastern” warrior-archetypal idea that “The worst case scenario is death; death should not be feared, hence nothing should be feared”. I still feel that way to a degree, but I can not resolve this lack of fear for my own death with the fear I have for harm to those I care about.
    I have zero fear of dying, but I hate to think of the pain of those I leave behind.

    These days I DO worry about money a bit more though, haha.

  • Margaret June 13, 2010, 4:58 pm

    My grandma told me that whenever I was worried about something that I should think of the worst case scenario, make a plan to deal with that “what if” and once I had a plan, I could forget it. Should anything less than the worst happen, I still have it under control. I’ve had some pretty major negative things happen to me, but I don’t worry too much any more…unless I forget to plan.

  • Bill Jones June 14, 2010, 12:14 pm

    “Worrying is a useless emotion. It will either happen or it won’t.” – Perry Jones.

    Perry was 17 y/o when I heard these words of wisdom (at a fraternity meeting of all things).

    I have found that “not worrying” takes practice and using the “worst case scenario” is what I’ve always used since hearing Perry’s words. I always think “what is the worst that could happen?” Can I live with it? If not what is the second worst thing…and whittle it down from there.

    Works for me anyway…


    By the way…your description of librarians decribes most people I’ve known. Few people will take the risks, accept the responsibility, etc…

    Mediocrity seems to be the norm.

  • julie January 15, 2011, 6:39 pm

    I always have constant negative scenereos about anything in life weather its realationship problems the future commintment issues jobs etc is there any book that could help me and change the way i think about things?