Friday, December 30, 2011

Ditching the "Worst-Case Scenario"

Throughout childhood, my education, and all the corporate career years, I was well-indoctrinated into the common practice of preparing for the "worst case scenario." Who among us didn't have a parent who told us we had to wear clean, un-tattered underpants because if we got hurt, the rescuer or doctor would discover the quality of your "drawers." My mom wouldn't let me wear blue or purple nail polish because if they found me after an accident, they would get one look at my nails and think I was in cardiac arrest. Never mind that my fingernails could have been perfect accessories to some cool outfit, we had to act as if the worst thing would actually happen!

My college degrees are both in Engineering, which at its core, applies science and math towards solving problems. The discipline is aimed at finding solutions, but the art is to find a good solution. Engineers are stereotypically a risk-averse bunch, and much thought goes into minimizing the risk of bad outcomes, also known as worst case scenarios. If any of you non-Engineers are glazing over at this point, I'll simply offer exhibit A, which I'm sure you're familiar with.

You'll probably agree that most of us, whether we know it or not, are in the habit of anticipating that things will go wrong. This way, we can play it safe! I still recall one of the key principles I learned in Dale Carnegie's "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living" training back in the mid 1980's: 

----> When you're making a decision or a change in direction, first identify 
the worst case scenario. Accept that as an outcome. And then improve on it. 

That is, start with thinking about the worst thing that could happen. Then, after you accept that as what could happen, start working on what you want as a better result. And this principle was offered to help you "stop worrying" over the worst thing that could happen!

A couple of months ago, on a bike ride, my friend Sherry and I were deeply engaged in conversation about "the law of attraction," which basically says that you attract into your life whatever you think about, and that your dominant thoughts will find a way to manifest. So as we pedaled, it occurred to us that if you're making decisions and living life with a mindset of avoiding the worst-case scenario, then the very idea of investing mental energy in the worst-case scenario could easily lead to the manifestation of that worst case! WHAT IF, we thought, you assume and plan for the best possible outcome? What could life be like? What if we stopped worrying about what bad or scary things might happen and start imagining all the amazing things you could bring about?

I decided to put this into practice last month after John and I received the news that the many cracks in the facade of our 7 year old house were not the cause of water damage, they were a symptom of something a lot more serious: construction flaws that allowed rainwater to get behind the high-tech coating and moisture barrier system and start rotting the wood panels underneath in the frame of the house. It had to get fixed, and sooner was deemed to be definitely better than later. The "old me" would have freaked out, looked for finger-pointing opportunities, obsessed about the extent of the damage and potential cost, and worried about starting such a project at the start of our rainy season and just prior to an extended home exchange where other people will be living in our house for 6 weeks in January and February! Instead, I accepted this event as an opportunity to practice the assumption of the best case scenario. Who knew that a former engineer (not to mention an old dog!) like me could let go of all those ingrained habits and work on preparing myself for experiencing the best possible outcome?

Emotionally, intellectually, and physically, I consciously "let go" of involvement in the project, choosing instead to focus on expecting and envisioning progress and on-time completion. Husband John liaised and built an alliance with the contractor, our original builder and our architect, who all rallied around the project and agreed to financially support the project. They set goals to get the problems corrected by the end of the year without the involvement of lawyers and insurance companies. We knew it would be smoother, more collaborative, and less costly for everyone to spend our time and money on fixing the problem, not paying attorney fees and wasting time in litigation.

Scaffolding up, exterior stripped down to the wood
Six weeks ago, the scaffolding went up. We had to duck to go in and out of the front sliding doors and the garage entry/exit was tricky! The day after Thanksgiving, demolition began as the layers of exterior coatings were chiseled off, from the color-impregnated acrylic coating, to the 1.5" thick white styrofoam insulation, to the black paper coating atop the wood. Then they started pulling out nails to remove and replace the sheets of plywood, and they removed and resealed each one of our 16 windows. It was noisy, it was messy. But every morning, anywhere from 3-7 guys started arrived and began working between 7:30 and 8. They (mostly) cleaned up after themselves, they were polite and pleasant, and they worked hard. I asked questions and John gave me updates, but I pretty much stayed out of it. When the contractor came over to check progress and talk with his crews, I talked with him, but never about details, and mostly about life in general and how pleased I was with the work and his guys.

So how did it turn out?

  • Do you remember I mentioned we are at the start of our rainy season? Every single day during the demolition and re-construction was sunny. The mornings started in the mid-high 30 degree range, but quickly warmed up to high 50s and up. So the weather was even better than we could have even hoped for. 
  • There were no rain delays and mild temperatures allowed the new exterior coatings to be applied and dry/cure easily. 
  • John and I were able to go about our business of getting the vineyard ready for the next growing season, confident that the work would get done without our hovering.
  • The color match is perfect. 
  • The landscaping around the scaffolding is pretty much unscathed, save for lots of tiny bits of styrofoam in the mulch.
  • The final detail steps were completed on December 28 and the scaffolding was removed on the 29th, before the end of the year, as planned.
  • John, ever my hero, steered the process like a champ, and joined me in assuming the positive outcome.
  • I stayed calm, eerily and deliciously serene, throughout the whole process. I marveled both inside and aloud at how well the project was progressing, and regularly "checked in with myself" around the fact that I was consciously practicing assuming that the best case scenario would happen.
This born-and-bred East Coast gal, formerly "type A to the max," did it! I practiced the law of attraction and I planned for the best case scenario, and it happened that way! Cycling partner and native LA gal, Sherry, pronounced that I am now officially a Californian (After 20 years here, I know she meant that in the nicest and grooviest way!) I'm not sure how I could ever again feel like planning for the worst case is the right choice for me. Sure, things may not always go the way I think they should or could, but I know that I can take things as they come and adjust as needed. 

So while I will always wear clean underwear and will probably abstain from blue or purple nail polish, I'm not preparing for the worst anymore! And I know this is an improvement -- I am a better, a free-er, and a happier person for the experience of planning for the best.


  1. Love it, Deb... you are surely being rewarded for such a drastic change in outlook/thinking!

  2. Great story! And a great reminder too as we enter this new year...
    Glad it all turned out so well and so quickly too.

    Yay for positive thinking! And yay for the bonafide CA girl! :-) Happy New Year to you and John!