How to "Prevent" Setbacks

"People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them."


Walking up to the checkout line, I can't believe how many people are here. I only had to go to the grocery store for a couple of things that I forgot earlier in the day, and I'm kind of in a hurry. Luckily, they have six lines open to handle all the people, but all six lines are long. Being in a hurry, I picked the one that looks like it's going to be the fastest. Of course, it wasn't the fastest. As I watched all the people who were at the same place in line in other lines move forward, I became frustrated. Then, when I was next in line, the person in front of me need a price check on an item and left the line to get something that she forgot. Now I'm angry. Why is it that every single time I pick a line, it's the slowest line?

Several years later, I've learned that the checkout lines’ speed is outside of my control. More importantly, it's mathematically improbable that I'm ever going to pick the fastest line. If there are five lines open, I only have a one-in-five chance or a 20% chance of being in the fastest line. If there are 10 lines open, I only have a 10% chance of being in the fastest line. I come to realize that this is a stupid thing to get angry about.

And just like that, almost like magic, I have not gotten mad in the checkout line for years.

Unable to apply these lessons to other areas of life, I find myself driving across town to meet a friend for breakfast. On the way there, not only is there road construction on the road that I chose, but there must be an event somewhere because I've not seen this much traffic on a Saturday before. I can't believe it. Why are there so many damn people on the road? Why can't we move any faster? I'm going to be late for breakfast, and it's the fault of everybody else on the road.

Traffic took me longer than checkout lines, Prime now able to take responsibility for my role and being late for breakfast. I have no control over traffic. I have control over which route I take and how early I leave, though. I also have control of how upset I get at the traffic that's outside of my control. I'm not all the way there, but I don't get nearly as angry sitting in traffic as I used to.

Even though neither of these two examples is financial, they highlight how easy it is to switch off our anger. For that matter, how easy it is to switch off other negative emotions. There are times when negative emotions are helpful, but often negative emotions arise because we are viewing our setbacks incorrectly.

The best way to get over negative emotions is to avoid experiencing negative emotions in the first place.

the best way to overcome anger is to prevent it from happening

Setbacks Will Happen

Setbacks are guaranteed in life. This could be a longer than expected line at the grocery store, heavier traffic than you expected, or any other thing that is unexpected and represents a challenge. Setbacks are guaranteed, even though we don't know exactly what the setback will be, when the setback will occur, how long the setback will last, or why the setback occurred. Those facts are irrelevant. We should expect setbacks. Some will be significant setbacks, some will be small setbacks, but our lives will be better when we learn to expect them and deal with them when they do occur.

setbacks will happen no matter what you do

Setbacks and Negative Emotion

When setbacks happen, it is far too easy to become angry, sad, resentful, or otherwise feel bad about our situation. Often, this process into a feedback loop of feeling bad about ourselves represents a vicious cycle that's hard to break. Hijacking this feedback loop, either by recognizing the loop for what it is or preventing the feedback loop from happening in the first place, will give us much more life satisfaction.

Preventing negative emotions is a great way to break the feedback loop

Hijacking Setbacks with Gratitude

There’s an old saying in the field of Behavioral Finance that says it's never as bad or as good as it seems. That is, we as humans are horrible at predicting how events will impact our future happiness. Additionally, we are hard-wired with a negativity bias that places more emphasis on the bad aspects of our lives than the good aspects of our lives. Gratitude is the antidote for this.


Gratitude is recognizing that things are not as bad as you think. Things can always be worse. This recognition is our starting point. It's common to see quotes floating around social media telling you that gratitude is worthless because it seems on the surface to be denying your problem. I propose this is incorrect. You can deal with your problems after first recognizing how lucky you are.

An example might be having a water pipe burst in your home. It's very easy to get upset at this happening. After all, not only do you not have water where you wanted, namely in your sinks, but you now have water where you don't want it, that is, all over the rest of your home. Gratitude can hijack the negative Emotion by first recognizing how lucky you are that it was the freshwater pipe that burst and not the wastewater pipe. Having clean water leaking all over your house is infinitely better than having sewage leaking all over your home. Nothing about this says that you can't work on the problem of fixing the pipe. You should go turn off the water. You should call a plumber. But you don't have to be miserable while doing it.

gratitude is being appreciative for what you have

Negative Visualization

In Stoic philosophy, there's an idea called negative visualization. Negative visualization is the process of briefly thinking about things that you have that could go away. This could be your job, pension, vehicles, or other material possessions, and even your relationships. Recognizing that losing your job is in the realm of possibility, but you haven't, helps you appreciate what you have.

We can go a Step Beyond visualizing something that you have that you may lose and think about things that you have that you may not have had if you re Round the Clock. Perhaps the job that you love happened because of a chance encounter with somebody at a coffee shop. Therefore it's very possible and even likely that you might not have that job in another world.

Negative visualization is not about dwelling on bad things. It's about appreciating them. Negative visualization is expert-level gratitude. It's the best tool that we have for not taking our lives for granted.

negative visualization

The Last Time

The idea of The Last Time is that all the things that we do will happen for the last time, and many things have already happened for the last time. This is helpful when you are in the midd