The planet’s foremost living astronaut, Commander Chris Hadfield, wrote an inspiring memoir, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. This contains a recurrent message: “Dare to ask yourself, ‘What’s the next thing that can kill me (in one sense or another)?’" He praises his training for so vigorously grasping that ugly nettle: “I learned how to anticipate problems in order to prevent them, and how to respond effectively in critical situations. We were trained to look on the dark side and to imagine the worst things that could possibly happen.”
How often do school leaders adopt such an approach? Or, for that matter, how often do teachers do the same? If they did it more, much of the stress of the job could be, if not avoided, at least managed more effectively.
Hadfield is not alone in being trained to manage highly stressful situations with less stress. Every international airline pilot has to go in "the Sim" (simulator) for several hours every six months, to be rigorously tested on their ability to cope with life-threatening catastrophies: engine failure during take-off; an out-of-control galley fire; or sudden decompression in the cabin. It’s largely thanks to this training for worst-case scenarios that the airline industry is so admirably safe.
Predicting the future
It is not just about reaction, however, but foresight. The risk analyst Nassim Taleb published the iconoclastic book The Black Swan in 2007, denouncing US stock-market vulnerability and predicting the looming American banking crash. Taleb argued that human nature is dangerously prone to grossly underestimate the possibility of unforeseen events in every walk of life. In short, we ignore future possibilities that are overly alarming, and we blithely presume the future will be a linear progression of the past.
Taleb calls this "the turkey fallacy" : just because 364 days of the year have been fine, doesn’t mean Christmas Day won’t "cook you".
If we try and predict what is coming and we take steps to manage those possible scenarios, we can begin to feel more in control and we naturally fell less stressed as a result. As individuals (and organisations), our physical, psychological and economic wellbeing could benefit greatly from us daring to consider the thunderbolts that can befall us, and frequently rehearsing how we would respond in the most helpful ways.
A byproduct of such imaginings might be us taking pre-emptive actions to stop some of the torpedoes ever striking in the first place. But it might just mean we’re better at coping with the problem when it eventually does arise.
Exercising some "strategic pessimism" could serve the same purpose as a reserve parachute.
Dr Nick Baylis is a chartered psychologist and a senior associate of the Royal Society of Medicine. Dr Peter Orton is the UK’s leading medical examiner for international airline pilots, advising them on the physical methods for dealing with their high-stress lives. You can contact both at Nick@NickBaylis.com