The Practicality of Pessimism: Stoicism as a Productivity System


This is a recent 5-minute presentation I gave at Google I/O Ignite called “The Practicality of Pessimism: Stoicism as a Productivity System.”

In it, I discuss the two most effective productivity techniques I’ve found since 2004, both borrowed from Stoicism. I include personal usage examples, as well as several from Seneca and Cato. The audio is quite low, so you’ll need to up the volume.

Ponder this: could defining your fears be more important than defining your goals?

Suggested and related posts:
Fireside Chat at Google with Timothy Ferriss
The Secrets of Super-Productive CEOs – QA with Timothy Ferriss (Inc. Magazine)
Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs
On The Shortness of Life: An Introduction to Seneca

For those who’d like to taste the various approaches to this format, here are all of the Ignite videos in one uncut sequence. There are some outstanding speakers:

Posted on: June 10, 2009.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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125 comments on “The Practicality of Pessimism: Stoicism as a Productivity System

  1. Hey Tim –
    Moving video and excellent points you made – yes, as I moved forward in business, I’ve developed a greater understanding of stoicism –

    The comparison between business and war is made often – and I think stoicism grows as a result of the advancement in both –


  2. Great points, Tim! It’s amazing what we as people can do when we throw all the “buts” and “what ifs” out the window! Thanks for the video, would love to see more of these!


  3. Reminds me of when I tell people I’m going to make another trip somewhere overseas, other than typical European hotspots. They always say, “Why would you ever want to go there?” and I respond with a simple, “..why not?” then share with them why things are worth doing, just for the experience of having done so.


  4. Defining your fears has a lot to do with getting out of your comfort zone, which I believe is required for accomplishing anything extraordinary.

    Good talk. I like the brevity.



  5. I think Tim’s exercise in defining your worst fears can be cathartic. Dale Carnegie also recommended in his book, “How to Stop Worrying and to Start Living”, that people consider listing out all their worst fears because it’s the fear of the unknown that worries us more than fear of what is known.

    Useful tips!


  6. Very interesting talk Tim. I like the approach of defining or focusing on what is holding you back instead of that “pie in the sky” goal approach.

    I still think it’s important to have goals and work towards them daily, but in defining our fears we can define what it is that is holding us back.

    Thanks for the thoughts..


  7. The presentation was brilliant as always and I saw that you started using Apture on your blog so I decided to try it out, and it’s really neat. Makes it much easier to add media and external content to my posts. :-)


  8. Tim,

    An eloquent, impacting 5 minutes.

    Interestingly, defining your fears is also an exercise in defining your goals. Often what we fear leads us to what we need to conquer. And more often, what we want to conquer has not been conquered because of fear.

    But what I get from your short speech is that the focus on fear will actually often times motivate us more than our whimsical goals.

    Sometimes we just need to be proactive, even if we don’t know what the end result is going to be. Sometimes knowing that things aren’t going the way they should be (despite not knowing what ‘should be’ actually is) is good enough for some serious consideration.

    Wondering if you have read other ancient philosophy. Beyond the stoics, I really enjoy Epicurus and Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics).

    Recommend you to others every day. Hope to make a similar impact.



  9. Great job, we are so often pushed to set goals we don’t look anywhere else… looking at my fears have allowed me to set paths and opportunities that may have never been present.


  10. Makes me think of Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita rendered paralyzed by turmoil on the ‘field of sacred duty’ when faced with the reality of going to war against his kinsmen. Krishna reveals to him that inaction is never an option, we just delude ourselves into believing it is. Rather than speaking to a fear of how the world will impact oneself as you’ve referenced above, Arjuna’s fears center around how he will impact the world. Interesting distinction, perhaps.


  11. Question, this technique of “negative visualization” would it be practical to use when you are stuck in a “friend zone” with the opposite sex? Should escalation be made if there are indicators of interest and should I “visualize” the worst case scenario which in this case would be losing a good friend?


  12. No doubt, the fear of failing can hold you back.

    But the fear of regret, of wishing you had done something, and of looking at what your life will be like if you DON’T do something, can be very motivating.


  13. Tim,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve been “accused” of ignoring fears on my blog, but the opposite is exactly true. It is only through defining our fears that we are able to take away their power. It’s a little like seeing the man behind the curtain in the Emerald City.

    Once you know what’s behind it, it no longer holds power over you. I understand the connection to Stoicism, but I guess I tend to frame it in more positive language than perhaps true stoics would use. But who wants to get caught up in semantics, right?

    Thanks for the great insight. Still reading (on my third read-through) of your book. I get more and more out of it every time I do.