Thinking about what could go wrong could help you get to the end
Swimmer Michael Phelps began the 200-meter butterfly at the 2008 Olympics with clear eyes and a strong advantage. He’d already won three gold medals. But as soon as he dove in, he realized his goggles had a leak. By the 150-meter mark, they were full of water. He couldn’t see. Phelps went on to win the race in spite of this, collecting another gold (of the record-breaking eight he’d take home that year). How did he do it?
In a literal sense, he kept going by counting his strokes. He knew how many strokes would get him the length of the pool. (It also helped that he didn’t panic.) Goggles full, he kept swimming, counted strokes, and powered his way to the end.
Phelps also finished because he’d taken time before the race to think about what could go wrong. Emily Balcetis tells the Phelps story to show how successful people see the world. “Because he’d practiced both visualizing success and troubleshooting solutions to major obstacles, he knew exactly what he needed to do when disaster struck at those Olympic games,” she writes. Balcetis’s recent book Clearer, Closer, Better includes the psychology behind athletes’ habits for envisioning both obstacles and the solutions to them. Their process can be borrowed by us non-Olympians swimming through drier scenarios.
Balcetis recounts a 2015 psychology study* that analyzed what happens when people bring this type of approach into their daily routines, concluding that it enables them to accomplish more of what they set out to do. “When participants were asked to anticipate challenges and come up with solutions, they made 50% more progress, compared to the goals for which no planning prompts followed. Moreover, when they had anticipated the challenges and solutions, participants reported feeling much happier that day. Materializing the hurdles and planning how to handle them improved productivity and mood.”
I think building this type of anticipatory (and obstacle-envisioning) thinking into your process can be especially saving for those of you who do “performance” or live event work, where there is an audience, technology, or some form of one-time “judging” involved. Small, obvious example: if I’m leading a workshop online, I run through in advance a list of what could go wrong for participants technology-wise (e.g., they can’t download a worksheet, can’t check their email while on Zoom, can’t figure out a control), and how I could assist them quickly in real time without interrupting others’ experience.
It can feel like a negative headspace to go — to think about what could go wrong — but it’s really just being extra-prepared for the anomalous and unplanned turn of events. It’s a way of saying: even if bad luck strikes, I’m ready with ideas for how to get the better of it. And, if you believe the psychology, it could even put you in a good mood.
- More on the study conducted by a team of psychologists from the Universities of Chicago and Cologne here. I notice that they refer to obstacles here as anticipated “temptations” which seems like a different category from external obstacles/snafus such as Phelps encountered with his goggle leak, but there are still transferable insights, I think.
For help with:
- making it across the finish line
- live events (esp. ones relying on technology)
- “performance”-type work
- work that includes participants with a range of tech access/fluency
- high-stakes, single-opportunity projects involving evaluations or judging
- Visualize the event or performance path imagining any obstacles or “temptations” that could get in the way of finishing
- List each obstacle/challenge and envision a solution for each one
- Prepare these solutions in advance of when they could occur, and have a plan in your mind of how you’ll handle it