How Pessimism Can Boost Your GMAT Score

Today I heard something very interesting while listening to a speech by author, investor, and general crazy person Tim Ferriss.

On one hand, I was excited to hear him echo what I’ve always said about “imagine the worst that could happen”—

–that is, imagine that you never prep, “fail” the GMAT, and don’t get into the school of your choice (seriously—try it!), something I got from Buddhist meditations on death—

–on the other, I was fascinated to hear Ferriss’ totally different source: stoic philosophy, notably that of Lucius Seneca.


Stoicism has long had its appeal among the “getting things done” crowd—it is a school of thinkers in ancient Greece and Rome who were also businessmen, politicians, and even emperors.

That is, these philosophers believed in accomplishment rather than navel-gazing, and accomplishment is what we’re here to discuss.

Invisible scripts hold us back all the time: “I’m not good enough,” “the GMAT is too difficult,” “I don’t know how to do math,” etc. are things we may be saying to ourselves without even knowing it!

Seneca introduces an exercise that allows us to define, then conquer these scripts.

Ferriss proposes an exercise adapted from lessons in Seneca’s writing. He calls it “negative visualization,” a form of “practical pessimism.”

1) Take out ONE piece of paper. On this paper, draw three columns. (Whether the paper is held as “portrait” or “landscape” depends on your number of worries!)
2) In the leftmost column, list all of the “Worst-Case Scenarios” that would come about in your GMAT prep.
3) In the second column, list all of the ways that you could mitigate or reduce the likelihood of the events in the first column.
4) In the third column, list all of the ways that you could reverse the events of the first column. That is, specific, line-by-line actions you could take to return to exactly where you started.

Next, Seneca suggests spending a certain amount of time each month—up to three days in his case—“rehearsing” the worst case.

Seneca would ask that you spend this time living in the worst conditions possible, eating the cheapest food possible, and wearing the most ill-fitting, uncomfortable clothes possible.

In so many words, he suggests becoming a tramp for a few days of the month.

Now, of course, this is a thought experiment rather than a real experiment, although I commend anyone willing to try it. (Check out Neville Medhora’s “homeless experiment ( for details.”)

Take a couple of minutes right now and do the paper exercise.

Sit for another five to ten minutes, close your eyes, and imagine living the “worst” of these situations.

Better yet, do this exercise once a week and keep the results in your notebook. Keep a log of how your fears adjust over time.

Is it really as bad as being hit by a bus? If you were hit by a bus, how would you go on with life? What would you do?

Is any of this as bad as studying and learning what you need to learn about Sentence Correction, Critical Reasoning, or Data Sufficiency?

Good. I didn’t think so.

If you need help with this or other exercises,

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p.s. What is worse than getting hit by a bus? How would you deal with it?

p.p.s. “Pessimism is only the name that men of weak nerve give to wisdom.” –Mark Twain