Accounting for Unfortunate Events

February 25, 2013 — 16 Comments

Some unexpected expense comes your way. Like you get hit with a fine or have to replace something that breaks.

You can see this as an unmitigated loss. Or you can try a little trick.

What was the last thing you got for free? Someone picked up the tab at dinner? Or that work bonus that was bigger than anticipated?

Ok, don’t think about it like that. Instead, you paid for half the dinner–and then you got half off reduction on that parking ticket. Or just see your bonus as actually having been X% smaller. Whatever ratio you have to jigger to get it to work.

Keep your gains in limbo and then shave a little off when life inevitably swings the other direction. It’s so simple. Yet saves so much anguish.

It’s called framing. Make it work for you.

Stop seeing simply the things that go wrong. Don’t keep an account of misfortune. Run the balance the other way: what were the things that you skated on, that you got away with, that got comped? Now when something goes wrong, count it against that–if you have to count it at all.

Because when you really look at it this way you’ll realize that you’re still ahead of where you started. And you’re prepared to account for the bad shit that will inevitably come your way as well.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

16 responses to Accounting for Unfortunate Events

  1. This might be slightly tangential, but I try to frame these unfortunate events in terms of not being soft, like your post a couple months ago. If I can keep a mindset of being hard, any sort of blow seems to hurt less.

    I used to want to be a Navy SEAL and I probably read like 4 or 5 memoirs of Navy SEALs, read Dick Couch’s book on BUD/S and Hell Week, and watched The Class 234 videos on YouTube that the Discovery Channel made. I kind of immersed myself in the subject.

    Anyway it tended to make my day go a whole lot easier when I would frame what I was doing in comparison to what they were doing. If I started dragging ass during a 4 mile run, I’d think about how they were doing a 10 mile run with weighted packs. If I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning, I’d think about how during Hell Week, those guys didn’t even get to sleep. I found that that framing strategy was pretty damn effective, and it even made me start to enjoy my own day more, realizing just how easy things actually were for me.

  2. Good post. I do this too when thinking about work. If some stuff has come up and I didn’t get to accomplish as much as I wanted to, I think back to some time earlier in the week/month where I just crushed my workload during a day. It helps to put things in perspective and not get down on myself for falling short of my daily goals.

    Some might think this is lazy thinking, but for me it helps to stop beating up on myself.

  3. This is a great approach where losses and gains are relatively symmetric.

    What are your thoughts on the situation where losses are heavily asymmetric to gains? So, for example, a professional fighter may need to win 10 fights to get a world title fight whilst a single loss can set him back years, requiring multiple wins just to get back to where he was initially. A physician, lawyer or accountant has 100 cases that go perfectly but no-one notices – its expected that everything will be in check. However, the one case where he makes an error he faces significant consequences incurring loss of reputation and possibly getting sued.

    • I don’t think this is universally applicable. The situation you’re describing is a bit different–there’s no real way around that other than doing your bes every time and hoping

    • Your scope is too narrow in these cases. If you were to only count gains and losses in the fighters wins and losses then sure it could seem as though he’s on the bad end, but there’s more to life than a career. The same applies to the lawyer. If you look at their lives as a whole you could probably find enough gains to at least balance out the losses, but again it depends on how you look at it and what you consider a notable gain and loss. If they still appear to be coming out with a raw deal then there probably either doing something wrong in their daily lives or their perspectives of what is important in life has skewed from the truth.

  4. wasssup stidy

  5. I just think how lucky we are not to live in Baghdad in 1258 prior to the Mongols riding in and cutting everyones heads off.

    Through that lens, modern shit looks rosy.

    • Shit was way worse in the past. It’s not even up for discussion.

      • Yes. But I wonder if the harsh environment created people who were much more prepared, much more adaptive, in their lives. It’s like what Greene says in The 50th Law. Our world is just as competitive, just as violent and brutal; it just appears cozier and less violent.

  6. Reminds me of this quote from Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman:

    “try this thought experiment. Imagine the number of opportunities people around the world today might have to commit an antisocial act, from rape or murder to simple rudeness and dishonesty. Make that number the bottom of a fraction. Now for the top value, put the number of such antisocial acts that will actually occur today.
    That ratio of potential to enacted meanness holds at close to zero any day of the year. And if for the top value you put the number of benevolent acts performed in a given day, the ratio of kindness to cruelty will be always be positive. (The news, however, comes to us as though that ratio was reversed.)”

    (This is one of the many good reasons that I don’t read the news.)

  7. I came out of clinical depression sometime ago due to something work related (I basically tried to start up and gave up too early, couldn’t face myself after for sometime), and the work that I do, even when it’s extra hard, can in no way compare to how I would feel when everyday I would wake up early in the morning and thinking about how peaceful death would be.

    I used to cringe when people told me this phase would make me stronger, now it seems they kinda had a point.

    I’m going to try again and better this time. Your blog has been of immense help in bringing back perspective, and for that I’m grateful. Hopefully someday I’ll get a chance to return the favor.

  8. Hristo Vassilev March 19, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    For those of you who haven’t been through the archives (and I recommend that you do) you might also like this: http://www.ryanholiday.net/unfortunate-events/

  9. Ryan, I’m reading (and loving) your book right now, and found this blog. I love this post too. It’s like my life.
    A point you didn’t make, or maybe I missed it, is the fact that all this exposure to new worlds and the associated need to develop new perspectives and skill changes you. In my early 20s, fleeing a grim childhood and disappointing first job at a daily paper, I had the opportunity to live in Europe and grabbed it. I stayed for five years, and came home broadened and polished in ways that new doors opened for me.
    Later, when I had a baby and an unemployed husband, the only job I could find was as a printshop artist, setting type and doing boring layouts and ad design. I got out of it as quickly as I could, taking the first writing job I could talk my way into — writing a newsletter for a consulting group that advised banks in the early electronic banking days when ATMs were new.
    I got back to freelance writing as soon as I could afford it, but at that point, I could set type and design publications, as well as talk consultant-speak and make decent money writing about how computers were changing the banking experience for consumers and bank employees.
    So when local politics started driving me crazy, I had the skills and familiarity with technology to start my own newspaper. Which ultimately led to running for office, something I didn’t want to do, but found I loved because it gave me a license to talk to people about their dissatisfactions and their dreams.
    Oh, yeah, somewhere in there I went back to college and got recruited into competitive public speaking (because of that plummy accent and the fact that I could write). It took time, but I got over my shaking knees, and learned what kind of speeches won competitions. And got the rest of my college years paid for by scholarships, because I brought back trophies. During the period, I married a professor who advised me to forget about a major, and just take the classes that interested me. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got.
    And then there was the nervous breakdown, a few years after my husband died, and the extraordinary experiences while I was recovering and learning how to see the world differently, which changed the way I wrote and what I cared about, and opened a whole new area of writing about adult learning.
    And then there was starting my own business, a PR agency in New York City, and what I learned from being responsible for maintaining that monster so that eight people would be paid regularly. And how the perfect man showed up — smart, funny, handsome, supportive and so sexy — and taught me to hate myself while I destroyed my life and my business to keep him around. And what I learned from that second breakdown.
    In a way, this is just a life. Leveraging experience after experience to become more skilled and perceptive. But from another perspective, it’s about courage. Stepping into risky situations with the knowledge that it could be a wrong step and I could fail. (And I did fail spectactularly and expensively more than once.)
    I feel for the people who write here about depression and the lack of opportunity. I’ve been through both of them — clinical depressions that lasted years and no apparent opportunity in any direction. In my life, most of the steps I took weren’t really what I wanted. The were just the best or only thing I could find. Sometimes when there was no money at all, I just wrote letters to dead poets, and found way to make a few bucks helping people I didn’t even like. Every bit of it paid off in some way, gave me more to bring to the next step.
    Which loops me around to the subject of Ryan’s post. Never stop learning. Never stop learning. No matter what you think you’re doing, you’re learning. It’s the people who don’t move, don’t take chances, stay in the familiar that become entrenched in beliefs they inherited and bitter because the world doesn’t work that way anymore, if it ever did.
    The more you learn, the better you get at it. Ask Ryan. He learned everything about how to manipulate the media, and then he learned at a whole different level and wrote the book. That’s so cool.

  10. I wonder if framing is not another word for “tricking” yourself into not feeling what you feel. When something breaks, you are upset. When you get a parking ticket, you get upset. There’s no use trying to avoid the reality of your emotions, no matter how positive you think you can “frame” the situation.

    An exercise I prefer is not framing, but what I call “power positioning.” The first step is simply to acknowledge one’s emotion. To say, “I am upset” or “I am sad.” The next step is not to indulge one’s emotions (emotions themselves are feelings of powerlessness – even the positive ones), but to regain a sense of power by mapping out the options. I can either fight the ticket or pay it. I can either pay someone to replace the broken object, replace it myself, or try to get someone to do it for free, somehow.

    Once one shifts from thinking about how one feels or should feel about the situation to thinking about what one can do in the situation, then he or she starts to regain a sense of control and rationality.

    Just a thought.

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