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Are You Slaying Imaginary Evils?

November 20, 2014

“There are in life real evils enough and it is folly to afflict ourselves with imaginary ones; it is time enough when the real ones arrive.” – Benjamin Franklin


Beginning the day with wise words indeed. Franklin is, of course, right. But like any good thing, any piece of wisdom, we must be forever reminded.

Let me give an example. I recently wrote about ultimatums and their relative consequences, with the idea being that ultimatums, improperly used, can lead to stress. So it is. However, what I didn’t address was that for the most part it was an imaginary evil!

Here we had a recreational activity that had gone slightly off track due to timing. That was all. Yet everyone threw themselves into a panic due to the ultimatum. Tempers rose (including my own); frustration came to the surface. I had a strong desire to beat the other team in part because of the hassle of the timing.

Wait, wasn’t this a recreational activity?

Yes, it was, and it was folly to afflict myself with an imaginary evil, even if it spurred me to win the case and learn a lesson or 2.

Building on this, I’ll discuss why imaginary evils are bad, and how to combat them in this post.

Opportunity Cost

Our time is limited. Our willpower is limited. Our resources are limited. We must make tradeoffs, and those tradeoffs must be worthwhile. Every decision has an opportunity cost.

Going to work means giving up free time. Is it creating an imaginary evil at first? No. It’s a necessary ‘evil’ (I don’t think work must be bad at all actually! Yet for the sake of argument…) . Is, however, an extremely long work day creating imaginary evils? That would depend on the circumstances.

Lets take an easier example. You’re getting completely fussed about your bow tie going to  formal, and you can’t find one that isn’t clip on. A problem? Perhaps, depends whether it was a curious adventure (like mine) or a ‘must have’ item. The evil arises when you get all pent-up if you don’t have the item. You get stressed, flustered, angry.

You’re probably afflicting yourself with an imaginary evil here. Yes, appearance is important. But, honestly, most people could hardly care how you look. In the middle of dancing, nobody is likely to notice that clip. Also, think of this – you are worrying incessantly about your attire… but so are others! And if they’re worrying about themselves, then they aren’t thinking about whatever faults you have! Indeed, research shows that you get penalised more for dressing poorly than dressing well. So, with many things like this, your anxiety about imperfection is misplaced – you get diminishing returns as your outfit improves, yet the stress stays constant on each worry.

Frankly, you want all your energy for real challenges. Exercise, career, romance etc. This is far easier said than done, but as we’ll see in a post about role models later this week, it is amazing just what we can do if we do manage to focus.

Don Quixote tilted at windmills. Valiant was the Knight of La Mancha, yet rather ineffective too. Refocus your lance – on real evils. You shall find enough of them to keep you busy.

Remember, Remember – What Counts?

So you think it’d be a good idea not to tilt at windmills? So do I. Now… how do you go about it?

You need to remember what counts. You need to hold onto your values, remember the value of common advice, and remember what meaningful ends you strive for. You can’t possibly focus your energy on ‘real evils’ if you know not what they are!

Imaginary evils can be created in many fashions, but a common one is that they arise from a void. That void is like an itch that we all seem to want to scratch. Free time? Fill it in. Can you improve that outfit? Then you must. Could a TV be nice? Let’s buy it.

And then you lose some leisure and financial security, leading to stress, weaker relationships, less happiness etc.

Imaginary evils may be the products of our own choices and prejudices, but their sting is real. You don’t want to get stung.

Because imaginary evils come from a void, we must consciously populate that void. Unconsciously done and spur of the moment activities will capture all our energy, leaving real evils languishing. And when real evils build up their strength they can wipe us out, as a large army could crush a smaller one.

Consciously populating the void means we need to set goals, things we want to achieve, and make sure that they count. Secondly, it means taking action. It doesn’t matter what evils we set out to defeat in a joust if we wheel our horse to face windmills; we won’t win. You need goals, then to act on those goals and populate the void.


Slaying imaginary evils does us no good. It simply drains all our energy, rendering us incapable of doing what counts. The opportunity cost is high. To counter this, set goals and take action, while always remembering what counts – principles, common sense, meaningful ends; these should guide your goals.


From → Foundations

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