The anxiety I feel about the actions of the Trump administration over the last few years reaches a new crescendo as Nov 3rd, 2020 rolls around. Instead of cycling endlessly through various “what-ifs,” I am going to make use of a technique I teach others, useful for both corporate horizon scanning and personal anxiety management. It’s called Anticipatory Awareness.

Anticipatory Awareness is an idea I am stealing from experiences in workshop design with Jabe Bloom. In short, it is a kind of futures-oriented storywriting that explores the worst possibilities we can imagine. In the process of writing such stories, we identify signals (or triggers or tripwires) that would indicate the stories are beginning. By monitoring for these signals, we can know when to launch more intensive pre-action preparatory measures, such as scenario planning. Basically, we can worry less, until the worry starts to be justified.

To illustrate, I’ll share an example story from the early days (around March, 2020) of the SARS-CoV-2 / COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, I had very little understanding of the true risks of infection. I also thought the issue would center on the virus itself rather than the degree of incompetence of state and federal response. Regardless, the basic Anticipatory Awareness story structure helped formalize my worries:

  • Bad Ending: Key personnel in critical infrastructure get sick, resulting in loss of power, water, communications, etc.
  • Middle: Mortality rates skyrocket as those who get sick get worse and worse care.
  • Beginning: The novel coronavirus catastrophically overwhelms healthcare systems.
  • Signals: Local hospitals are in visible disarray from the outside.

It may help to read this story in reverse, but you can see the basic idea: Take a bad outcome that you’re worried about, work your way backwards to the beginning of the story, and then identify signals that might indicate that the story is beginning — signals that would heighten our attention and scrutiny if they were to occur.

The “bad ending” is a nice container for our anxieties. Instead of constantly cycling through all possible scenarios, an Anticipatory Awareness story allows us to scan for specific signals that would heighten our concern for specific scenarios. Constant anxiety will cause us to miss critical moments, so focusing that energy more judiciously is important.

In our example above, a scan might constitute an occasional drive past a local hospital to observe its exterior. No disarray? No signal. No signal? No reason to panic, and, more importantly, no reason to increase scenario-specific readiness.

Returning to the upcoming election, I feel a similar degree of concern about the potential actions of the Trump administration as I did (and generally do) about the pandemic. It’s the “what-ifs” that are particularly frightening, so I’m going to try to document a few of them below in the form of Anticipatory Awareness stories to alleviate my anxiety and redirect the energy into signal scanning.

There are four basic points in time when I’m worried the Trump administration will do something worth being frightened about: Before election day, on election day, immediately following election day, and more broadly leading up to inauguration of the next president. (It is not a foregone conclusion that it will be Biden. Please vote.) Additionally, there are things that could happen at any point, so I want to capture those as well.

Reminder: The below are worst case stories (perhaps unlikely ones at that). The point here is to get the terrible stuff out of our heads and onto the page. That way we can know when to elevate our awareness, instead of constantly being on high alert about everything always.

Before election day

  • Bad Ending: The Trump administration prevents in-person voting in specific locations.
  • Middle: The National Guard does not disobey orders.
  • Beginning: Claiming loss of state ability to protect federal property, National Guard units are deployed to specific cities to enforce a stay-at-home order for an indeterminate period of time.
  • Signals: Protests, riots, and increased rhetoric from the Trump administration about “law and order.” Headlines about National Guard deployment.

On election day

  • Bad Ending: Coercion and/or violence at polling places.
  • Middle: Emboldened, white supremacist groups make an armed show of force. The police offer minimal response.
  • Beginning: The Trump administration dog whistles for action at polling locations.
  • Signals: Tweets from the Trump administration about action at the polls.

Immediately following election day

  • Bad Ending: An enormous number of peoples’ votes are not counted, changing the election result.
  • Middle: A SCOTUS ruling invalidates mail-in ballots in a number of states.
  • Beginning: Legal battles unfold over claims of election fraud, etc.
  • Signals: Voting related cases begin to reach state supreme courts and/or SCOTUS.
  • Bad Ending: Biden never takes office, despite winning the election.
  • Middle: Trump refuses to concede and begins a disinformation and/or legal campaign regarding the validity of the election results.
  • Beginning: Expectations for conclusive results on Nov 3rd are not met, but when all votes are finally counted in the following days, Trump loses the election.
  • Signals: Media outlets emphasize Nov 3rd results and de-emphasize the weeks-long canvassing and certification process.

Leading up to inauguration

  • Bad Ending: Foreign interests capitalize on US weakness, with catastrophic effect.
  • Middle: Nat Sec capabilities diminished amidst turmoil, transition, and incompetence.
  • Beginning: Trump loses election and goes on an institutionally destructive rampage, firing many senior officials in various government agencies.
  • Signals: Headlines about “Another Saturday Night Massacre.”

Could happen anytime

  • Bad Ending: Voting results are manipulated.
  • Middle: Foreign interests capitalize on the moment with disinformation or hacking campaigns.
  • Beginning: The Trump administration fires the FBI Director.
  • Signals: Tweets teasing an upcoming firing or displeasure with FBI Director Chris Wray. Headlines in the news about the FBI Director’s firing.
  • Bad Ending: Biden becomes “unelectable” (a-la 2016’s “her emails”).
  • Middle: Major media outlets amplify focus for clicks.
  • Beginning: Trump administration declassifies decontextualized documents from the Obama administration in order to amplify doubts about Biden.
  • Signals: Tweets about “We’ve got a big announcement!”

These are the stories I’m thinking about. By no means is it a complete list, so I invite you to write your own! (With your help, I might be able to add a few more to this post.)

With stories in-hand, decide on which frequency to monitor the signals. Some monitoring can be automated, such as with clever use of Google Alerts.  Instead of scrolling twitter and spiraling into endless dread, scan the specific things you choose on a frequency you choose. Be deliberate about where your energy goes.

Some of these signals may trip (or may already be tripped). Escalate awareness in those places and refine your Anticipatory Awareness of sub-stories that may occur. Allocate your energy to the situations that deserve that heightened attention. Focus on what you can control, and know ahead of time when you will need to act and what you will need to do.

Anticipation beats anxiety. Continuous worry will not help you take action at the right moment. It will only exhaust you. Get your Anticipatory Awareness stories written down, and start monitoring for specific signals instead.

I want to thank Jabe Bloom for teaching me how to think in this way. It has been helpful for me and for others these last few months.