Many people think that success is achieved by doing the right things at the right time. While some success might be achieved that way, it’s definitely not the most common path, nor is it the easiest. The most common and easiest path to success is actually through subtraction: Via Negativa.
“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us [Munger and Buffett] have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”
— Charlie Munger
Defining Via Negativa
Via Negativa is a Latin phrase used to describe a “negative” way of improving one’s life. Nassim Taleb popularized this idea in his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. Instead of concentrating on what the right thing to do is, you want to focus on what you should not do.
It is often very difficult to figure out what the most intelligent move is. Picking the best diet, hobbies, books, investments, business moves, friends, or life partner are all incredibly challenging things to do. You have to get so many things right in your analysis — you’re trying to be totally perfect. Any single small mistake could throw it all off.
It is significantly easier to figure out what the bad or even stupid moves would be and just avoid them. Bad things in life are often very obvious and thus easy to catch. Stop hanging around toxic friends, eliminate unhealthy foods, don’t smoke, avoid poorly rated books, don’t lose big money when you invest, and don’t let your business go completely bust. You don’t necessarily need the best friends or the best diet, or to make loads of money, or to have your business be a killer hit. You just need to make sure you don’t do anything terrible with them.
“In practice it is the negative that’s used by the pros, those selected by evolution: chess grandmasters usually win by not losing; people become rich by not going bust (particularly when others do); religions are mostly about interdicts; the learning of life is about what to avoid. You reduce most of your personal risks of accident thanks to a small number of measures.”
— Nassim Taleb
It makes things so easy
Thus, with Via Negativa, you don’t need to be perfect, you just need to not do anything terrible, while at the same time slowly improving. The compounding of your positive moves on top of the avoidance of terrible errors will eventually make you successful.
Via Negativa also makes creating new, positive habits easier. Positive habits typically take a lot of willpower to acquire. But not doing bad things to build your habits is much easier. For example, if you want to lose weight, switching to a fancy bodybuilder style diet with chicken breast and broccoli every day is hard. But just avoiding soda is comparatively easy. Now just avoiding soda isn’t going to get you a six-pack, but it will give you a great start for your new habit of a healthy lifestyle. You get momentum and can kill it from there.
It helps you focus
Via Negativa helps you to stay focused too. Steve Jobs once said:
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”
By choosing to say no to things in your life that you’re not 100% about, you give yourself the opportunity to commit more time and energy to the things that you truly do care about. It gives you the focus required to achieve your really important goals. It may be hard to commit to those top goals on their own, but it’s very easy to just drop the things that you’re less passionate about, thus freeing up your time to spend on your top goals. You can use Warren Buffett’s two list strategy for this.
Becoming successful isn’t always about what you do, but rather what you don’t do. Avoiding the bad and the stupid is easy and will lead to more positive choices and lifestyle.
Be like Munger and Taleb and Jobs. Avoid losing, remove the bad, and drop the unimportant, and you will eventually become successful in your endeavours.