Via Negativa: The key to focus is to say NO
Via negativa means finding what David is not.
The Pope was asking Michelangelo, what is the secret behind his genius, and he wanted to know, how was Michelangelo able to sculpture such a remarkable masterpiece – the statue of David.
The Pope was surprised by Michelangelo’s answer, he said:
It’s simple! I just remove what’s not David.
Via Negativa in our lives
What should I primarily focus on in my life in my limited time?
Some people get lucky and find out early in life where’s their talent and where they possibly can bring a lot of value to the others.
When work becomes life – no work & life balance phenomena sh*t, it is then when one can become truly prosperous.
But, most people struggle to find their way in a vast ocean of decision making. No wonder.
The internet is the hub of charlatanism.
I started to look up to articles and suggestions that tell you what you should not do instead of what you should do.
Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile argues that his central epistemology (the validity, methods, and theory of knowledge) is this:
We know much more about what is wrong than we know about what is right.
One little observation may show the opposite of the statement while million of other observations may confirm it.
The power of black swan
Actually, knowledge grows much more once you decide for withdrawing not adding to it.
In the college, I wrote a seminar’s work on Karl Popper’s works. He was a truly remarkable contributor to the human intellectual’s heritage. I don’t remember a lot from reading his books though, it was a long time ago. But, I remember him for one thing that he was a true humanist since he intellectually fought against totalitarianism. Especially, its political metamorphosis – nazism and communism.
His philosophy was based on finding a black swan in a group of white ones. His epistemology was via negativa. Instead of never-ending testing of a theory, he focused on making it false and therefore obsolete. The obvious goal was to fight the deterministic historicism (the claims of race superiority, for example). Deterministic historicism was especially popular in the pre and post-war era. Actually, it’s been present always, but its consequences were much more destructive at this time.
When you observe a black swan, you can be absolutely sure that the statement: “All swans are white” is false. But, if I’ve never seen one, I can never be sure, that such a statement is true. One little observation may show the opposite of the statement while million of other observations may confirm it – I see millions of white swans.
So, the power of findings what is false is greater than what is true.
At least, there is a certain pattern to which we can relate to. Even Popper’s philosophy is not without criticism and it’s certainly not perfect, but as Taleb argues, via negativa is more antifragile.
We can predict some things rather precisely. If you are having a surgery and incompetent surgeon executes it, the probability of serious damage or death is rather high, isn’t it?
So, we should better get aware of incompetent surgeons.
Removing the unwanted future
Future is removing its features – particularly the ones you don’t want in your life.
I am under impression that in the contemporary world the movement of the secret and manifestation dominate the personal development niche or at least they influence it significantly. In its core stands primarily the law of attraction – the metaphysical power that is held responsible for attracting good or bad things into one’s life according to his or her beliefs.
In such a notion, one should primarily hack himself into being a super positive person. He acts like things have already happened to him. If the one wishes to be rich, he should believe he’s rich.
I think these patterns of thinking and believing are on a healthier side than not – after all, we find an anchor for this thinking pattern in the Bible:
Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. Matthew 13:12
On the other side of personal development heuristics, we could include things like the containment of the mind, philosophy of life as a set of rules of personal discipline and simple life’s wisdom based on experiences.
Via negativa could be on this side of personal development.
So, if we implement via negativa as a personal development strategy, we will focus on preventing black swans – the events that are risky with possible destructive consequences, negative outcomes events. On the other hand, black swans can benefit us greatly when the events show positive outcomes for us, hence we should be taking managed, little risks.
It’s the strategy that comes from the deep treasury of experience (roughly speaking).
Via negativa, the founding fathers of United States knew that for sure they did not want to delegate too much political power to anyone who could misuse it, thus they were preventing a political mischief.
Via negativa, you can avoid ignorants and energy – sucking people that are not enriching your life, but make it worse.
In the same manner, you can choose, via negativa, what is your education by examining what it is NOT.
Click the picture to access InEx Results – Oriented Learning
The focus is to say NO
Apple Computers loved to portray itself as the company that thinks different. It was especially the philosophy of life of its founder and long-term boss, Steve Jobs. If you define yourself as Think Different kind of organization or entity, you have to see what you are not in comparison to other subjects.
So, apple in defining itself used via negativa. It defined the working concept of Steve Jobs. He said:
People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got 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.”
The focus is on knowing what are your personal values, not anybody else’s. It’s knowing, in Jobs case with ruthless rationality what thing should you let go and what to concentrate on. Just remember how Jobs abandoned his daughter to pursue his dream of changing the world. I think that was devastating although he has decided according to his value system – the 20-year-old young man had a child way behind his value hierarchy.
Less is more
In the information era, we are obsessed with adding – more data, more information, more resources – nutrition adding(vitamins through supplements) and etc.
The distribution of things is usually extremely uneven.
A lot of people know Pareto’s 80 /20 rule extrapolated from 20% of Italian agrarians owning the 80% of the land. In the contemporary world, we are moving to something that looks more like 99% vs 1%.
I can’t be sure that this is a nature’s law, but listen up.
Usually, we can see the pattern that less is more and that’s where the goal of effective strategy lies.
- As a manager in a corporation, you just have to identify and kick out the toxic guy from 20 member team, not all of the members.
- Mafia always eliminates the root of the problem – the main actors (heads of other clans, investigative journalists)
- There can be thousands of pro arguments to start a business, but usually, the one that gets the investors rolling fits into the elevator pitch
- The minority of your customers make most of your sales. So, if you want to make it in business you should start focusing on them.
So, in the conclusion, what was my intention was to provide some thinking pattern, via negativa, what could benefit our decision process.
Knowing what we are not, seems to be much more antifragile, much more stable concept than knowing what road to stick to. Once you emanate from your NOT(s) it’s logical that you end up on your road of destiny you’ve created for yourself.