Via Negativa: The Art of Finding Simple Solutions

An example of via negativa in art. Statue of Michelangelo's David in Florence. Michelangelo carved the statue of David by reduction.
Michelangelo’s David in Florence, Italy. / Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash (Unsplash license).

Via negativa is the study of what not to do. By taking the negative path, you can simplify the solution space. It is much easier, for example, to give up sugar instead of dealing with seemingly endless cures for the consequences of eating sugar. In conclusion, it’s an approach to solving the problem at its root.

The world is getting faster and faster. More is not enough. We solve many problems, but also produce new ones. Therefore we have learned that we can only move forward if we add something new.

Despite new inventions that should make our lives easier and give us more time, we are stressed, rushed, and anxious as never before.

What if we would stop adding new things and remove bad ones instead. If we achieve the good by taking the bad away. When we win by not losing or stay healthy by not getting sick.

Addition by Subtraction

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

― Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Michelangelo explained how he carved the famous statue of David: “I remove everything that is not David.” Instead of adding material, he removed it to achieve the desired effect. He created something new by removing parts of it. As a result, he created a solution by eliminating the causes of the problem.

You can approach perfection by consistently reducing until there is nothing left to take away. Take a look at Jony Ive’s designs. He was the Chief Design Officer at Apple and had a genuine obsession with minimalism. He worked with Steve Jobs on designs until they couldn’t reduce anymore. Apple is successful for many reasons. One of them is minimalism and the focus on the essence.

The Power of via Negativa

Terms from the human domain such as good or wise are not sufficient enough to describe God. Negative theology claims that it is impossible to grasp the absolute transcendence of God with such terms. Therefore, only negations of positive statements about him are legitimate. God is easier to describe with negative statements by saying what he is not. Hence, via negativa makes it possible to solve an almost impossible task efficiently.

We cannot explain everything. We know more about what something is not than what something is. If there would have been no word for colour blue, it would still have existed in reality. It would only have been absent in linguistics. But since we don’t have a word for it, we couldn’t define or comprehend it. But we still could say what it is not. It is not orange. It’s not an elephant, etc. This method of knowledge is truer and more rigorous than positive knowledge.

― Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Via negativa allows you to get ahead by consistently trying not to do anything stupid instead of trying to be super bright.

It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.

― Charlie Munger

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger show us that the negative path works. Instead of focusing primarily on making as much money as possible, he is obsessed with making sure he doesn’t lose it. On the opposite, it doesn’t matter how much you earn. If you lose that, you end up with nothing.

Don’t lose money.

― Warren Buffett

Assertions with via negativa are robust. The statement “all swans are white” can be hardly proven. You would have to check all the swans in the world to see if they are all white. That is an almost impossible challenge. It is enough to find a non-white swan to disprove the statement. With a bit of luck, this is the first one you would check. As a result, negative statements are more robust because they leave no options open for a black swan to come into the world someday after all.

Reduce First

The main problem is that we try to solve problems by adding something to the solution. When we have too little money, we work longer and harder to earn more. Toxic contacts harm us, but we try to manage them and can’t say no. When we are sick, we use diets and intelligent apps that are supposed to make us fit. As a result, we create more complexity and new problems.

Via negativa dramatically simplifies the solution. You can start spending less money. Reduce what you don’t need. Cancel subscriptions. Become a minimalist. You can cut off harmful contacts. By doing so, you may spend more time with positive people who are good for you, and you will have more time for yourself. Stop smoking, drinking too much alcohol, spending time on social media, watch what you eat, and exercise to get fit again. Read my article Fix the Basics – To be prepared is half the victory if you want to find out more about reduction.

All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.

― Charlie Munger

Before you add anything new, first consider if you can reduce and simplify something first. Take away the bad, and the good will come.

Stay Focused

Focus allows you to make the right decisions that are good for you. If you are focused, you can take a step back and consider what you can reduce. Companies offer you incredibly complicated and expensive solutions to your problems—even solutions for issues you didn’t have before. They create the desire out of nothing and provide a solution to it.

The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.

― Warren Buffet

Say Yes and Say No – Achieve Goals With via Negativa

Say yes to the most important goals and a clear no to the rest. We all have dreams. Not just one, but several. How do we go about it? We probably pursue the most important goal first. Maybe several at the same time. I found a story on Cal Newport’s blog about Warren Buffett where he explains his approach to setting priorities to an employee.

Buffett wanted to help his employee get ahead in his working life, so he suggested that the employee list the twenty-five most important things he wanted to accomplish in the next few years. He then had the employee circle the top five and told him to prioritize this smaller list. All seemed well until the wise Billionaire asked one more question: “What are you going to do with the other twenty things?” The employee answered: “Well the top five are my primary focus but the other twenty come in at a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit as I’m getting through my top five. They are not as urgent but I still plan to give them dedicated effort.” Buffett surprised him with his response: “No. You’ve got it wrong… Everything you didn’t circle just became your ‘avoid at all cost list.'”

Warren Buffett On Goals: If It’s Not The Most Important Thing, Avoid It At All Costs. (Cal Newport – author of Deep Work)

Steve Jobs also had definite priorities and was very good at saying no.

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.

― Steve Jobs

By consistently saying no, you eliminate the wrong focus points—only the best of the best remain. Since our time is limited, this is the only way to focus on the right things.