Via Negativa: What NOT To DoJan 15, 2022
By Dino Tartaglia.
Imagine that you had no word for ‘blue.’
Here’s an extract from a story shared by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book, Antifragile.
“We know more about what something is not than what something is. If there would have been no word for the colour blue, it would still have existed in reality, and 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, and it’s not an elephant, etc. This method of knowledge is truer and more rigorous than positive knowledge.”
Have you ever had that frustration of understanding a situation but being unable to articulate it and feeling blocked by this?
In Antifragile, Naseem Taleb suggests that this is an intellectual form of colour blindness.
As far back as Homer, there are plenty of allegorical examples.
When a brooding Achilles contemplates his loss after Agamemnon takes Briseis away from him, he gazes out over the “wine-dark sea”.
It seems that the Ancients had no word for ‘blue’.
The Himba tribe of Namibia ‘see’ blue & mid-green as the same, which was thought to indicate that they were colour-blind when it came to seeing blue.
But Taleb tells of a case where a tribe with no specific word for blue was asked to match strings to their corresponding colours. They could distinguish even nuanced differences but had no language for it.
We spend valuable time filling our brains with language, concepts, and ideas to broaden our business ‘vocabulary’ in the quest for knowledge.
But is this always as useful as is generally believed, or is it often at the expense of actually doing what we already know we can do?
Do you act on what you know but can’t explain, or do you fall prey to Intellectual Blindness?
One of the critical issues with acting on what we know (or sense to be correct) is often our innate lack of confidence in our next step. We second-guess, overthink and worry that this step may not be the most effective, even when (or, perhaps, because) we’re not particularly effective in other areas of our business.
Beware of ‘shelf-help’ syndrome
One thing I want to get off my chest before we get into this is the problematic, almost insidious, impact of self-help books, which more often become ‘shelf-help’ books, as they typically end their journey on our shelves (digital or physical), having rarely led to actual changes in our behaviour (which is the whole point of reading them).
So many of these books promise easy methods to happiness, weight loss, innovation, popularity, gaining insight, finding love, making friends, building businesses, which is in and of itself less than helpful. Primarily because many provide simple mechanisms and insights but dress them up as easy. Simple is seldom easy - COMPLEX is easy, simple is bloody hard.
But there’s a more profound, less obvious and more problematic issue with many of these books and the impact they have on us.
They are additive in nature.
Their focus is more upon what to do, learn, and add, rather than the opposite, which Taleb refers to in his quote above. With the exception of books on Stoicism and the few like Greg McKeown’s excellent ‘Essentialism’, the focus is rarely upon what to avoid, reduce, unlearn, and, especially, subtract.
There are few “how not to” books with titles like “How to Succeed by Knowing What to Avoid”.
There’s a solid reason for this, and it speaks to the psychology of marketing, but there’s not the time and space to dive into that here (perhaps another article, who knows?).
For most of us, what consuming a tonne of self-help/business books leads to is the opposite of what we look for. It can create an increased feeling of being overburdened and, in many, many cases, overwhelmed.
Too many ideas, too much information, more insight, more ideas, more options….more…everything.
Your cognitive load gets heavy, and over time your capacity to think about and process, or even discern and distinguish, the impactful things, the tasks and activities that will actually have an impact and move you forwards, gets severely diminished.
And yet, we think that we’re helping ourselves develop because we now understand more.
Using Via Negativa to Remove the Waste & Overload
The function of Via Negativa as a Mental Model is to give you a tool, a lens if you will, through which you can more readily identify and remove what doesn’t serve you.
See, we can naturally discern (or often sense) what is wrong, what’s bad, what is harmful, what won’t work, and we can most certainly do this way more than we can identify what’s right, what’s good, what may be beneficial and, invariably, what will work.
Simple example: it’s hard to say if a skilled person would succeed at a particular task, but we can be confident that someone without the required skill would fail.
Our knowledge and an inherent understanding of downsides are far more robust than what we know about upsides.
“The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas,” said Linus Pauling. This “subtractive epistemology” (i.e., obtaining knowledge via subtraction) is called Via Negativa.
So, how do we turn this to our advantage?
We start by understanding that complexity and ‘more’ are the enemies.
Complexity and adding more can be incredibly seductive. It’s normal - usual, in fact - to be pulled into ‘thought furrows’ that cause us to lose sight of what we’re trying to achieve as we drop into these furrows and become laser-focused on the process that we think we should be building out or following.
Asking “What am I optimising for?” and then “How does this help to achieve that?” can, using the Via Negativa approach, produce a LONG list of answers that tell us how the activity, service, product or process does NOT help us move closer to what we’re trying to achieve (assuming that this is the case).
Example (this was me for about three years, btw):
My ‘macro belief’, and therefore my primary objective, is to build my business to give me more time with my wife and kids. I want to feel like I have control over this and when and how I choose to be at work or be at home/on holiday/chilling with the people that matter most to me.
My strategy, however, has me locked in a time-prison of a business, at the mercy of clients’ demands, drowning in fulfilment and rarely at home.
How did I arrive here?
I arrived here by gradually adding to my workload and focusing on things that didn’t optimise the business for my macro belief, my primary objective. I deviated from the plan somewhere along the line, probably with the first or second client.
Pretty soon, I was in a thought furrow, following a deep, rigid pattern of thinking, behaviour and resulting processes that no longer served the objective.
Taking structured, diarised time to use Via Negativa, we ask “What am I optimising for?” and then “What’s wrong with this approach? How do these things NOT deliver, get in the way of, or otherwise slow down my progress towards this?”.
“What can I remove? What would happen if I didn’t do this task? What would the consequences of not doing it be?”
This is far more useful (and easier to get right) than “How can I be more productive?” or “What could I do to make the business more effective and free up more of my time?”
As Taleb puts it, “...we know what is wrong with more clarity than what is right, and that knowledge grows by subtraction. Also, it is easier to know that something is wrong than to find the fix. Actions that remove are more robust than those that add because addition may have unseen, complicated feedback loops.”
Using this to Simplify your Business (and Life)
Paraphrasing Tina Turner, ‘Simple is Best!’
But simple can require much greater effort than adding more and ‘complexifying’ your journey.
So, start with reserving that time I mentioned to give whatever challenge you need to resolve the space & focus it needs. Ideally, get a great coach or mentor (if you can, get a blend of the two - coaching won’t always be what you need in every situation).
Surround yourself with supportive people who get you and what you’re trying to achieve and who can offer support (at least) and (even better) considered perspectives.
And whether you have the coach/mentor and the support, start to ask the hard questions of this challenge.
- What can I remove?
- What would be the consequences of not doing this?
- Do I need all these steps? What would happen if I removed steps 3 and 7?
And, to take things back to their roots and remind yourself of how simple (not easy) business is, here are the three steps to a sustainable business:
- Build great products and/or services.
- Deliver those products/services to the right people, at the right time, in the right way, for a profit that you learn to keep.
- Serve at the highest level.
See? Simple! Not easy, though, is it?
And yet, if we fall prey to the sin of ‘more’ and start adding things in here, this simple, unadulterated, perfectly valid and viable model becomes bloated and complex.
“But what about the wages?!”
“I’m constantly in feast and famine mode, drowning in fulfilment one month, chasing in new business the next: where do I get the time for all this ‘thinking’?!?”
“There’s not enough coming in; I have to start offering more services to more clients.”
And so on.
Taking a reductive approach, stripping away and simplifying what’s needed, allows us to see what’s left, invariably the stuff that has IMPACT, the things that help us move the needle on our businesses, and free up our time…and Life.
The way of Via Negativa enables us to see what’s essential by showing us what’s unnecessary.
Need some help with the topic covered here and using it to your advantage? If you’ve got questions about anything I’ve covered, just shout! I’m pretty responsive.
To your inevitable success.
Dino Tartaglia is a former Electronics Engineer, now a businessman, mentor, coach and troubleshooter working to help you, if you’re a coach, consultant, creative or service provider, to Build a Joyful, Dependable Business around Being Brilliant at What You Do.
In his own coaching, and together with world-class coach Simon Hartley, the other half of Success Engineers (their joint business), he helps you to improve your thinking to ask better questions, so that you solve the right problems in your business at the right time, develop your own personal performance as a business owner and get closer to What Matters Most.
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