I want more money.
I want to be healthier.
I want to be happier.
I want to be wiser.
What do these four things have in common?
If I want more money, I must find a way to make it. If I want to be healthier, I must eat more healthy food and do more exercise. If I want to be happier, I must do more things that make me happy. If I want more knowledge, I must read and study.
They are all positive. I must add something to my life to get them.
What if there was an easier way?
To have more money, need less. To be healthier, don’t do what we know kills us. To be happier, remove the sources of unhappiness from our lives. To be wiser, eliminate un-wisdom.
In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb talks about the futility of positive advice:
“… charlatans are recognizable in that they will give you positive advice, and only positive advice, exploiting our gullibility and sucker-proneness for recipes that hit you in a flash as just obvious, then evaporate later as you forget them. Just look at the “how to” books with, in their title, “Ten Steps for—” (fill in: enrichment, weight loss, making friends, innovation, getting elected, building muscles, finding a husband, running an orphanage, etc.). Yet 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.”
This approach is known as via negativa.
How does this translate into our lives?
Example: If we wish to be healthier, we stop consuming highly processed foods, and trade our cookie-cutter fitness programs for something that has a greater variety and range of stimuli built in.
Taleb demonstrates the power of negative advice with a story:
“Michelangelo was asked by the pope about the secret of his genius, particularly how he carved the statue of David, largely considered the masterpieces of all masterpieces. His answer was: “It’s simple. I just remove everything that is not David.”
If we want to be happier we purge unhappiness from our lives.
Most of the pain and angst we experience is caused by a small few things. This is a function of power laws like the 80/20 rule. Most of our unhappiness is caused by a handful of relationships, by a small selection of activities we perform.
So the fastest and most effective way to happiness is the removal of these sources of unhappiness. We don’t associate with people who make our lives stressful and complicated. We don’t do things that we hate.
Whenever you’re going after a goal, always follow this heuristic: Acts of omission > acts of commission. Or more succinctly: subtract before you add.
If your house feels cramped and overcrowded, you don’t need more space, you need less stuff.
The same approach can be taken with our knowledge. To accumulate more knowledge and understanding, you don’t start by going to university. You start by eliminating inputs that consume your attention but don’t contribute to your pool of wisdom.
When you don’t watch the news, or gossip behind people’s backs, or get your knowledge from pundits and “experts,” room is created for you to think and discern between the bullshit and the beneficial.
The quickest way to riches is to avoid becoming poor. The most effective way to health is to purge the unhealthy. The easiest way to be happy is to remove unhappiness. The fastest way to wisdom is to not be stupid.
Taleb quotes Ennius, as saying: “Nimium boni est, cui nihil est mali.”
“The good is mostly in the absence of bad.”
So subtract before you add.