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Negative leads to Positive

Updated: Nov 6, 2020

Also published on LinkedIn.


The concept via negativa comes from theology as a way to describe God by what God is not (e.g., without limit, ineffable, immutable). Nasim Nicholas Taleb (mathematician, philosopher and author of the Incerto) uses via negativa to explain how to make anything stronger and more durable (anti-fragile) by removal of the unnecessary.


In practical terms, Taleb’s explanation of this profound concept is "Less is More." Adding the unnecessary has multiplicative downside effects, even if those side-effects may not reveal themselves for some time. Removing the unnecessary has positive effects.


A method to identify what is unnecessary is to "invert." Look at the counterfactuals. Subtract what does not provide proven benefit. In his own words from Talks at Google:


In his own words from Talks at Google:



Taleb also uses two guidelines to apply via negativa in daily practice: (1) "Don’t do stupid stuff", and (2) "Eliminate the downside". Putting these rules to use has profound benefits. Below are 10 examples of how applying the via negativa concept can result in positive benefits and anti-fragility in various settings:


1. Relationships – Eliminate or set clear boundaries on relationships that contribute stress and frustration, and be happier.


2. Investing – Rule #1: “Don’t lose money.” Warren Buffett popularized the first rule of investing because it emphasizes the elimination of downside and makes it possible to benefit from compounding over longer periods of time.


3. Environment – Be conscious when allowing new things into the micro or macro environment. Rather than making scientists prove an addition is bad for the environment, invert and shift the burden of proof to product owners to prove that the addition cannot harm the environment.


4. Medicine – The Hippocratic Oath which originated in ancient Greece has been distilled to the principle “First do no harm.” The principle guides almost all of today’s global healthcare regulatory frameworks as “safety first” and emphasize the importance of understanding the balance of benefits and risks before recommending a treatment.


5. Art – Remove unnecessary colors, designs, fixtures to highlight what is truly unique and beautiful. When asked how he created the masterpiece statue of David, Michelangelo said: “I just removed everything that is not David.”


6. Business Strategy – Eliminate what is non-strategic (i.e. what does not directly contribute to Revenue growth, Profit growth or improving Returns on Capital). In most businesses, removal of non-strategic activities can double profits in less than one year and lead to more engaged employees.


7. Meditation – Letting go of the mind, embracing quietness, and relinquishing control to foster a deeper understanding of emotions and reality.


8. Sport – Eliminate unforced errors. The difference between amateurs and professionals is that professionals have learned to avoid the easy mistakes. In tennis: minimize unforced errors like double faults (by not going for low probability aces). In golf: swing with 80% power to keep the golf ball in the middle of the fairway (instead of swinging hard for 50 more yards).


9. Health – Cut out superfluous habits. Eliminate negative habits such as over-eating, over-drinking, over-exerting, over-engineering diets and release benefits of better sleep, mood, energy and health.


10. Strength – Exercise programs with fewer exercises, fewer sets, fewer fancy equipment result in fewer injuries, faster recovery, more energy and strength. This approach has been successfully followed by Olympic level athletes.


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