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Newsletter: Via Negativa

(Volume 1, Issue 25)


Quote of the week

“The day a man becomes superior to pleasure, he will also be superior to pain.”

-- Seneca

Three recent articles


1. Shane Parrish of Farnam Street interviewed Chamath Palihapitiya, founder of Social Capital, on Shane's podcast The Knowledge Project. What is most interesting about Chamath is not his journey to billionaire status but his realization that his emotions and psychology is the barrier to clear thinking and better decision-making. The podcast interview covers a lot of ground: Lying as a coping mechanism, Objective observation of present state, Framework for happiness and independence, Asset allocation, Being a positive change agent.


2. Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, in his essay on Early Work digs into the psychology preventing new ideas from growing into impactful ideas. Graham discusses how to overcome the most powerful force preventing development of new things: internal skepticism. He says self-discipline, the right community, humility, and avoiding perfection are antidotes to this powerful force. (Related newsletter: Volume 1, Issue 25: Expectations, and related article from Lawrence Yeo: Good Enough is Just Fine.)

3. Consciously setting boundaries is an essential tool in professional and personal life. One way to set boundaries is to be comfortable with saying "no". Erin Ruddy, author of The Little Book of Life Skills, provides an easy to remember guide on how to say "no" even when you're feeling pressured to say "yes". The 5 Step Roadmap: (1) Remind yourself that your time is valuable, (2) Ask yourself, would I do this in the future?, (3) Respond quickly, (4) Own your "no", and (5) Reframe "no" to assuage your guilt.

Topic of the week: Via Negativa


Nasim Nicholas Taleb apples the concept of Via Negativa to show how to make anything more durable (anti-fragile) by removal of the unnecessary. Simply put his explanation of this profound idea is: less is more. Focus on the essential. Adding the unnecessary has multiplicative downside effects, even if those multiplicative side-effects may not reveal themselves for some time.


In his own words from a 2013 Talks at Google:



How does this concept apply practically? Examples of via negativa applied to different fields:

  • Investing: Remove most risk “in the middle” of a “diversified” portfolio and apply a barbell approach (20% high uncertainty investments + 80% risk-less investments) [Article – this is not investment advice, please consult your adviser and do your own research!]

  • Design thinking: Eliminate un-necessary design elements and keep the minimal essence. [Article]

  • Health: Eliminate 80% of the extra (unhealthy calories, bad habits, etc.) and do more of the 20%. [Article]

  • Strength training: Eliminate 80% of cardiovascular exercise and replace with 20% high-intensity exercise (dead-lifts or sprints) [Article]

  • Reasoning: Occam's Razor states that the simplest explanation is the best explanation. [Article]

Related Perspectives article on via negativa: Negative leads to positive.


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