August 5, 2023




Via Negativa

At a glance

Today’s Fast Summary:

  • Via Negativa is the study of what not to do. It’s a negative way of improving your life.

  • There are two ways to implement Via Negativa: Cut negative habits from your life and avoid them to begin with.

  • To implement this, define your ultimate goal while considering its opposite. Reflect on the tangible, negative traits of the goal’s inverse, and avoid them.

  • It’s easier to avoid failure than it is to search for success. Avoiding failure is success on its own.

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Via Negativa

As humans, we’re taught that to solve a problem, we need to buy or add a solution. Marketers, life coaches, and manufacturers make millions on this innate desire. It’s simple consumerism.

Take low productivity for example. You can add new organization systems, notepads, and timers to the problem, but these merely complicate the problem. Instead of focusing on your work, you’re distracted by new systems and methodologies.

If we only add, our problems become more complex. Very few of us consider subtraction as a resolution.

The key is to do less, not more.

“I don’t believe I have the ability to say what is going to work. Rather, I try to eliminate what’s not going to work. I think being successful is just about not making mistakes. It’s not about having correct judgment. It’s about avoiding incorrect judgments.” - Naval Ravikant

This quote from The Almanack of Naval Ravikant well-summarizes the principles of Via Negativa.

Via Negativa is the study of what not to do. It’s a negative way of improving your life. Instead of focusing on what you should do or add, focus on what you shouldn’t. It’s the #1 habit of all high-performers I’ve met.

There are two ways to implement this strategy: Cut negative habits from your life and avoid them to begin with.

Nassim Taleb, the creator of the antifragility framework, believes that the first step to becoming more adaptable is to decrease your downside. In other words, cut people, habits, situations, or systems that make you vulnerable to risk.

Consider smoking or excessive drinking for example. These are risky habits that increase vulnerability. Cutting these from your life boosts your lifespan and improves life quality.

Via Negativa is addition by subtraction. Subtract negative habits to improve your quality of life.

How to Incorporate Via Negativa

“All I want to know is where I'm going to die, so I'll never go there.” - Charlie Munger

Charlie Munger, famed investor, understood that simply avoiding mistakes or pitfalls is the key to success.

Negative habits are those that leave you susceptible to risk. Spending beyond your means, gambling, drinking excessively, and smoking are among these.

Follow this framework to effectively cut negative habits from your life.

  1. Clearly define your goal.

Define what it is you seek to do. You might decide you’d like to be a better person or to lose weight, get promoted, or become more productive.

Write down the goal. For example, you write, “I will become a better person this year.”

  1. Consider the opposite of that goal.

Write down the negative inverse of your first phrase. You’d say, “Don’t be a bad person.”

This phrase alone primes your brain for urgency. “Don’t be a bad person,” has more concrete meaning than, “Be a good person.” It’s easier for us to cognitively define the negative version of the phrase.

  1. Reflect on the tangible traits of the negative version of your goal.

Take a few moments and think about the traits of the idea, person, or thing you wrote. These traits are the antithesis of your goal. List these on the paper as well.

Following the ‘better person’ example, you would write down characteristics you perceive as negative. You would write things like, “Rude, lazy, neglectful, or mean,” on your paper.

A “bad person” would be unhelpful around others, rude to waitstaff, selfish with their things, neglectful of their responsibilities in the workplace, or rude in public.

List these traits, and revise your list regularly.

  1. Don’t do what you’ve listed.

Via Negativa operates on the principle that you should focus on what you shouldn’t do, not what you should.

Adding becomes confusing and expensive. Subtraction is clear.

In this case, don’t be rude when dining out, and tip well if necessary. Manage your responsibilities, and be mindful of deadlines. Share your belongings and knowledge with others.

It’s easier to know something is wrong and subtract it than it is to search for a solution.

Avoid Failure

Avoiding failure is the other major hallmark of via negativa. Think back to the Charlie Munger quote—it’s easier to avoid failure than it is to search for success.

As he defined it, avoiding failure is success on its own.

  1. Clarify failure

In your case, what does ‘failure’ mean?

If you’re looking to lose weight, failure would be gaining it. If you’re looking to save money, bankruptcy would be a failure. Clearly state what failure is for you.

If you’re experiencing difficulty, look to the failures of those who’ve experienced the problem you are now.

Read memoirs or biographies, ask experts, or reach out to those who’ve publicly vocalized their experience. Ask what led to their failure.

  1. Avoid errors and mitigate risk

This step is easier said than done. Think tangibly about the ways you’ll avoid failure.

If you spoke to others who’ve failed, avoid the mistakes they did. If you’ve failed previously, consider how you did so. Don’t make the same mistakes twice.

Avoid risky behaviors—those that are the opposite of your goal. Risk can be exciting, but these habits aren’t beneficial long term.

Here are a few other helpful tips you can use to incorporate via negativa:

  • Do less, not more with your time.

Many of us feel tempted to say ‘yes’ to multiple events and projects. We don’t like disappointing people.

But we do so believing that many tasks and projects make us more productive. This isn’t the case.

When you overbook your time, you’re left feeling overloaded and overwhelmed. Resultantly, you become burnt out and don’t do your best.

Productivity is optimizing your time and managing projects and events with ease.

Respectfully say ‘no.’ Focus on tasks worth your time.

  • Focus on added value

Cutting tasks, events, and people can be difficult. To decide whether or not to cut something from your schedule, ask “How much is this helping me reach my goals?”

Block what isn’t increasing your efficiency or adding concrete value to your life.

Cutting unnecessary time on chores in favor of larger, more meaningful tasks would be an example.

Subtracting distractions is key to productivity. Subtracting steps increases efficiency. Look at the inverse of the problem.

Use via negativa to boost your productivity.

This week, I ask you to try your hand at via negativa and to consider ways you can practically incorporate its teachings. Use a sheet of paper for this exercise, and think tangibly about a personal or professional problem you’re looking to solve or change.

  1. Clearly define your goal.

    a. Define the goal, problem, or situation you’re looking to solve or attain. Consider the problem’s core elements. Think practically about what is or isn’t involved. Write these down.

    b. Craft a statement defining what you’d like to achieve or solve. This statement should be written definitively, as in, “I will,” not, “I can,” or, “I could.” Use the statement in the newsletter as a guide.

  1. Consider the opposite of that goal.

    a. Brainstorm the habits, skills, and traits that embody the opposite of your goal. People can be a great brainstorming booster—if applicable, consider people you know who fall into the negative version of what you’ve stated. Use them as a guide to craft your via negativa statement. Write these down in list form.

    b. Create your via negativa statement using the newsletter as a guide. Ensure that your phrase is truly the opposite of the first one you created.

    c. List the concrete traits and ways you can follow the second statement you created. Think practically. List only practical traits and behaviors of what you wrote.

  1. Avoid it.

    a. Reflect on what you’ve written and create a practical plan for how you’ll avoid these traits, characteristics, or habits. Then put this plan into action.

Practice via negativa. Do less, not more.


I’d love to hear from you:

  • Can you think of any other quotes or individuals who practice via negativa?

  • What did you learn about the power of negative statements?

  • Is there a situation you’re struggling with that would benefit from via negativa?

Tweet at me (@_alexbrogan) or respond to this email — I’ll try to respond to everyone.

Have a wonderful Saturday, all.

Until next time,


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