Via Negativa

You know what I look forward to most after bringing home a new computer, smartphone, tablet, etc. besides opening the package?  I love uninstalling most of the software that comes preinstalled with the device! (AKA Bloatware.) The gains from removing useless software, in my experience, is often similar or even greater than the gains from other common means of performance optimization such as defragmenting, overclocking, system tweaking, etc.  This is a major reason why I prefer building my computers from scratch rather than buying a prebuilt one from a retail store, although it’s a bit more difficult and impractical to do with laptops and mobile devices.  As with many things in the world, especially software, more isn’t always better and that’s the central theme behind Via Negativa.


In a nutshell, Via Negativa is the philosophy of “eliminating the bad” instead of “adding more good.”  In self-improvement, the Via Negativa school of thought hypothesizes that picking the low hanging fruit involves getting rid of the negatives before adding positive elements to your life.  For example, if you want to read more books everyday, eliminating distractions is, in practice, more effective than learning speed reading.  Another example, as stated by Druin Burch in Taking the Medicine: the effects of smoking on one’s life expectancy are enough to negate all of the positive effects due to advances in medicine on life expectancy since WWII.


Why is it generally (though not always) more effective to “eliminate the bad” than to “add more good“?  Usually, the people, things, processes, etc. that cause a negative situation are more readily identifiable than the positive people, things, and processes that might improve it.  In other words, a great deal of effort, creativity, and trial and error are required to discover the potentially positive contributors compared to simply pointing out the negative contributors.  Finally, eliminating a negative from a system decreases the total number of contributors and thus simplifies it, making it more predictable.  (In other words, eliminating a negative kills 2 birds with 1 stone: getting rid of a bad thing AND making the system simpler with one LESS thing to deal with.)


For most people, time and money are in limited supply.   Barring far-fetched circumstances where the theory of relativity plays a role, everyone gets the same 24 hours every single day.  Nobody receives more or less time because they were born rich/poor, because they’re good/bad people, because they’re members of a mafia or secret society, etc.  There are encyclopedias full of daily routines and life hacks we can use to potentially improve our lives but it would be impossible to execute them all within the constraint of a 24 hour day.  The “Via Negativa” way of time management calls for eliminating the least effective/enjoyable activities and redirecting the time we saved to the remaining activities that bring us the most joy or purpose.  (And if every activity is reasonably enjoyable, we eliminate the somewhat enjoyable ones for more time to devote to the extremely enjoyable.)


Money, on the other hand, is a somewhat more flexible resource than time since there are no limits as to how much one can earn.  However, doubling one’s wealth or income overnight to accommodate a higher demand is nearly impossible, but doubling wealth and income over the course of many years or decades is a more realistic proposition.  Thus, Via Negativa via Frugality is probably the most sensible solution to a sharp but temporary increase in one’s demand for money (say to pay a hospital bill or traffic ticket).  In other words, cutting unnecessary expenses to save more money is far more effective for paying unexpected expenses than trying to earn more in the short run.


For the above reasons, a fair majority of the advice on this blog will revolve around Via Negativa as the default mode for improving your quality of life.  Live in a simpler house that fits your entire family.  Upgrade to a newer car less frequently.  Have less (but more important) items on your to-do list everyday.  Keep less clothing in your wardrobe.


An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of a cure, so Keep It Simple, Stupid.

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