As I wrap up the end of my first year, I’ve been thinking about the phrase “via negativa.” It’s an ancient Latin phrase and it means “by way of negation.” Its origins can be traced to apophatic or negative theology which sought to understand God by negating everything which God was not. Naturally, once you remove everything God is not, you get the definition of God itself.
The idea of via negativa has been expanded by Nassim Taleb in his book “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.” He writes, “via negativa: In theology and philosophy, the focus on what something is not, an indirect definition. In action, it is a recipe for what to avoid, what not to do — subtraction, not addition.” In essence, Taleb signifies that it is more beneficial to first figure out what not to do. He elaborates further upon “subtractive knowledge: You know what is wrong with more certainty than you know anything else.”
This point has far-reaching implications. The key to happiness, for example, is to avoid doing things that make you unhappy, rather than always seeking things that make you happy. When studying for a test, you want to focus on eliminating mistakes, rather than the problems you already know how to solve.
So what can we college students learn from via negativa?
The great tragedy of college life is that it involves so much “via positiva,” or “by way of addition.” We’re always trying to add things. This is perpetuated by social media and college YouTubers. We see viral videos on new productivity hacks, studying methods, relaxation tips, etc.
While this advice may be well intentioned, it adds a lot of complexity. There are second and third order effects arising from the addition of anything to a system. For example, maintaining a detailed to-do list may become stressful because the list is a constant reminder of work to be done. Instead of helping, additive behaviors might contribute to burnout or feeling overwhelmed.
Via negativa offers a different approach, one which aims to subtract the unnecessary when approaching goals in college life. Increased productivity is perhaps at the top of the list of goals for college students. Instead of adding productive habits, via negativa offers a more effective approach: simply remove all unproductive habits. Pay attention to everything you do during the day and see what is purely a waste of time. It can be as trivial as the infinite Twitter scrolling or Netflix binging.
Adding productive habits can never be effective on its own, insofar as you retain the unproductive ones. The via negativa approach targets the root cause of the unproductivity and seeks to remove it. To be clear, via positiva is not all bad. Nassim Taleb explains how via positiva is beneficial, either if what is to be added has known beneficial second and third order effects or if the damage caused by these effects is outweighed by the benefit of addition. For instance, adding a workout session for increased productivity is a beneficial application of via positiva. The second and third order effects of exercise are manifold ranging from overall better health to an increase in happiness due to an endorphin rush. However, via negativa is a more robust approach given that one does not have to worry about second and third order effects resulting from addition.
The problem is that Yale — and the world at large — operates almost exclusively on via positiva. The focus is always on what someone did, rather than what someone did not do. The more extracurricular clubs you join at Yale, the more internships you do, the more research projects you pursue, the better. But what about the intrinsic value of the activity? Does adding it outweigh the second and third order effects?
I think this can be summarized as the main lesson from my first year: Learning to say “no” to many of the opportunities that have come my way is as important as saying “yes” to other opportunities.
You do not have to always keep adding to improve, true addition results from subtraction. The famous writer and poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put via negativa into words perfectly, “perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”