Via Negativa

The hidden power of non-events


We overestimate the importance of what is and underestimate the importance of what isn't.

That which we don't do matters at least as much as that which we do do.

But that which is available to us in the form of actual events or concrete things occupies our minds a lot more than that which could have been an event but didn't manifest as such.

When we look at history, we focus on what happened and not on what did not happen.

Likewise, when we think about how to achieve our goals, we tend to default to what to do instead of what to avoid.

As humans, we typically extract a lot of Via Positiva from data.

Scientific work gets more press if it is about what works than about what doesn't work.

Journalists write about impactful incidents and not about impactful absences of incidents.

History textbooks are full of wars and conflict even though the majority of the time was peaceful — and these "non-events" shaped history just as much as actual events like wars, intrigues or catastrophes.

Likewise, when we ponder our choices, we jump to what we could do (action) instead of what we could avoid to do (non-action).

In both a context of understanding the world as well as our personal choices, the Via Negativa is just as impactful and important to account for as the Via Positiva — but it is a lot less obvious.

To Remember

“History is peace punctuated by war, not war punctuated by peace.”

— Nassim N. Taleb

"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."

— Naval Ravikant


➞ In Nassim Taleb's Medium article (under the section 'History Seen from the Emergency Room') you can find an interesting description of why the Via Negativa is so important to understand history and narratives.

➞ A great overview of how you can use the Via Negativa mental model can be found here.

➞ For a thorough introduction to the strongly related concept of the 'Availability Heuristic', check out this Wikipedia article.


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