The learning of life is knowing what to avoid

It is a common saying that ‘in life and in business less is more!’ In our human existence “stuff” forever beckons our attention. I often find myself facing an urge to add an experience or a material thing. What philosophy am I to follow when “stuff” is in my face? Am I to add or subtract?

I seek novelty in my life. I’d rather not go to the same café, or the same restaurant. Upon gaining a level of mastery over a task I like to move on; I never read a book twice, I never watch a movie again (with the exception of Lord Of The Rings), I try not to travel to a holiday destination again. I have an itch to switch!

This has brought me to ask the following question: Could I be seeking breadth in my life instead of depth?

Novelty seeking brings about opportunities to learn and grow. However could there be a balance that we need to reinstate and turn that nagging itch to switch down a notch? In order to improve our lives could subtracting from our life be just as important as adding to it?

Nassim Taleb is an author of the book Antifragile. Taleb argues that we live in a world that is increasingly complex. Here are some firsthand examples: Try understanding some of the financial market products, a user manual of an appliance recently purchased, or assembling Ikea furniture with the instructions that accompany it. Taleb advocates that less is more!

In his book Taleb also refers to a concept called ‘decreasing the downside’. Downside consists of those things, people and habits that make us vulnerable to risk and volatility.

For example, we might choose to spend time with friends who are always negative and leech our happiness. It might not matter in the short run. You might even enjoy their company on a certain level. But what if you encounter a crisis – your health fails, you lose your job or an important relationship in your life fails? These negative friendships that you have cultivated will then provide a poor support system and might even result in further depression and angst in your life.

Allowing for these downsides to lurk in your life limits your options, even if you are not facing volatility and risk. Time you are spending cultivating these shallow friendships is limiting you from pursuing meaningful, life enhancing goals.  Harbouring downside is a limiting move. It’s like a bad gift that keeps on giving!

On the contrary if you chose to eliminate such friendships altogether you free up that time, space and energy to consider more productive alternatives – such as acquiring a new skill, cultivating meaningful friendships and relationships.

It’s a thought-provoking concept for self-improvement, happiness and health, where you are adding to your life even though you are subtracting. There is a latin phrase for this – via negativa or via negationis, which means ‘way of negation’.

Here is an example of how Michelangelo described the creative process of making the famous statue of David: “It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David”. Michelangelo was going down the via negativa path.

Creating a new habit is a time consuming process. For a habit to successfully engrain in our lives it could take six weeks or more. Creating a new habit also comes at a huge cost of willpower. We significantly expend our willpower reserves when cultivating new habits. It’s when our willpower reserves exhaust that we resort to binge eating, overspending and reclining back to our old patterns whatever they may be.

You could be eating junk food every day. Making a 180 degree turn around in your eating habits might expend all of your willpower. On the contrary if you are a smoker, dropping that habit like a hot potato might lead you to making more positive health choices in your life.

Rather than going down that path where you buy multiple health supplements (only for them to expire sitting in your medicine cupboard), or making that vow to wake up at 5:00 in the morning and go for a run (when you are not a morning person), tackle some negative habits and people from your life. Subtract them first (unlearn a bad habit that you find yourself indulging in). This will set the momentum and accelerate your path towards growth, flourishing and acquiring new habits.

As you begin filling the pages of this journal, draw attention to negative habits that you would like to subtract from your life. For those who want to go down this path, consider keeping a NOT to do list instead of to do list. Or set some Via Negativa goals!

Words To Grow By

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”