Create Yourself by Defining What You Are Not: Via Negativa

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
8 min read

Life isn’t about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself.

George Bernard Shaw

There is this really powerful idea that Tim Ferriss turned me on to called Via Negativa.

Via Negativa is a way of describing something by saying what it is not. It is a Latin phrase for a theological concept of attempting to define God. We can use the concept in our personal lives to help us define and create our best selves by identifying and scraping off bad habits and practices.

“My system in life is to figure out what’s really stupid and then avoid it. It doesn’t make me popular, but it prevents a lot of trouble.”
Charlie Munger

Chip away. Via Negativa.

Bad habits affect our health and productivity and keep us from reaching our potential and living satisfying lives. Everything in moderation and some stuff is much better not at all.

Discernment is a process of letting go of what we are not.

- Father Thomas Keating

There are the usual suspects: smoking, pot, drugs, junk food, booze, TV, and others. I got rid of my TV a long time ago and it was one of the most powerful productivity enhancers I ever did. I also stopped smoking and drinking. I stopped smoking pot and eating junk food. All these things I don’t miss at all and they really freed me up and added to my lightness of being.

“Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides.”

― André Malraux

It is in our best interest to cultivate positive habits like exercising, reading, and meditating too. But giving up things that don’t serve us and have bad affects that accumulate over time is even more important. The fastest way to move forward in life is not doing more, but stopping the behaviors holding you back.

We can learn to parent ourselves and provide good instruction to our unruly instincts. In order to follow the course of your life, you must let it flow.

“Become such as you are, having learned what that is.”


“Become who you are!”

― Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

Via Negativa

In personal financial terms, the sure way to make more than 20% on your money is to pay off your credit card balance. That is Via Negativa.

There is a saying about physical conditioning that abs are made in the kitchen not in the gym. It’s more about diet and eating less than doing thousands of crunches. That is Via Negativa.

The single best piece of advice for any company builder is: know what not to do. Strategy helps you figure that out. Again Via Negativa.

There is also the idea that we are the average of the five people we hang out with most. Think about if you have surrounded yourself with wholesome positive relationships, and if not, be courageous about severing ties with old friends who drag you down, bad romantic relationships, and relatives that act like vampires on your energy, time and bank account. Be ruthless in protecting yourself and self care. Via Negativa.

To follow up on that thought on the positive side, at the 2004 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, Warren Buffett told one of the secrets to his success: “It’s better to hang out with people better than you. Pick out associates whose behavior is better than yours and you’ll drift in that direction.” But first you have to jettison the bad.

Just say no. Via Negativa.

We all have a sense of what’s holding us back from reaching our full potential.

We all know the path but few are willing to walk it.

Its about committing to conquering your worst self and freeing yourself for success and happiness.

Warren Buffett says, “I see people with these self-destructive behavior patterns. They really are entrapped by them.”

The solution is simple but that doesn’t mean its not difficult. Warren told the graduating class at the University of Florida to unlearn bad habits and practice good habits early on before it’s too late to change. “You can get rid of it a lot easier at your age than at my age, because most behaviors are habitual. The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”

The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

Charles Duhigg as written a very insightful and helpful book on the subject The Power of Habit

Behavioral Economics

Behavioral Economics is the study of why we do what we do as it relates to choice and the cognitive biases that effect our decision making. This is a related field that provides insight into our psychology of choice and how we perceive options. Check out my article on the subject.

If you can’t get rid of some of your bad habits, don’t despair too much. Here is some advice from Mark Twain.

Mark Twain tells a story about a woman who did not smoke, drink, or swear. The woman was ill, and Twain compared her plight to that of a foundering ship without any freight to throw overboard and lighten the ballast. This tale is from his 1897 book “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World”

Here is an excerpt from Twain’s book describing the medical advice he offered to the woman:

She had run down and down and down, and had at last reached a point where medicines no longer had any helpful effect upon her. I said I knew I could put her upon her feet in a week. It brightened her up, it filled her with hope, and she said she would do everything I told her to do. So I said she must stop swearing and drinking, and smoking and eating for four days, and then she would be all right again.

And it would have happened just so, I know it; but she said she could not stop swearing, and smoking and drinking, because she had never done those things. So there it was. She had neglected her habits, and hadn’t any. Now that they would have come good, there were none in stock. She had nothing to fall back on. She was a sinking vessel, with no freight in her to throw overboard and lighten ship withal.

Why, even one or two little bad habits could have saved her, but she was just a moral pauper. When she could have acquired them she was dissuaded by her parents, who were ignorant people though reared in the best society, and it was too late to begin now. It seemed such a pity; but there was no help for it. These things ought to be attended to while a person is young; otherwise, when age and disease come, there is nothing effectual to fight them with.

That is probably the best rational for keeping some bad habits I have ever come across.

Figure and Ground

Here is another way to look at this idea. In Gestalt Psychology there is a concept of identifying a figure by the background. You see the figure by seeing what is not the figure. This is a similar idea to Via Negativa. Here are some fun examples of Figure and Ground perception.

Take a hard look at your daily routines and pick a habit that isn’t serving you and toss it overboard. See how your life changes for the better.

The unexamined life is not worth living

- Socrates

Live the examined life.

The Art of Letting Go

Letting go of our preconceived notions of ego-driven success can help us discover our true selves and craft a life around what we really love doing.

Its about acceptance, surrender, and commitment.

The following is sage advice from a very wise person, Mark Nepo, whom I have taken a lot of inspiration and guidance from. This is from his book The Book of Awakening. I encourage you to get a copy of this book. It is a day book with a short thought piece for everyday. My wife and I read it before meditating and it puts us in the right mind set for peaceful contemplation.

I read this today (June 29) and it resonated with our topic here. Here it is in its entirety so you can get an idea of what each day’s nugget is like.

A Little Fish Story

The instant fish accept

that they will never have arms,

they grow fins.

I confess I was surprised to wake one day with this knowing about fish. It seems a koan or riddle to decipher. After living with it awhile, I’ve come to feel that it holds another key to faith: that before we can be what we are meant to be we must accept what we are not. This form of discernment asks us to let go of those grand fantasies that take us out of our nature, that make us work to be famous instead of loving , or perfect instead of compassionate.

Yet the instant we can accept what is not in our nature, rather than being distracted by all we think we could or should be, then all our inner resources are free to transform us into the particular self we are aching to be.

This act of acceptance is a risk that frees us because we can’t find the growth that awaits us until we give up what is against our very nature. it is this surrender, without knowing what will happen next, that allows our lives to truly unfold.

This speaks to committing to the adventure of life and letting it unfold. Below is a quote from Goethe about what happens when one is fully accepting, surrendered, and committed.

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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