Via Negativa

The Power of Non-Action


In our constant drive to do things, we often forget the significant effect of not doing.

It's an interesting contradiction: the things we don't do can be just as important as the ones we do.

However, we naturally focus on concrete events and actions.

Take history, for example. It's a narrative rich with events, conflicts, and breakthroughs. But what about the non-events, the paths not taken?

These silent, invisible choices are often left unexplored, yet they shape the course of history just as decisively as the events that make it to our textbooks.

Similarly, when we examine how to solve our problems, we frequently focus on what to do instead of what to avoid.

As humans, we usually focus more on positive aspects of data, such as things that exist or happened, rather than things that don't or didn't:

  • Scientific work receives more attention when it concerns what works rather than what doesn't.
  • Journalists cover significant incidents, not a significant lack of incidents.
  • Even if most of the time was calm, history textbooks are filled with conflicts and struggles; these "non-events" had just as much impact on history as actual events like wars, intrigues, or catastrophes.

Similarly, when faced with a decision, we tend to focus on what we could do (take action) rather than what we could avoid doing (non-action).

The Via Negativa - the path of not doing anything - is an idea that needs more focus, both in understanding our world and in making choices. It's the unexplored realm of opportunities that were not taken, the pause between the musical notes that gives form to the melody.

"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

Embracing the concept of "Via Negativa" encourages us to think about the impact of the things we choose not to do and acknowledge the invisible but influential forces they have on our lives and our perception of the world.

Here are 3 other concepts you might benefit from:

The Streetlight Effect

Causal Reductionism

Unknown Unknowns