Avoiding Bad Things Is Better Than Adding Things To Your Life


“Nimium boni est, cui nihil est mali.” – Ennius

“The good is mostly in the absence of the bad.”

If you want better health, quitting smoking is going to help more than eating organic. (Actually, reducing chronic stress will be better for your health than eating organic as well.) The first step to wealth is lessening your debt. You focus more by decreasing distractions.

When I’m feeling unmotivated, I know I need to get rid of the things stopping me, I don’t need to add anything to my life.

In Antifragile, Nassim Taleb describes why we should worry about being less unhappy, not more happy:

“[H]appiness is best dealt with as a negative concept; the same nonlinearity applies. Modern happiness researchers (who usually look quite unhappy), often psychologists turned economists (or vice versa) do not use nonlinearities and convexity effects when they lecture us about happiness as if we knew what it was and whether that’s what we should be after. Instead, they should be lecturing us about unhappiness (I speculate that just as those who lecture on happiness look unhappy, those who lecture on unhappiness would look happy); the “pursuit of happiness” is not equivalent to the “avoidance of unhappiness.”Each of us certainly knows not only what makes us unhappy … but what to do about it.”

We are always told to do something about it and so we feel like every problem is fixed by adding things. Buy a new product to fix your self-esteem. Buy a new supplement to fix your energy levels. Hire more people to increase production.

It is often more effective to take the causes of the problems away. Stop hanging out with people that make you feel shitty for not having that new product. Stop staying up so late to fix your energy levels. Eliminate inefficiencies instead of making another hire.

You don’t become more productive when you add items to your to-do list, you become more effective when you force yourself to prioritize the single most important item.

Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, and Robert Green, the author of Mastery, discuss via negativa:

Paul: I wrote essays because I didn’t understand about blogging. I had never done it, and I knew these guys did this thing called blogging, but I didn’t really care about it.

Robert: You tend to always put these in the negative form. You can do a lot by avoiding bad as opposed to seeking good.

Robert: Yeah. And it’s a positive avoiding bad. It’s a choice.

Even Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger’s investment strategy is about avoiding bad decisions, not making good ones. Peter Bevelin has distilled their wisdom beautifully in Seeking Wisdom. The following quotes have been pulled from there, starting with Buffett:

“Easy does it. After 25 years of buying and supervising a great variety of businesses, Charlie and I have not learned how to solve difficult business problems. What we have learned is to avoid them. To the extent we have been successful, it is because we concentrated on identifying one-foot hurdles that we could step over rather than because we acquired any ability to clear seven-footers. The finding may seem unfair, but in both business and investments it is usually far more profitable to simply stick with the easy and obvious than it is to resolve the difficult.”

Buffett goes on to provide a specific example of this in the management of Berkshire Hathaway:

“We basically have the attitude that you can’t make a good deal with a bad person. We don’t try to protect ourselves by contracts or all kinds of due diligence – we just forget about it. We can do fine over time dealing with people we like and admire and trust.

And the bad actor will try to tantalize you in one way or another. But you won’t win. It pays to just avoid him. We started out with that attitude. However, one or two experiences have convinced us even more so that that’s the way to play the game. “

It’s not just about avoiding external problems – it’s also about realizing how limited your own mind is. It’s about setting yourself up so you don’t have to make a lot of good decisions. Buffett explains:

“Charlie [Munger] and I decided long ago that in an investment lifetime, it’s just too hard to make hundreds of smart decisions. That judgment became ever more compelling as Berkshire’s capital mushroomed and the universe of investments that could significantly affect our result shrank dramatically. Therefore, we adopted a strategy that required our being smart – and not too smart at that – only a few times.”