The counter-intuitive truths of innovation
If I ask you to imagine the words ‘develop’, ‘improve’, or ‘achieve’ you’ll likely conjure up a few different scenarios.
You might imagine the Da Vinci-like introvert, at their desk, working at their craft. Or maybe the bulging athlete, honing their muscles at the gym. Perhaps a Jeff Bezos figure might appear, masterminding a new business initiative.
Develop, improve, achieve. We perceive these words to naturally imply that some action needs to be taken. That something must be applied to an existing state, for it to improve.
It’s a sad state of affairs when we view progression in this way — that to progress you need to add something. It’s also false. I’m not sure why we view innovation, progress, and even revolution as an additive process in Western cultures. Perhaps it’s due to our indoctrination of the narrow branch of capitalism we call consumerism. That something in our lives is missing, and can only be filled by the acquisition of things or experiences.
In this article, I want to introduce a counterintuitive mental model that the greatest individuals of history have applied to achieve success. Via negativa is a way of viewing all improvements in life — material, societal and spiritual, through the subtraction of things, rather than addition.
The strongest argument against via negativa as a method of thinking might go something like this.
‘How can you argue that the biggest improvements in life come from removing things. Look at the greatest examples of innovation in history, the technologies that have pushed society forward. Look at the printing press, the lightbulb, the electric car — these were all innovative technologies that were bought into the world through a combination of creative insights, and a tonne of iterations. These technologies are fundamentally additive to life.’
The problem with the above statement is that it mistakes the output (a new technology) for the input and the motivation. Great innovation is not bourne out of an additive world view. Great innovation is bourne from the world view of seeking to remove, via negativa, problems that we as a species face.
The washing machine is arguably the greatest invention in history on the account of the number of hours of mundane, low-leverage labour it has saved humans (particularly women). The washing machine is not great because of its spinning drum, its mechanics or how it utilises the laws of thermodynamics to pass clean, soapy water through the fibres of our clothes. The washing machine is great because it removes the need for humans to spend hours and hours at a sink, scrubbing away at stains, changing the water, and wringing out clothes.
This may seem like semantics. ‘Sure but the addition of the washing machine and the removal of handwashing are the same thing’. No — the train of thought that led to the washing machine being developed was not to start with the technology, it was to start with the problem, the frustration, of spending hours doing work that wasn’t utilising the human mind to the best of its ability. You only need to watch Dragon's Den, to see examples of dozens of entrepreneurs, who have ignored this principle, who’ve created something that adds to life without removing a problem, these products nearly universally fail.
If you truly understand an innovation you’ll see that it always, at its root, removes something undesirable. Flappy Birds may seem like a silly game that just adds a bit of enjoyment to your morning commute. But no, Flappy Birds again acts via negativa, removing the most ubiquitous of human emotions — boredom.
If innovation is the steady iteration towards giant improvements (1 to n), Revolution is the 0 to 1 change that births something completely new to the world. Revolutions rarely work, but the ones that do, do so via negativa.
The French Revolution has set back democracy countless years. The French Revolution birthed the current, deeply flawed, nation-state model of governance (anti-fragile, not conducive to management on the microscale), causing unnecessary bloodshed throughout France, while completely failing to solve any systemic problems.
Compare this to the English progressive constitutional monarchy, which has over hundreds of years slowly iterated towards some kind of progress, generally via negativa of gradually making the monarch less and less powerful. No revolution was required to effect some end goals of the revolution (democracy).
One revolution that does seem to have worked (although time will tell) is that of decentralised finance. Bitcoin was a zero-to-one innovation that created a completely new financial system. Bitcoin succeeded because it was a revolution based on via negativa. By removing the need for double-entry bookkeeping, and thus the reliance on a centralised third party to keep accounting records, the Bitcoin blockchain stores an immutable source of truth in a completely decentralised way. Bitcoin bulls would argue that the end goal of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is to completely rid the world of the centralised financial system, unlocking a vast amounts of man-hours for more productive use.
Successful cultural revolutions have also all been predicated on the idea of the elimination of societally constructed barriers. From a via negativa point of view, the movement towards equal rights for women is not one of adding new rights, rather it's removing any difference between the rights of people based on gender. Revolutions that seek to be additive, for example, fascism are doomed to fail.
Via negativa isn’t just the correct frame of viewing progress on the macro-level, it’s just as relevant when it comes to the individual.
One of the core beliefs of Buddhism is that life is suffering and that through mindful awareness we can recognise suffering is temporary and relive it. This leads to a clear mind, clear thoughts and clear actions.
Buddhists believe that desire fundamentally brings about inner conflict and therefore suffering. Desire is a contract you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want.
Buddhism then takes a via negativa approach to spirituality and happiness. Rather than aiming to add positive emotions such as love, fulfilment, excitement and peace, we should aim to remove the negative. By ridding ourselves of lust, anxiety, depression and regret we will, by default achieve a state of peace.
It’s quite easy to prove this via negativa approach to well-being through direct experience, practise meditation and you’ll notice the absence of thought, not the occurrence of it that marks the contented feeling the practice brings about.
Unfortunately, Western society teaches us to address flaws by taking some kind of positive action. Want to feel fulfilled? Go and achieve something. Want to feel stimulated? Go and buy something. If we instead look at the feeling we are wanting to eliminate, rather than the feeling we want to achieve we would probably construct widely different goals. Taking fulfilment for example — no level of achievement is going to make you feel fulfilled because fulfilment in itself is the wrong goal, it's additive. The via negativa approach here would be how do I get rid of feelings of restlessness, inadequacy, and unfulfillment, the root courses of these problems are not going to be solved by achieving more.
Via negativa is nearly always the way to go when looking to improve your physical health. The benefits you will receive to your health from cutting out sugar, cutting oil seed oils and eliminating processed foods are going to be 100x that of adding vegetables, supplements or even exercise.
Via negativa is not some abstract philosophical concept. It is a framework for thinking that can help frame any problem for what it is, an escape from a negative, rather than a move towards a positive. Avoid it and the only outcome is being trapped in a perpetual cycle of improvement.