The Via Negativa: One rule of thumb that will help you make any decision

By: Adam G Fleming in Decision making, 3 years ago

Decision making is hard. Here’s one rule of thumb you can apply to any decision you need to make:

“If you need more than one reason to do something, don’t do it.”

Think of a time when you gave yourself six or seven reasons you needed to do something. Finally, you were convinced to give it a try, but ultimately you didn’t end up implementing the change long term, or the project failed. The reason this rule of thumb works is because if you’re trying to convince yourself to do something and you need to pile a ton of reasons up, you’re probably working too hard to convince yourself, and you’re setting yourself up to fail. Instead, each thing you do needs only one driving force behind it. If that driving force is strong enough, you’ll do it. You’ll make the plan and do the necessary steps. You’ll follow through, and the thing will happen. Six small driving forces, in this case, do not equal one big driving force. This has to do with understanding your “why”. Six little because statements are not as powerful as one big “because.” This is one area of life where multiples don’t give you synergy!

One thing that I’ve heard business owners say from time to time is that some of the best business decisions they ever made was to NOT do something — not buy a company or additional product line, not set up a factory in another state, etc. Recognizing the things NOT to do is a huge part of maintaining the focus necessary to be successful. Therefore, whether you are selling something and looking for a quick “no” from a customer, so you can move on to the next customer, or whether you are thinking about purchasing something and looking for a quick reason to say “no” to it, getting to a quick no is often the best way to maintain focus. This doesn’t mean that you don’t want to keep your eyes open for opportunities at all times. Of course you do! But being willing to say NO to most of them, and do it quickly, is beneficial and essentially an application of this rule of thumb. We love to say YES. We need to say YES a lot! From improv comedy we get the concept of “yes, and…” which is a wonderful tool for collaborating and for pitching ideas. But a quick no is also valuable. Another way to put this rule of thumb:

Find one reason to say yes. Then say “yes, and…” But, if you need many reasons to convince yourself, say no.

Here’s one of my favorite examples. Let’s say a relative comes to you for advice. “I think I want to marry him,” she says. “Why?” you ask. “Because he’s nice, and rich, and funny, and cute, and we both like dogs and mountain climbing, and anyway, I’ve always dreamed of being married, I’ve had the whole wedding planned out since I was 12, and on top of that I’m pregnant with his baby, so I’m kind of already committed,” she says. Do you recognize a marriage doomed to failure here? What did she not say? She did NOT give one big reason: “I love him.” (Or, in another context, such as arranged marriage, “I am committed to learn to love him,” which is the same thing. I married Megan 20 years ago because I loved her, but it has worked because that also equated to the fact that I was committed to learn to love her. The love has to be there from the start, but it needs room to grow, too.)

Thinking about making a decision? Well, are you married to the idea because you love the idea and are willing to invest in loving it more as you go? Or are you thinking about doing it because you think the idea is cute and like the idea’s dogs and mountain climbing skills and etc.? If not, save yourself a lot of grief and give the idea a big fat NO, thank you.

If you still aren’t sure about the decisions you face, check out my coaching gigs on my Exoteric profile, and I’ll be happy to help you sort things out.

Here’s a little background, if you’d like to dig deeper into this concept and read more about it. (If not, you could quit reading here.)

I apply this idea through coaching questions with my clients, but I got the idea from Nassim Taleb, in his book “Antifragile”. He talks about an ancient theological concept called The Via Negativa, which is a philosophical and theological concept called Apophatic Theology which reasons that instead of saying what God is, it can sometimes be easier to say what God is not. If you read Taleb’s stuff, he articulates how he goes from the Via Negativa philosophical concept to this rule of thumb we’ve discussed — finding the reason NOT to do something rather than the reason TO do it. I find the rule of thumb itself enough to keep me busy without going too deep into the weeds, philosophically. That’s what rules of thumb are good for!

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