The Power of Subtractive Knowledge

I know this is unhealthy. I know this doesn’t work. I know this is bad for me. I know what I don’t like. We’ve all had these thoughts.

These statements might sound like a negative way of looking at the world, but using the idea of subtractive knowledge, i.e. knowledge gained by eliminating what does not work – you can discover and eliminate the things that can harm you.

We tend to know what does not work better than what does and removing what harms us is often more beneficial than adding something. For example, for a smoker, cutting out smoking can do much more for your health than starting an exercise programme.

Via Negativa – What Can We Know For Sure?

I first heard about the idea in philosopher and trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile, where he explains how subtractive knowledge is a more robust form of knowledge than positive knowledge.

An example of this would be, that if we have seen a black swan in the wild, we then know for certain that the statement ‘all swans are white’ is false, but without seeing a black swan we cannot hold the statement to be true, as a swan of another colour could quickly disconfirm it.

Close examination reveals such fragility in what we really ‘know’, even in the form of scientific knowledge. Consider the many experiments which have ‘proven’ various ‘facts’, later turned out to be either untrue or flawed. The self-esteem and anti-vaccine movements, for example, have both thrived on evidence shown to be either fraudulent or inadequate.

Counter-intuitively, scientific facts often have an expiry date, as presenter Stephen Fry explained on the TV show ‘QI’. Medical colleges, he reported, usually teach students that half of the ‘facts’ they are taught will likely be considered untrue in around decade. That is not to say that science is useless of course, merely to point out the fragility and changeability of what we know to be ‘true’.

Taleb describes the concept of subtractive knowledge as ‘Via Negativa’, a term originally used in philosophy to describe God in terms of what he is not, rather than what he is. This approach was used due to the human mind’s inability to fathom such a transcendent concept as what God is.

Never Lose Money

The idea doesn’t have to relate to God or religion though, of course. Billionaire investors Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger, chairman and vice-chairman respectively of the company Berkshire Hathaway, swear by the wisdom of subtractive knowledge.

One of Buffet’s most famous quotes is, “Rule No. 1: Never lose money. Rule No. 2: Never forget rule No. 1.” Munger provided similar insight when quoted as saying,”It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

Buffett also expands on the power of eliminating the inessential with his ‘5/25 rule’. To follow this rule you should write down your top 25 goals, circle the five most important, then focus on those five goals exclusively. The other 20 goals should be avoided completely, until the most important five have been accomplished.

Another reminder of the benefits of eliminating deadweight comes from Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, “Focus means saying no to the hundred other good ideas. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things. You have to pick carefully.”

What to Avoid?

Knowing what to avoid can be more important that adding something else to your life. This is not to say that adding new things cannot bring benefits, but that the downsides of certain things can be so great that their elimination provides much better outcomes than adding anything could.

As described above, cutting out (or avoiding) smoking is much more beneficial to a person’s health than any combination of additions such as exercise. The can apply to harmful use of other substances such as alcohol. Unhealthy foods such are also something which many people could gain from reducing in their diet.

Toxic relationships are another major factor in many people’s lives which if removed can be much more beneficial than any addition your life. Consider how freedom from an abusive environment will likely top any gains from additional activities which a person could have added to that environment. I have personally seen the benefits in the lives of family and friends who have broken free from these awful situations.

Social media is another major culprit. We assure ourselves we do not use social media as much as the next person, but continue scrolling through a sea of vapid and forgettable content that adds little to our lives. There is good stuff too of course, but how much could you achieve by cutting out or at least cutting down time wasted on social media? Or even if you don’t want to achieve anything, you can at least reduce the negative mental health effects that heavy social media use can bring.

Money and debt. As a society we have the highest levels of personal debt ever. Reducing or eliminating debt is eliminating one of the factors which can make you most fragile financially. Taking out payday loans at exorbitant interest rates or even making frivolous purchases regularly is definitely a habit which should be cut out.

Making a list of things to avoid is not only much easier to figure out than to work out all the things we want out of life, but it is also likely to be more robust over time.

The Struggle

So, avoid debt, minimize social media, quit smoking and alcohol, shelve the sugary snacks, cut out that toxic relationship. Easier said than done.

Our habits and addictions can seemingly become part of us and it seems near impossible to change them. Complex problems such as escaping from toxic and abusive relationships, substance addictions and serious debt are of course problems are not easily solved and often require specialist help. Using subtractive knowledge may not solve these problems but it help can identify the things which you may not have considered are harming you.

A Salesman’s Dream

The benefits of subtractive knowledge are in the reversal of the common human impulse to think that what is needed to solve a problem is to add something. Consider the money made by the inventors of those ridiculous infomercial fitness machines that achieve nothing more than a sit-up or similar but claim to be a full-body workout. Perhaps people are aware on some level that they are paying for the pipe dream of fitness without the responsibility of leaving their living room or changing their lifestyle. The fact remains though, that cutting out unhealthy habits will do much more than a couple of sessions on the latest fitness fad before consigning it to collect dust in the cupboard.

The power of being aware of subtractive knowledge is in knowing that our human brains are wired to think a certain way. We want to know what to do rather than what not to do. We will pay vast sums to people who have a forumla that will tell us how to live, what rules to follow, what new ‘superfood’ to eat, what new exercise routine to do, what stocks to buy. The person who sagely advises on what not to do will be quietly ignored.

Live a Little

But so what? What is wrong with a bit of risk in life? Isn’t living life according to via negativa cutting out all the fun in life? That is a misunderstanding, as calculated risk is part of life – using subtractive knowledge is simply about inverting our view on what we know to be true. To realize that while we may never know exactly what will make us happy, wealthy and healthy, we can know with more certainty what can harm us and what will diminish our success and happiness and take steps to avoid these things.

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