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Via Negativa, What Advice To Listen To, And Why We Fight

Post Note: These thoughts are thanks to things I’ve learned via Nassim Taleb’s Incerto series (in this instance, especially Antifragile), from Peter Thiel’s Zero to One, and from interviews with Peter Thiel, Rene Girard, and other people talking about Rene Girard’s theories.

Via Negativa

I have a love-hate relationship with self-help material. On one hand, I think that as long as you’re alive you should be learning how to live. But on the other hand, most self-help is charlatanism that’s packaged feel-good advice and hardly applicable anti-knowledge. Additionally, these self-help “teachers, gurus, coaches” are usually working their angle for you to buy their next book or attend their $2,000 course.

But, I don’t escape all forms of self-help. And one form of advice that I’ve found the most useful is via negativa. This a theological idea that the way to understand what God is to understand what God is not. Per a dictionary definition, “a philosophical approach to theology which asserts that no finite concepts or attributes can be adequately used of God, but only negative terms.”

The reason a theologian or philosopher would take away from God as a form of description is because our knowledge is too finite, and God is too infinite. God is far too unreachable. We’re better off subtracting than we are adding. Thus, the via negativa approach to life is the same. Life is too complicated and who knows what we should do (by who I mean the “teachers, coaches, gurus” that are always telling us what to do). Instead, with life, we should figure out what not to do.

Subtraction is easier than addition because it’s easier to spot harmful things in our lives to get rid of than it is to spot useful things we should add. Examples: cut processed sugar, alcohol before 5 p.m., cheating on taxes, etc. As opposed to adding: read 10 more books a month (that’s added time taken from something else), sign up for a new gym (will you go or just lose money?), etc.


Iatrogenics have a connection to via negativa. They bring the idea into clearer focus. They’re defined as, “relating to illness caused by medical examination or treatment.” This comes from the Greek idea of being harmed by the healer.

We can quickly find iatrogenic examples, especially when we broaden the scope of the concept into territory larger than just medicine. We can cite the endless amount of high-energy kids who are unnecessarily prescribed ADHD medication, US foreign intervention policies that cause power vacuums in other countries, or pro athletes getting surgeries they shouldn’t have gotten.

So, whose advice do we take?

Only take advice from people who have skin in the game. They don’t have to have skin in your game, but they have to have skin in their own game.

These have to be people who apply the advice they give to their own lives. If the advice fails, then they have something to lose, too. People are less likely to BS you if the BS will also be costly to them. (Don’t be fooled, of course. Some people are totally full of BS and are also fooled by their own costly BS.)

Mimetic desire

Rene Girard is a thinker that I haven’t read, and have only learned about via Peter Thiel, interviews, and videos I’ve watched on Girard. If you don’t know who Thiel is, he’s a billionaire entrepreneur who co-founded Paypal and Palantir, and he was an early investor in companies like LinkedIn and Facebook. He’s the known contrarian of Silicon Valley, and he’s been greatly influenced by the work of Rene Girard.

I’ll very shallowly explain Girard’s theory. It goes something like:

  • Humans are imitative creatures. This means we imitate the desires of others. This explains group-think and why popular items sweep through groups of people and mass marketing works. It seems obvious, but Girard takes his ideas further, using them to explain his scapegoat theory (which is an interesting religious perspective if that’s your ballpark) and why people fight. I’ll only touch on why we fight.

According to my simple understanding of Girard, people don’t fight because we’re different. We fight because we want the same things. Examples of battling because of sameness are siblings who battle for affection from their parents (same parents), or peers who battle for the same promotion at work.

These battles also happen on larger scales, like countries competing for the same land or to be the first in outer space. This is why, according to Girard, some of the greatest battles can be over inconsequential things. The battles come from the interpersonal struggles of two parties seeking the same thing, which only one party can have, of course.

To take a contrarian perspective (Peter Thiel has helped me think like a contrarian with his book Zero to One and I believe he does give advice similar to this for startups), we shouldn’t fight other people for the same things. We should see where mimetic desire is at play in our lives, and instead of following the crowd to fight for the same thing that they’re fighting for, we should find the unclaimed territory that has potential and no one is realizing is open for the taking.



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