'via Negativa' and Pareto

I became aware of the real-life applications and benefits of understanding both the ‘Via Negativa’ and ‘Pareto Rule’ after reading Incerto by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It has truly made a significant difference in my life.

Via-Negativa is Latin for Negative Way and is an Apopathic Theological way of approaching God by identifying what God is not. For example, we say that God is light. But since God is everywhere, then God must be present in the dark as well. The fundamental idea is that we cannot describe what God is in words. We can only understand and identify what it is not.

The direct connection of this rule in life is with happiness. We cannot ever describe true happiness through words or material items. Our lists frequently contain material things, but we soon realize that the resultant increase in happiness isn’t commensurate with the energy spent after the act. Immediately, however, we plan to add something more. Adding is an endless loop. Instead of writing down an endless list of what could make you happy, you could eliminate a few things from your week that you don’t enjoy. Subtracting helps you to dedicate more of your 24 hours to the service of what genuinely matters to you. It gives you the energy to say ‘no’ every so often, enabling you to conserve your energy and spend it on the essential stuff. ‘Subtraction’ is a way to happiness; the idea that Less is More. 

The Pareto principle provides the math to back the idea of ‘Via Negativa.’ According to Wikipedia, The Pareto principle states that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes (the “vital few”). 

For instance, eliminating just 20% of unhealthy food can create an 80% impact on your diet. It will save you the small death you die each time you cheat. Similarly, I have realized that 20% of the people and animals I interact with regularly define 80% of my happiness. Such a realization can help you declutter your packed social calendar. Or 20% of the books ever published will have 80% of what you need to live life. It can provide you solace in the times when reading books has become a race. Or 20% of the problems give you 80% of the worry. Spend time focusing on those instead of avoiding them. 

Via Negativa recommends subtraction, and Pareto provides a mathematical backing to the idea. Combining the two creates a positively reinforcing loop. You identify a few activities that make you happy and focus on those by slowly removing all the others. It will generate a ton of free time on your calendar. I love free calendars. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. You can apply these two principles to academics, relationships, jobs, exercise, diet, books, and many other aspects of life. 

Start subtracting today and identify your 20% if you enjoy free calendars too. 


The Pareto rule gets more interesting. Roughly 4% (20% of 20%) of the actions/causes lead to 64% (80% of 80%) of the consequences. Going one last step, 1% (20% of 20% of 20%) of action/causes lead to 51% (80% of 80% of 80%) of the outcomes/consequences. You need to focus on 1% of the stuff for 50% of the needs.