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Outside the box

A path to success – or perhaps a dead end?

Text: Thomas Masuch, 17 May 2024

In my circle of friends, we’ve taken to giving each other nicknames that usually relate to a unique personal characteristic or a life event that was amusing in some way. In one case, it didn’t take us long to come up with the right moniker. The fellow in question is the type who takes a critical view of just about everything. No matter what you tell him, he never really agrees or responds in any kind of positive way. Now matter how good the soup is, he’s always going to find a hair in it. If our friend – whom we’ve affectionately dubbed “Negativo” – ever won the lottery, he’d probably complain about having to find a sensible way to invest the money. 

A few days ago, however, I started to think that we might have treated Negativo unfairly. I was listening to a podcast on the topic of investment that was espousing a strategy called “Via Negativa”. This apparently means that successful investors don’t necessarily need to have a nose for diamonds in the rough; they mainly have to avoid making mistakes. Indeed, noted billionaire Warren Buffett believes that you “only have to do a very few things right in life so long as you don’t do too many things wrong.” The “Via Negativa” philosophy seems to have taken hold in other areas, as well. Broadly speaking, we usually have a good idea of what we don’t want, while the objects of our desire often refuse to come into focus in the tangle of our inner emotions. Or consider basically any popular team sport, where the would-be experts will tell you that offense wins games, but defense wins championships. Those who stop the other team from scoring – avoid mistakes, in other words – have the most long-term success. 

Illustration:, iStock / EgudinKa, elenabs, KristinaVelickovic
Illustration:, iStock / EgudinKa, elenabs, KristinaVelickovic

This mindset can be traced all the way back to one of ancient Greece’s most famous thinkers, Plato. Even then, people were always trying to capture the essence of the divine in this way. After all, no one had actually seen a deity or knew what one looked like, so they attempted to describe what one was not. Is it possible that our friend Negativo isn’t an overly critical soul at all, but a misjudged philosopher in his own right?

Many successful people benefit from a certain kind of negativism. Instead of just avoiding poor decisions, they eliminate anything that does not do them good from their lives. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t struggle with the choice of what to wear every morning; he simply wears the same thing. Similar things have been said of Steve Jobs or Barack Obama. Experts in brain research even recommend this type of mental “decluttering” as a way to improve one’s focus or achieve a state of relaxation.

Come to think of it, the AM industry seems to have slipped into its own decluttering phase to a certain extent. The era of boundless growth appears to be over for some companies, at least for now. Even the most lavish U.S. investors are tightening their belts, having perhaps discovered the “Via Negativa” for themselves. But then again, other AM companies continue to expand unabated, and are even turning a profit in the process. How? Don’t ask me – it probably has to do with something positive.


  • Outside the box