Via Negativa & Anti-Models: Find Who You Aren't To Find Who You Are

Via Negativa & Anti-Models: Find Who You Aren’t To Find Who You Are

When you’re searching for skills or virtues, start trying to experiment and then find what you are not, what values don’t align with you, what lifestyle does not fit your life, and so on. Then, slowly find where you land and who you are, by elimination.

No time? Listen to it instead

When I was twelve, I tried to practice Photoshop on a cracked copy of their 7.0 version I’d received from one of my cousins. A few months later, I found my hands on more software. Eventually, I learnt enough money with those skills to actually afford that software.

My Approach To Learning

I was continually trying things. Once upon a time, I had a Youtube channel where I only uploaded random videos I found on the internet. I’m not a Youtuber today.

I also learnt everything I know about hosting WordPress because I started a website where I made wallpapers by editing and morphing images on Photoshop.

The first time took me a day. I set the Nudge website up in a couple of hours, out of which the hosting WordPress part took like ten minutes.

Currently, I’m trying to learn German, trying my hand at the ukulele, reading philosophy from all schools, etc.

The point is, I’ve always tried random things. Some stuck through the years. Some helped me in countless ways. However, most of what I’ve tried before is gone now, and yet it remains.

It tells me what I don’t do and who I am not.

Stop Finding Yourself

The thing is, when it comes to learning, my only philosophy is to keep trying everything.

Every single thing that you come across, you try it, and then you fail, or you get better, or you find your natural affinity for some of those things. Then, you stick with them because some things are easier than others. They come easily to you. So, life isn’t about finding who you are or what you can do.

In my opinion, life is about the contrary. It’s a process of elimination. Life is about finding what you are not and what you cannot or do not want to do.

Over time, everything you try, irrespective of how well you did it, adds to who you are by telling you who you aren’t.


There is a related concept of anti-models which I’ve read in various interpretations, so I’ll take a bit of time explaining both of those sides.

The first is from this Medium article titled, “Forget Role Models. You Need an Anti-Model. Just ask LeBron James”. The article dives into LeBron James’ experience of resenting his father as a kid but realising that he did not want his kids to have the same resentment made him turn into a better father.

To sum the article up: stop finding what you want to be, start searching for what you don’t want to be. Once you have that down, do your best to avoid it. You’ll fare much better than just sticking to your role models.

That’s one way to look at the idea of anti-models. The philosophical term for this is via negativa or the concept of defining something through the negative, i.e. what is not.

Via Negativa

Another mention of the phrase I saw was on a post on Instagram, which talks more about the via negativa approach’s crux.

If you’re familiar with Mental Models, you’d know the via negativa approach as the model of inversion or at least an application of it.

Subtractive Knowledge: You know what is wrong with more certainty than you know anything else.

Nassim Taleb

The idea is that humans learn in a sort of graphical representation of things that are related but not the same.

In other words, if I showed you a cup of black coffee and pointed at it and said, “coffee”, you wouldn’t understand what coffee is because you wouldn’t know what to compare it to.

Suppose you are, for example, familiar with another hot beverage such as tea. I can say, “not tea, coffee”, and your brain can understand that this is a hot beverage that isn’t tea: a refreshing hot beverage that is not tea. Now you know, it’s a new beverage that is called coffee.

Of course, this is a gross oversimplification of the idea, but you get the point. We’re continually connecting these related dots, even subconsciously.

A Simple Example

Let’s take an example of someone who is trying to find whether they are an atheist or not, instead of just rejecting the idea of religion altogether, they can instead try their hand at reading scripture, and once (if) it repels their beliefs or how they carry themselves, then they may call themselves an atheist.

They’re not religious, hence, they’re atheist. It’s in trying to understand things we think we’re not that we can find ourselves.

The Nudge

When you’re searching for skills or virtues, start trying to experiment and then find what you are not, what values don’t align with you, what lifestyle does not fit your life, and so on. Then, slowly find where you land. Those “if not this and if not that, then this” results will give you your most authentic self, and that will, in turn, help you find yourself. So, perhaps, you’ve been looking for yourself all this time when maybe you just wanted to do the exact opposite.

Original Featured Photo by on Unsplash


  • Medium article about LeBron James and via negativa.
  • The Instagram post that talks about graphical learning and anti-models.
  • Article on via negativa from Wealest.

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