Imagine you’re trying to climb up a tall mountain. You’re motivated. You know that you have the capability to climb it and you’re going to give it everything you got. There’s just one problem.
Your backpack is filled with dumbbells.
You figure you have enough strength to make the climb anyway, and you try, but there’s just too much weight in the pack and no amount of effort will help you make it to the top.
A lot of people live life this way. You might be one of them.
You have big hopes, dreams, and aspirations—you wonder how to be the best version of yourself—but you carry so much baggage that the process of self-improvement is much harder than it has to be. Not only that, but instead of focusing on purging your baggage built by bad habits, you continue to self-sabotage and add even more weight.
Life is a game of upward spirals and downward spirals. You’re moving in one direction or the other. There’s no such thing as being static. One of the hardest, but most important things you need to do to change your life is to first nip that downward spiral in the bud before you start to climb.
Want to be the best version of you? Invert, invert, invert
Some of my favorite thinkers have talked about this concept. Charlie Munger, known for his common sense wisdom, had this to say about what it takes to live a successful life:
All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.
This little quip describes the process of inversion. It’s hard to figure out exactly what you need to do to be successful because there are a ton of variables to success, including luck. It’s much easier to figure out what definitely won’t work and avoid doing those things. Stop trying to be smart and start avoiding clearly stupid decisions.
Nassim Taleb refers to this process as via negativa:
Via negativa: In theology and philosophy, the focus on what something is not, an indirect definition. In action, it is a recipe for what to avoid, what not to do—subtraction, not addition, say, in medicine.
Taleb’s entire philosophy rests on the idea that it’s more important to know what you don’t understand vs. what you do. Since there are so many things you can’t truly know, focus on avoiding strategies that have too much variance. As an investor and trader, his trading philosophy isn’t focused on how to make as much money as possible, but rather how to avoid losing all of your money.
You can combine these two-layered philosophies and create a strategy that might not create mind-blowing success but can keep you from making your life much worse—which can be seen as a success in and of itself.
Think about it. How much better would your life be if you simply stopped making the same mistakes over and over again?
Making obvious mistakes drains you of energy and decreases your resolve to build a better future. So many people are stuck because they can’t escape the loop they create with bad habits.
First, they engage in a bad habit. Next, they beat themselves up about engaging in the habit. This demotivates them and causes them to think “since I’m a screw-up, I might as well keep screwing up.” People do this because, as strange as it sounds, continuing to screw up creates a mental haven. They learn to become okay with losing because they can make sense of it.
Change involves “cutting bait” and starting over. It means you have to stop digging and accept the consequences of the hole you’ve already dug. No easy feat, but once you start the process, you build positive momentum because you’re no longer shackled by your screw-ups.
State the obvious and subtract it from your life
So how does this process work? First, you have to take an inventory of your life and be brutally honest with yourself. You can go so far as to write down a list of all the things you’re doing that are clearly holding you back from living a better life.
Each person has their own list, but there are many different things that get in the way for a lot of people:
As Charlie Munger puts it, “Sloth and unreliability. If you’re unreliable it doesn’t matter what your virtues are. You’re going to crater immediately.”
Addictions such as alcohol, smoking, marijuana, hard drugs, porn, T.V., sugar. Some would argue these things are okay in moderation, but you have to decide whether or not you’re doing them in moderation or you’re addicted to them. A quick tell: anything you can’t say no to controls you
Toxic environments and people. No human being is strong enough to totally overcome their environment. It doesn’t matter how much willpower you have. If you’re trying to quit drinking, going to bars (at least at first) is probably a bad idea. So is hanging out with people who drink all the time.
Bad health habits like eating too much junk food, not exercising, and not sleeping enough
Risky and irresponsible activities like gambling
These are some of the basics, yet many people don’t even master avoiding some of the standard roadblocks that keep them from getting what they want. Think of how much mental clarity most people would gain if they simply stopped doing even some of those things.
The ones above are the typical struggles, but there’s another list that gets in the way that is unique to you. Think about any of your common behavior patterns that inevitably lead to regret.
Awareness of these negative patterns isn’t enough. You have to, you know, stop doing them. Quitting bad habits is difficult and there’s no perfect solution. So what do you do?
When it comes to self-improvement, mindset is everything
You have one major problem when it comes to using the process of inversion.
Here’s the dictionary definition: “A tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged.”
The more out of shape you are, the less likely you are to stop eating unhealthy foods. The worse your addiction problems are, the less likely you are to quit. All of your bad habits create this mental gravitational force the longer you engage in them. This is because each time you fall into the same old patterns, it sends another signal to your brain that you’re just the type of person who behaves this way.
As simple as it sounds, one of the ways you can start to change isn’t by focusing on the negative habit itself, but instead focusing on changing the definition of who you are as a person. A quote from the Last Psychiatrist says it well:
Instead of being the kind of person who doesn’t do something, become the kind of person who does do something else that interferes with it
Replace the vices of your identity with something positive. You’re now the type of person who’s healthy, not someone who’s trying to stop eating junk. You’re now the type of person who works on themselves, not someone who’s trying to avoid being lazy. That phrase matters a ton—”the type of person” you are. Start to focus on your identity so you can re-write the ending to your story for the better.
Change your identity and your environment
Once you convince yourself that you’re a different type of person, you’ll make changes to your environment that will make your life easier. In the beginning, willpower is hard to come by, so focus on creating an environment that makes it as easy as possible to stop digging.
I quit a bunch of bad habits around the same time I found something to replace them with. I started writing and that inspired me to drop the negative habits because I had a mountain worth climbing. Instead of trying to be in bad environments and fight the urge, I just eliminated those environments altogether.
Instead of going to the bar on Friday nights, I went to libraries or coffee shops instead.
I smoked cigarettes for years. I’d often find myself smoking while I was out drinking. So removing the drinking environment also made it a lot easier to stop smoking.
Certain people weren’t thrilled with the changes I was making. This will happen when you try to change. Some people will want to keep you stuck in the barrel with them. I didn’t cut them off rudely, I just progressively spent less and less time with them.
Fast forward a few months, and I stopped all of these habits that were keeping me from living a better life and causing major anxiety.
As I removed those vices, my momentum grew.
Prior to discovering writing, I spent the first half of my 20s doing pretty much everything I could to make my life worse. I did an entire 180 and spent the next half-decade of my life building my dream and making a full-time living doing what I love.
Funny how that works, right? I always knew I had a ton of potential and talent, but my massive pile of screw-ups kept me stuck. Once I got rid of those, I had nothing left but room to flourish and the energy to accomplish my goals.
Deep down, you know how to do this.
The process makes total sense. But you still have to make a decision about the type of person you want to be and take control over your environment instead of fighting it. I can’t do that for you, but I can guide you as close to the water as possible to try and get you to drink.
You have to look far into the future and see what your life is going to look like if you keep making the same mistakes over and over again.
What will your career look like? Your income? Your relationships? Your health? All of it. Paint a very vivid picture. So vivid that it either scares or inspires you to do what you already know you need to do.
Becoming the best version of yourself is a never-ending process
I continue to use via negativa and inversion to this day. I study other writers and focus on what they do wrong and avoid those strategies. I’ve read books on business and entrepreneurship that detail the patterns and pitfalls of people who try to build businesses. I’m learning how to invest and have come to find that the best way to do it is simply to avoid making stupid gambles and let your money sit.