Avoid The Void

Getting rid of all your problems won't solve all your problems.

Avoid The Void
Getting rid of all your problems won't solve all your problems.

Tim Ferriss is known for popularising a cheerfully large amount of good, solid advice that has nonetheless been so belaboured online that most of it is borderline cliché at this point. Some of the more famous examples include:

  • the 80-20 Rule, or Pareto Principle
  • Stoic philosophy in general (especially the writings of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius)
  • differentiating between being “efficient” (doing things in a well-organised and competent way) and “effective” (doing the right things), on the grounds that doing the wrong thing very well will not take you very far
  • asking yourself good questions (“What if I tried the opposite?” / “What if this were easy?” / “What if I could only subtract to solve problems?

At this point, these have all been extremely thoroughly discussed (people tired of encountering these topics may couch their disinterest in somewhat stronger language). But it's all still good advice which doesn't necessarily lose its importance just because of Twitter saturation.

Yet there’s one piece of advice that Tim dispensed as early as 2007 which I think was underrated then and is underrated now, and I want to bring it up as I still don't think it's discussed as much as it should be.

Let’s talk about “the void”.

Past Year Reviews

This is something that was most recently addressed in a recent podcast* about conducting a “Past Year Review”, in which you take a piece of paper, create two columns, and write down the things from your year that produced disproportionately the most benefits (“Positive”) and the most stress or negativity (“Negative”).

* (The Tim Ferriss Show, Episode #559: Forget New Year’s Resolutions and Conduct a ‘Past Year Review’ Instead)

Of the negatives (“the things you know make you miserable, or unhappy, or stressed out”), Tim suggests making a concerted effort to avoid engaging in these activities as much as possible over the next year. This is good advice, if almost prosaically self-evident.

However, there’s a caveat:

It’s not enough to simply remove the negative. That creates a void

In other words: absence of the negative is not the same as producing the positive. Just because you remove sources of unhappiness from your life, it does not mean that you will automatically find sources of happiness.

In a sense, I think of this in the same way as a number line:

Sure, you need to get from negative to zero. But then what?

Eliminating sources of unhappiness achieves only one thing: it takes you from negative to zero, but no further. To go into the positive - to have, in short, a good life - requires not just the absence of negatives, but also the active presence of sources of joy and meaning.

Important point: this is not to say that removing negatives is not worth doing. The way I think of overall well-being is the averaged sum of both the positives and the negatives. If there are large portions of your day dedicated to things which actively make you miserable, it’s going to be extremely hard for that to average out as “positive”, even if you’re managing to make time for doing the things you love. To the extent that you can eliminate these negatives, you should - whether that’s on the macro level (dead-end job, abusive relationship) or the micro level (squeaking door hinge, hole in your sock).

The $100 million thought experiment

There’s a related thought experiment that I think about quite a lot, and it’s this: Imagine you’ve been handed a life-changing amount of money with no strings attached. Let’s call it $100 million. Now fast-forward around a year. You’ve done all your travelling, bought a house, bought your parents a house, etc etc etc.

What now?

At this point, you don’t have to be at a job you don’t like if you don’t want to be there. If you don’t like to cook, you can have a professional chef bring you a personalised menu for every meal of the day. You can have a cleaning company take care of all household chores, have staff to do all of your laundry… all of those things are gone from your life.‍

What, then, should you replace them with?

Void-based conversation

I thought it was a salient point when I first read it in the 4 Hour Workweek (a book firmly on my “great books with horrible titles” list), and, not long afterwards, I brought it up in conversation with a friend who hated his job with a passion. I presented him with the thought experiment from above, and asked him what he’d do with the newfound freedom if he ever found himself in that position. (It’s worth noting that “freedom” was almost his only topic of conversation at this point.)

To my surprise, he either would not or could not answer it. He’d been focusing endlessly on how much he hated his job - to the point of mania, almost - but even after pressing him for some period of time, I was shocked to discover he could not give me a *single* example of what he’d want to do with his life if his biggest negatives got removed.‍

I pared it back. I pleaded with him to name one thing - just one - that he might want to pursue if presented with an abundance of free time and resources.

Still he could not respond. With the exception of video games (on which he was already spending remarkable amounts of time even with his job), there was apparently not one single activity in the world that he could bring to mind at that moment which might seemingly bring him some modicum of happiness.

Furnishing your void

For me, this immediately cemented the point that Tim was making, and it encouraged me to revisit this question as often as possible. What are the things that bring me happiness, and what can I do to bring them into my life now?

Some examples might include:

  • cosy dinners with friends, with great conversations and home-cooked food in a relaxing ambiance
  • learning a new language
  • making plans for the future whilst leaving sufficient room for the emergence of unexpected serendipity
  • playing a musical instrument
  • pursuing some sort of physical activity (preferably one that you actually enjoy)
  • spending time on developing new skills, which can be pleasurable not only instrumentally (i.e. in pursuit of some other goal) but also intrinsically (learning can be pleasurable for its own sake)

It is also worth remarking that, unfortunately, we are devastatingly unlikely to suddenly wake up one morning with a nine-figure net worth and a surprising absence of all household chores. It is therefore even more urgent that we carefully consider the spending of our time, given that the 24-hour limit to our day is insurmountable. Negatives can be reduced, but probably never eliminated entirely. How are you going to generate delight and purpose for yourself so that you can counteract them?

Try to dedicate a little time to answering these two questions from time to time. It’s okay if you don’t have perfect answers right away - or, indeed, ever. But if, by asking yourself these questions, you can move yourself gradually towards a better quality of answer - and, accordingly, towards a better quality of life - then it seems like a good idea to do so.