When it comes to achieving a good life, we often think about the things we need to start doing. The habits we need to add. The practices we need to optimize.
Yet research, and reams of anecdotal experience, show that avoiding negative things has a far bigger influence on outcomes than adopting positive ones.
Studies have found that while being a bad parent has a huge effect on how children develop, being a super involved parent — making it to every school meeting, helping with every project — has very little; as long as you’re not violent/abusive/neglectful, kids turn out fine.
Same thing with health: taking a walk will not have as powerful an impact as quitting smoking.
Even the religious moral laws, the Ten Commandments, consist almost entirely of “thou shall nots.” Don’t kill, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t envy, don’t cheat, and your life is probably going to turn out alright.
You’ll never even get a chance to work on the higher “shalls,” if your life’s been wrecked by ignoring the “shall nots.”
While we get so anxious trying to figure out the best, cleverest things to do, it’s really the things you don’t do — the bullets successfully dodged — that get you most of the way there. You win by not losing.
It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.