Inversion

The thinking in which you want opposite — both forward and backward.

Scenario 1: Do you remember when you mistakenly touched an electric fence or a hot stove? And, you never touched it again because it was a painful experience.

Scenario 2: Jeff Bezos (Founder/CEO of Amazon) approaches the problem inversely. Instead of saying “what is it that my customer wants?” he will approach the problem asking “what is it that my customer does not want?”

Scenario 3: Instead of asking “How can I become successful?” ask “What are the things I should avoid that will prevent me to achieve my goals?

What is Inversion?

These scenarios of inverting two sides is the basic premise of inversion. In scenario 1, one makes a mistake and then never goes in that direction again. That is an example of inverting. The thinking in which you want opposite — not only thinking forward but also thinking backward. This trick is a powerful idea because it de-biases us from having blinders. The goal of this exercise is to envision the negativity in any event so that it can be avoided.

Inversion can be defined as the opposite way to do something or, to do something in reverse. This can be particularly useful in solving complex problems, helping to see them in a different way. The inverse of a simple addition would be to subtract one component from the total.

History

Stoics (early 3rd century BC)— followed the inversion process to eliminate the worst case scenario by thinking backwards and avoiding any failures. While the Greeks may have developed the philosophy of Stoicism, many Romans also adopted the philosophy. It was a practical philosophy used as a pathway through life by many early Romans, including slaves and Emperors. The ancient Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus regularly conducted an exercise known as a premeditatio malorum, which translates to “premeditation of evils.” The goal of this exercise was to envision the negative things that could happen in life. For example, the Stoics would imagine what it would be like to lose their job and become homeless. Or to suffer an injury and become paralyzed. Or to have their reputation ruined and lose their status in society.

Carl Jacaboi (1804–1851) was a German mathematician, who made contributions to elliptic functions, dynamics, differential equations and the number theory. These theories are still applicable in our modern age. How was Jacobi able to contribute so much to scientific fields during his career? He was known for his ability to solve complex problems by following a simple strategy: “Invert, always invert (man muss immer umkehren), conveying his belief that the solution of many hard problems can be clarified by re-stating them in an inverse form. He would write down the opposite of the problem he was trying to solve. In doing this, solutions came to him easily.

Deep Analysis

The power of inverse thinking is a rare and crucial skill that all great thinkers employ to their own advantage. You will often hear “How can I be successful in xyz?” This mantra is a modern ideology that dominates reality. In order to think independently, one needs to learn how to think critically and make unbiased decisions. This is where inversion comes into play. Being positive and negative is complimentary. One does not need to pick one side. Everyone wants to be a winner and be successful, but many, if not all, forget to think about how they can avoid failure. Chasing success is overvalued. Avoiding failure is equally important in being successful (for a lack of a better term).

However, do not confuse the idea of experimenting with failure. New ideas often requires experimenting until the solution is no longer falsified.

Subtractive Knowledge is when you envision negative things and then subtracting what is not important or what is wrong. Additive measures manifest in form of an urge to do something about a problem which may not need any intervention. Subtractive measures adhere to the philosophy of “don’t try to fix something which ain’t broken.” Nassim Taelbo also employs “subtractive epistemology.” He argues that the greatest and most robust contribution to learning and knowledge consists of removing what we think is wrong. What does not work, that is negative knowledge, is more robust than positive knowledge.

Avoiding stupidity is another way to apply inversion in your life. It’s a choice between avoiding stupidity and seeking brilliance. You can avoid a bad marriage by being loyal to your significant other. Or in life, you can avoid death by staying away from alcohol and drugs. Another way to apply inversion is to not only find role models but also find anti-role models — people you don’t want to resemble when you grow up. You want to avoid the path they took. Ambitious young people can find a lot of success in this type of thinking.

Another great implementation of inversion was by the CTO of Pandora. Pandora faced immense competition from Spotify, Apple Music, Google, and Amazon. However, it still managed to stay alive despite the heavy competition.

“90 days is the length of one quarter. That’s how far you can reasonably think and plan ahead when you’re in hyper-growth,” Conrad (Pandora’s Twitter) says. “And there’s a question you have to ask yourself at the start of every quarter: What would be stupid for us not to do in the next 90 days?” Charlie Munger is one of the greatest thinkers alive today. He is Warren Buffett’s business partner. Charlie Munger has adopted an approach to solving problems that is the reverse of the approach many people use in life. He avoids misery. Munger once gave a speech where he spoke about a famous Johnny Carson talk in which the comedian described all the ways one can be miserable. Munger said:

“What Carson said was that he couldn’t tell the graduating class how to be happy, but he could tell them from personal experience how to guarantee misery. Carson’s prescriptions for sure misery included: 1) Ingesting chemicals in an effort to alter mood or perception; 2) Envy; and 3) Resentment. What Carson did was to approach the study of how to create X by turning the question backward, that is, by studying how to create non-X.”

“Just avoid things like racing trains to the crossing, doing cocaine, etc. Develop good mental habits.” “A lot of success in life and business comes from knowing what you want to avoid: early death, a bad marriage, etc.”

Charlie Munger is famous for using “Invert always invert.”

“Think forwards and backwards — invert, always invert.” “Many hard problems are best solved when they are addressed backward.” “The way complex adaptive systems work and the way mental constructs work is that problems frequently get easier, I’d even say usually are easier to solve, if you turn them around in reverse. In other words, if you want to help India, the question you should ask is not “how can I help India,” it’s “what is doing the worst damage in India? What will automatically do the worst damage and how do I avoid it?” “Figure out what you don’t want and avoid it and you’ll get what you do want. How can you best get what you want? The answer: Deserve what you want! How can it be any other way?” “[The great Algebra pioneer Jacobi] knew that it is in the nature of things that many hard problems are best solved when they are addressed backward. In life, unless you’re more gifted than Einstein, inversion will help you solve problems.”

“Let me use a little inversion now. What will really fail in life? What do you want to avoid?” “Having a certain kind of temperament is more important than brains. You need to keep raw irrational emotion under control.” “When you have a huge convulsion, like a fire in this auditorium right now, you do get a lot of weird behavior. If you can be wise [during such times, you’ll profit].” “It is remarkable how much long-term advantage [we] have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

“The secret to Berkshire is we are good at ignorance removal. The good news is we have a lot of ignorance left to remove.” “Just as a man working with his tools should know its limitations, a man working with his cognitive apparatus must know its limitations.”

“If you have competence, you pretty much know its boundaries already. To ask the question is to answer it.” “We know the edge of our competency better than most. That’s a very worthwhile thing.”

Applications

The type of inverse logic can be extended to many areas in life.

  • Math: applying inversion to solve complex math problems. Jacobi believed that one of the best ways to clarify your thinking was to restate math problems in inverse form. He would write down the opposite of the problem he was trying to solve and found that the solution often came to him more easily.
  • Art: inversion is often at the core of great art. Great artists fight status quo by going in the opposite direction of what society is used to. Great artists break previous rules and unconventional thinking by asking — “How can I invert the status quo?”
  • Project Management: Amazon employs the Press Release strategy before launching a project. If employees have an idea, they are supposed to write a one-page PR and submit to the executives. The whole process is thinking backwards. This strategy allows to remove blind folders by asking backward questions like — “What could cause the project to go horribly wrong?”
  • Business Management: in a modern organization, everyone is talking about innovation. Instead what if the management asks, “What are the areas where we do not innovate?” This can address to remove any biases, competition threats and innovation strategy. The same methodology can be applied when evaluating risks. Avoiding risks is a successful business strategy.
  • Productivity: most people want to get more done in less time. Applying inversion to productivity you could ask “What will decrease my productivity? What will distract me?” Once you find those answers, block those distractions to up your productivity.
  • Decluttering: inversion can also be applied when tidying yourself up. “What do I want to keep?” Not “What do I want to get rid of?” Inverting the relationship helps you answer tough questions when discarding useless things at home or office.
  • Relationships: people usually ask “What will make this relationship successful?” Instead ask, “What behavior will cause my relationship to end?” Inverting will help you stop behaving irrationally which can affect your relationships.
  • Personal Finance: everyone wants to make more money. In personal finance and investing, the hardest job is able to preserve capital. By applying inversion one could ask “How to stay in debt? What can destroy my financial well-being?” Spending too much can creep up and can prevent you from achieving your financial goals. Inversion can help you stay on track and avoid irrational behavior towards money.
  • Fitness: inversion can also be applied when trying to reduce weight. “How to gain unwanted weight that can cause long-term health issues and obesity? — Eating fried food, drinking sugary drinks, and not exercising” Once you have the answers, avoid them at all cost.
  • Startup: “How to make a product that no one wants? How to not experiment? What can we do to not talk to customers?” Then find ways to work backwards by building something that customers want and engaging them in the process.
  • Literature: a literary technique in which the normal order of words is reversed in order to achieve a particular effect of emphasis. For example: “People are computers. Computers are people.”
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