Inversion : How To Avoid Looking Dumb?

Inverse thinking is the process of approaching a solution from the opposite end or from backwards. It’s a powerful method for identifying and removing obstacles and dealing with difficult problems on your path to success. Inversion thinking is one of the many mental models that can be useful in most of the problems we face.

The inversion technique was originated by a German mathematician, Carl Jacobi, who made significant scientific contributions throughout his career. Carl Jacobi was well-known for solving difficult problems by using the simple strategy of ‘man muss immer umkehren,’ or in other words, ‘Invert, always invert.’ He always believed that hard problems could be solved easier and quicker by expressing them in the opposite way.

When we are going to solve any problems, most of the time, our approach is only forwards. We define an important goal, lay out a series of steps to follow to reach that goal, and execute those steps in sequential order. However, thinking about a problem backward can help us reach a goal or solution when a forward-oriented method is ambiguous.

Let’s take an example from Project Management. Imagine if you got an important project with 6 months of delivery time, how will you tackle it? Instead of thinking how I will make this project successful without any bugs, think Inverse like 6 months down the line the project got failed miserably and ask questions like
what went wrong with the project delivery? how all it happened? what could have fixed before the delivery? list down all the similar points to what could have done better?. The main idea behind this backward thinking is to identify challenges and issues faced so that you can plan them before and prevent them from occurring ahead of time.

Let’s take another example, Let’s say if you want to increase your focus and productivity. Instead of thinking what and where should I focus and how should I make it productive, think like what the areas are am losing my focus or getting distracted and think on how to get rid of these.

Charlie Munger, a billionaire and a business partner of Warren Buffet highlights on Inversion Techniques:

“Invert always invert: Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backward. What happens if all our plans go wrong? Where don’t we want to go, and how do you get there? Instead of looking for success, make a list of how to fail instead. Tell me where I’m going to die, that is, so I don’t go there.” 

– Charlie Munger

Billionaire Warren Buffett also uses a similar inversion technique to make his business and investment decisions. Instead of focusing on how to make more money, like most business people do, Buffett focuses on how to not lose money:

“Rule No. 1: Never lose money. Rule No. 2: Never forget rule No. 1.”

How to apply the Inversion thinking skill:

  1. Identify the problem that you are going to solve.
  2. Reverse the problem by asking, “How could I possibly cause the problem?” or “How could I possibly achieve the opposite effect?”
  3. Brainstorm the inversion problem to generate inversion solution ideas.
  4. Once you have brainstormed all the ideas to solve the inversion problem, now reverse these into solution ideas for the original problem.
  5. Evaluate these solution ideas to see if you can identify a potential solution or attributes of a possible solution.

Inversion is an essential skill for leading a logical and rational life. It allows you to see situations from a different angle. Whatever the problem you are facing, always consider the opposite side of things.

Finally, how to become brilliant at anything. Apply the inversion principle. Instead of thinking how to become brilliant, think how can you avoid stupidity?

As Charlie Munger said,

“Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.”

Foot notes: References: farnam street blog, and others