Inversion: Working Backwards to Solve Problems

Inversion is an interesting way to relook a problem by turning it upside down. This Mental Model is immensely helpful when you are stuck and there’s no way to move forward. Inversion forces you look at a difficult problem backwards, or from a completely new perspective.

For example, rather than asking, what you should do to be happy, you should ask what you should do to avoid being unhappy. This makes you look at this problem backwards.

The fundamental behind inversion is that sometime It is not enough to think about difficult problems in just one way. We need to think about them forwards and backwards.

As Charlie Munger said:

“It is not enough to think problems through forward. You must also think in reverse, much like the rustic who wanted to know where he was going to die so that he’d never go there.”
“Indeed, many problems can’t be solved forward. And that is why the great algebraist, Carl Jacobi, so often said: “Invert, always invert.” And why Pythagoras thought in reverse to prove that the square root of two was an irrational number.”

The great scholar Nassim Taleb has a more esoteric term for this: Subtractive Epistemology. He says that a better way to improve knowledge is by removing what we think is wrong. Because we naturally know more about what is wrong, or what is bad, or what is harmful, or what won’t work, than what is right.

Because if you think about it, the usual process of getting to the right idea, is by eliminating a lot of bad ideas. This philosophy is also called Via Negativa. It refers to what is not, rather that what is. And that is what Inversion is all about.

For example, all investors are aware Warren Buffett’s rules of investment:

Rule 1: Never lose money.

Rule 2: Never forget Rule 1.

Similarly, the Mental Model Circle of Competence can be thought of as a subset of Inversion. It’s less about succeeding, and more about avoiding failures.

Not just investment, the method of Inversion can be applied to life and career as well. Rather than asking, what will bring success in your life, try asking what will bring failure in your life. Sloth will fail you. Unreliability will fail you. If you are unreliable or simply lazy, it doesn’t matter what your other virtues are. You are going to crater soon.

At your job, rather than asking what makes a productive employee, try asking, what makes an unproductive employee. Continuous interruptions, unnecessary meetings, busy being busy makes you unproductive. So, simply go on eliminating them to become productive. Rather than thinking what makes a good life, think about what would ensure misery, and simply avoid them. In every business deal and personal decisions, identify all the possible things that can go wrong or backfire, and then make sure they don’t happen. Rather than trying to think why something would work, think of why it would fail instead. Put Via Negative into effect.

Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, used the inversion principle to break his dilemma of leaving a high paying job to start Amazon. He recounts:

“When you are in the thick of things, you can get confused by small stuff. I knew when I was eighty that I would never, for example, think about why I walked away from my 1994 Wall Street bonus right in the middle of the year at the worst possible time.”
“That kind of thing just isn’t something you worry about when you’re eighty years old. At the same time, I knew that I might sincerely regret not having participated in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a revolutionising event. When I thought about it that way … it was incredibly easy to make the decision.”

Rather than ensuring happiness, Bezos focussed on reducing regret. In Decision Theory, this method is called the Regret Minimisation Framework, and it also happens to be a subset of Inversion.

Inverting a problem won’t necessarily solve it, but it will help you see it in a different light. Sometimes that’s all you need to solve it. But, spending time thinking about the opposite of what you want doesn’t come naturally to most people. And yet, this is the work you have to do to improve your thinking and decision making skills.

If there’s only one things you want to learn from this episode, let it be this: Spend less time trying to be brilliant and instead try to avoid obvious stupidity. The good news is that avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.

And this goes for everything you wish to achieve. Rather than trying to be famous, or successful, or wealthy, try inverting the problem instead. Turn it upon its head, and think of it backwards.

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