“A lot of success in life and business comes from knowing what you want to avoid; early death, a bad marriage, etc.” — Charlie Munger
If you are looking for ways to improve your problem-solving skills, a mental model called inversion may well be the tool you are missing.
As the name suggests, inversion refers to a process whereby you analyze situations from an inverse perspective, as opposed to the typical approach, in order to gain new, useful insights. It’s a simple yet one of the most powerful mental tools available.
What’s more, this principle can be applied in almost any type of situation and domain: mathematicians, investors, business people and athletes alike can use it to their benefit.
In this article, we’ll explain in detail how this mental model works and why you should use it too.
What is Inversion?
Inversion is the practice of looking at things from the opposite, or inverse, perspective. Put differently, instead of thinking “how can I do X”, flip the question to “what would prevent me from doing X”, and then take action to address those things.
This mental model is said to originate from a German mathematician named Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi who lived in the 1800s. One of his methods for solving mathematical problems was summarized in the phrase man muss immer umkehren — or, “invert, always invert.”
However, as with many other mental models, it was popularized by Charlie Munger, the well-known billionaire investor and business partner of Warren Buffett. He has brought up the power of inversion on multiple occasions and even credits some of his success to it.
In one interview, when asked about his tools for rational thinking, Munger says “one of my favorite tricks is the inversion process”. He gives an example from the time he was a meteorologist during WW2. His job was, essentially, to predict the weather so that pilots can take flights safely. Rather than thinking how he could ensure safe flights, he inverted the problem and figured out what conditions would be the most harmful to the pilots, and then tried to “stay miles away” from those conditions.
It’s a simple yet surprisingly powerful tool that can be used, besides mathematics and meteorology, in a wide variety of situations. For example, if you wish to figure out:
- How can I live a good life?
- How can I become financially independent?
- How to get ahead in your career?
- How can my business provide the best customer service?
You can ask instead:
- What things would ensure a bad life?
- What would most keep me from becoming financially dependent?
- What holds me most back in my career?
- What kind of customer service would ensure dissatisfied customers?
This, especially when combined with traditional forward-thinking, can make you a better problem-solver and increase your chances of success. More about this next.
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Why is Inversion Useful?
Looking at things from a different perspective can help unlock new insights and see obstacles that you didn’t know existed beforehand.
In particular, inversion can enable you to cut through the less-important aspects quickly and get more out of your time and effort. As seen in Munger’s example above, it allowed him to do his job better because he was able to identify the tasks he should first strive to complete, rather than consider all the different things that may possibly affect the outcome.
Another major reason why it’s effective is that it helps you identify and tackle possible risks.
In forward-style thinking, our judgment is more likely to revolve around ambitious ideas and feats that are typically seen as desirable. On the other hand, inverse thinking directs your focus to all the dangers involved.
For example, when trying to determine how to live a happy life, the common view is that you need to be well-known, rich, and respected. However, taking the inverse approach helps you realize what you need to avoid to achieve your goal — having bad health, a bad relationship, doing something you hate for a living, and more.
As such, to increase the chances of a successful outcome, combine forward-thinking with inversion; before going for the ambitious and innovative ideas, try and address the major risks first.
Win by Making Fewer Mistakes
Avoiding mistakes is easier and often more fruitful than seeking greatness.
To quote Charlie Munger once again:
It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.
This is especially true when we are dealing with areas where we aren’t that skilled and knowledgeable. As explained in an article by Farnam Street, a statistician named Simon Ramo illustrated this well in his book Extraordinary Tennis Ordinary Players. He writes that, in tennis, there are only two groups of players: professionals and non-professionals. Although both groups play the same sport and by the same rules, their games are fundamentally different; the professionals play a winner’s game and non-professionals play a loser’s game.
In other words, amateurs win by losing fewer points, while expert players win by making winning moves.
Thus, the best strategy for amateurs is to avoid making mistakes and aiming to keep the ball in play. This gives the opponent — who is playing a loser’s game — more time to beat themselves.
This same insight applies to many other areas of skill: investing, business, chess, football, etc.
Charlie Munger: The Psychology of Human Misjudgment:
- Video (Youtube)