Charlie Munger, billionaire partner of Warren Buffett, is famous for saying:
All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.
Munger’s thinking was inspired by Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi, a German mathematician who often solved difficult problems by following a simple strategy, “man muss immer umkehren”, which loosely translates to “invert, always invert”.
The thing is that many problems/challenges can’t be solved by going forward. We have to find ways of solving them sideways. For instance, instead of thinking about doing things that would make something a success, identify ways that the project could be a failure. As Shane Parrish, creator of Farnam Street, has said (and I paraphrase), we need to stop seeking brilliance and instead avoid stupidity (which is easier). This is what is known as the principle of inversion. While most of us focus on achieving success, we should also think about managing failure. You could even think of it as an anti-goal in the parlance of Andrew Wilkinson. Inversion is the crucial thinking skill that nobody ever taught us. The idea is by imagining the worst-case scenarios in our heads, we can overcome our fears of negative consequences and make plans ahead of time to prevent them from happening.
By the way, inversion is different than working backward in that it focuses on the opposite of the result/outcome we want.
Munger has said:
A lot of success in life and business comes from knowing what you want to avoid: early death, a bad marriage, etc.
Here are some benefits for thinking about your problem challenge in this way:
It lets you look at things forward, backward, and sideways, all of which can help us innovate at work. It takes conventional wisdom and turns it on its head by questioning our common assumptions and beliefs about things. It highlights errors and obstacles that might not be obvious at first sight. It helps us challenge our own thinking and beliefs by playing devil’s advocate. It helps us improve our understanding of our situation/problem/challenge and helps us be more in control of it. It helps us gain clarity about our work, and it also helps us identify some of the blind spots in our work. While pursuing success can have consequences, preventing failure carries less risk.
Inversion is a rare and crucial skill that we can all use to our advantage/benefit. Here is how you put it into practice. Write down the opposite of the problem you’re trying to solve. Instead of thinking about achieving success, think about managing failure. Instead of asking how to do something, ask how to not do it. Ask yourself: what is it that I want to avoid? Visualize negative outcomes. Look at your goals (success) and anti-goals (failure). Then, reconcile them. Sure, it’s unnatural to think of things that we don’t want, but identifying what doesn’t work for you helps you focus on things that do. In a way, as the writer James Clear puts it, the secret to unconventional thinking is to invert the status quo.
We need to plan for the best (success) and prepare for the worst (failure). Let me explain this principle with some examples. When you’re planning your week, think about what would make the week successful. Instead of asking what an ideal week would look like, ask what would it look like if it was a complete failure (in terms of not doing the things you wanted to get done)? Procrastinating on things, killing time, arbitrary web browsing, not scheduling the essential things, doing busy work, etc. The idea is to find out ways of identifying the things that would work as well as obstacles that might come up and have a plan ahead of time to overcome them.
Another example. Let’s say you’re trying to lose weight. You could ask yourself, what are the things that would make reaching your health/fitness goals a complete success and failure? Examples of failure could include eating unhealthy foods most of the time, giving in to food cravings/impulses, not exercising, and doing these things routinely. Then, make a plan ahead of time for the things you would do when faced with these challenges. For instance, if you’re craving a specific food, you know for sure that you’re not actually hungry and you’re eating to suppress your emotions. By the way, this principle applies equally to work, team meetings (process), dating, relationships, parenting, personal finance, business, and many more.
Write down the opposite of the problem you’re trying to solve and you’ll find that the solution might come to you more easily. While it may not always solve the problem for you, it will surely help you avoid trouble and is an easy way to improve.
As Munger has said, it’s remarkable how many long-term advantages we can gain by consistently trying to avoid being stupid instead of trying to be intelligent all the time.
Stop trying to be “successful”; instead, seek out ways to fail. Stop trying to do the “right things” all the time. Focus on things you don’t want to do (to get to the ones you do want) to make your project a success instead of trying to start and do all the right ones.