Invert, Always Invert

Inverse Thinking or Inversion is a Mental Model, a way of thinking made popular in modern times by Charlie Munger. Inverse Thinking such as Charlie Munger recommends is essentially flipping a problem upside down to gain a new perspective.

Munger essentially says that avoiding stupidity is easier than trying to be brilliant.

In a letter to Wesco Shareholders, where he was at the time Chairman (and found in the excellent Damn Right!: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger), Munger writes:

“Wesco continues to try more to profit from always remembering the obvious than from grasping the esoteric. … 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. There must be some wisdom in the folk saying, `It’s the strong swimmers who drown.’”

And there is so much wisdom embedded in that quote that I’ve printed it out and attached it to my wall.

Inverse Thinking is an idea or mental model from mathematics where it was popularized by a German Mathematician who lived in the 1800’s who favored inverting equations in order to gain new mathematical problem solving insight. Inversion has applications beyond mathematics; however, we are able to apply the principle in ways that help us set better goals, deal with potential threats, improve relationships, benefit our finances, and even think more creatively.

When I first learned of this mental model, I didn’t realize how powerful it could be. As I have studied it more, I have begun to realize that inversion is a rare and crucial skill that nearly all great thinkers use to their advantage.

A business owner can ask themselves, “What would someone do every day if they were a terrible business owner?” A great business owner would probably avoid those things.

By knowing what we need to avoid we can better orient ourselves towards achieving our goal.

A business leader concerned with the creativity and innovativeness of the organization could ask, “How could we make this company less creative?” By paying attention to the answers this question generates and steering clear of those practices, the organization may be better able to innovate and generate creative solutions.

Creative solutions can apply to relationships and marriage as well. Invert a good marriage in order to see what habits and behaviors could lead to a poor relationship and then actively avoid those behaviors.

The right behaviors can lead to good financial habits as well. Instead of focusing entirely on how to make lots of money, apply Inverse Thinking and consider the ways in which you might lose money and then avoid them and you will be well on your way towards financial success.

Sometimes you prepare for success by preparing for the worst. Ask yourself, “What could cause this to go terribly wrong? Be aware of those concerns and try to steer clear of them as you move forward towards your goal.

When using inversion for working towards your goal, it may work best if you balance the positive and negative aspects behind this model. What are the most important things I want to achieve? Vs. What are the worst things I should try to avoid? You can then steer yourself towards the positive while doing your best to avoid the negative. It’s just like driving a car, you should focus on where you want the car to go but also be aware of the other vehicles to avoid.

Inverse Thinking can be a potent critical thinking tool when applied logically but it may also have uses when applied to other ways of thinking such as those taught regarding spiritual principles such as the Law of Attraction.

Law of Attraction teacher Neville Goddard teaches that in order to attract what we desire into our lives we must feel and imagine ourselves as though we already have our wish fulfilled.

In the case of attracting prosperity, it would involve feeling, thinking, and imagining as if we already possessed the wealth and prosperity we desired.

When applying Inverse Thinking to Neville Goddard’s teaching, we would ask, “what would  think or feel to be true that would have the opposite effect than creating wealth and prosperity in my life?

In this case, we would feel and imagine ourselves as being too poor to afford this, or not having enough money for that, and we would think, speak, and act along those lines. How many times have you found yourself saying, “I can’t afford this” or “we don’t have enough money for that. Now you know what to avoid.

Inverse Thinking can even be used for more than just knowing what to avoid. It can also be used for deeper more creative thinking as you ponder deeper meanings in theory, philosophy, or elsewhere. Let us consider a Biblical maxim, Do to others as you would have others do to you.

We could look at this from the opposite direction, which would yield: do to yourself what you would not do to others. This becomes an interesting thought experiment where we can now ponder this wisdom from a different and perhaps new perspective which in this case goes from our moral obligation to others to whether self-compassion is necessary.

Whether thinking inversely in this manner actually yields worthwhile results will be up to the thinker themselves, as often it simply yields nonsense, however one can not deny that inverse thinking has the capacity to offer potentially new creative insights when applied in novel ways.

Now let’s review the import points of what we have covered. Inverse thinking is a mental model popularized by Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s business partner. Inverse Thinking takes something such as a question and flips it around or inverts it. 

Where at first one may ask something such as, “How can I get rich?” and instead asks, “How can I avoid being poor? Inverse Thinking can be used for various reasons and in various ways such as goal setting, mathematics, threat avoidance, self-improvement, relationships, financial analysis, and even improved creative insights.

Knowing all that you do about Inverse Thinking, now you are better equipped to consider the problems you encounter from now on, but “why now?”, or perhaps we should ask, “now what?”

As a product management professional, I am often tasked with the goal of creating a roadmap. Since I am not a fortune teller, and cannot predict the future, the inversion principle helps me critically think of paths to avoid and build a roadmap that if not brilliant, is atleast not stupid!

What did you think?