Inversion is a process of making decisions by thinking in reverse. Instead of thinking how to achieve the result, you list out all possible ways to fail at achieving the goal and then avoid all of them.
Charlie Munger once said, “All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there.” Yes, he cracked a joke with those words, but at the same time, he explained the method of inversion in a sentence. Instead of finding a magic potion of immortality, Munger’s technique to live forever was to never go to the place he’d die.
When Munger mentioned it, neither was he sharing the secret to achieve eternal life nor was he planning to live forever. Rather, he intended to guide people to use inversion to make decisions by avoiding mistakes.
The technique goes back to mathematics where Carl Gustav Jacobi used to solve complicated problems using the inverse. Instead of going by the traditional approach of solving a problem, he noticed that if he wrote down the opposite of the problem, he’d solve the problem more easily and quickly.
But the technique of inversion goes way back in history where people like Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca helped people avoid negative consequences by steering clear of any mistakes. They’d ask people to imagine the worst-case scenario, like losing all their money or falling sick. The fear of such consequences would encourage them to avoid the actions that would lead to such possibilities.
In this article, we’ll talk about the inversion technique, real-life examples, and ways to apply them in your day-to-day life.
- What is inversion?
- The problem of big ideas:
- Examples of applying inversion:
- Important aspects of inversion:
What is inversion?
Inversion is a decision-making process where you think of ways to achieve the opposite of your goal and then avoid them all. The approach aims to avoid small mistakes instead of looking for big ideas to achieve the result you’re aiming for.
The theory appears simple on paper, and as a result, most people ignore it as useless. But, when you apply it consistently to your decisions, you’ll realize how powerful it is. Inversion looks like a technique everyone would apply by default, but only a handful do.
The human mind likes to think of big ideas first because avoiding little mistakes seems obvious and inadequate. “Of course, I’ll work on them too. Those are minor details and won’t make a major difference anyway”, you say and shrug it off. But, you commit the mistakes again, and again, and again without your knowledge.
To avoid such errors, inversion uses the approach shown below:
- Step 1: Identify your goal
- Step 2: Invert the goal(Or write down ways to fail at that goal)
- Step 3: Avoid all the items listed in step 2
“So that’s your fascinating technique genius?”, you exclaim. Yes, it is. As simple as it sounds, inversion forces you to think in a different direction altogether.
Let’s go through the three steps with an example to understand how your brain approaches a goal with and without inversion.
Step 1: Identify your goal
Let’s say your goal is to have a larger sum of money
Without inversion, you would approach the goal with big ideas such as:
- Earn a promotion
- Start a business
- Invest in multibagger stocks
- Build a diversified investment portfolio
These are valid ways to make a large sum of money, but they take considerable effort.
Instead, inversion helps you avoid bloopers that harm your progress towards your goal. Let’s put that in practice:
Step 2: Invert the goal
How to fail at making a large sum of money and go bankrupt
- Spendthrift habits
- Lack of financial discipline
- Buy unnecessary things from malls and shopping websites
- Use credit cards to buy stuff when you’re out of cash
- Don’t save any money at the end of the month
When you apply inversion, notice how the action items that come to you are mind are entirely different from the big ideas. Your mind dives into the smaller mistakes you make.
Step 3: Avoid all the items listed in step 2
To make money, you can begin with avoiding the habits which are eating out of your savings regularly, such as buying on impulse and mindless usage of your credit card. If you cultivate financial discipline and put aside a small sum of money each month, your net worth will compound over the years.
Using inversion doesn’t mean you must ignore big ideas altogether. You should aim for unique ideas but also pay attention to the little mistakes. Combining them both leads to compelling short-term and long-term results.
The problem of big ideas:
If you try to achieve a goal by hunting for big ideas, chances are you won’t find any. Due to a lack of big ideas, you give up on the goal itself.
Let’s also consider the other possibility where you find a big idea. But, big ideas take an extensive effort. As a result, procrastination runs amok, and you fail to take any action towards your goal. The task looks so overwhelming that you fail to take even the first step.
When you apply inversion, you’ll spot easy ideas to get started and build momentum.
Examples of applying inversion:
Inversion is so simple that you can apply it to any goal or decision, no matter how big or small. Let’s go through various examples of inverting the goal to avoid mistakes.
1. Making a presentation at work
Goal: To make a successful presentation that impresses the audience
Invert the goal: How can I make a terrible presentation?
- Grammatical errors
- A technical flaw in the slides
- Incorrect data
- Going blank in the middle of the presentation
Even if you pull off a speech like Martin Luther King Jr, your presentation will be unsuccessful if you make the mistakes listed above.
2. Deciding on an investment portfolio
Goal: To make investments while making sure that I don’t lose my money
Invert the goal: How can I make an investment where I have a high risk of losing my capital?
- Highly volatile stocks
- High-risk mutual funds
- An investment that yields high returns at high risks(cryptocurrency, lottery, gambling, etc)
If you want your capital to remain safe, you’re better off avoiding such risky investments.
Please note: These investments aren’t bad, but unsuitable for the goal we began with i.e to keep the capital safe
3. Start your venture
Goal: To quit my full-time job and start a business
Invert the goal: How can I fail at starting my business and remain an employee forever?
- Procrastinate action every day/week/month
- Don’t spend any time taking the first step towards the business
- Letting daily schedule consume all your time
- Spend weekends and free time to have fun, party, relax and take a break from the busy work week
- Not take any risks
If you want to quit you have to avoid making such mistakes. You might react to bullet 4 saying, “But I do need a break after slogging my ass off, don’t I?” Well, that’s for you to decide. Some prefer to work till the point of exhaustion to achieve their goal, while some others choose to push it to the next day.
If you want to change your situation, you cannot stick to your usual routine and expect things to magically change one day. If you don’t change, nothing else will.
That said, many people prefer the happiness and comfort of the present over the hard work which can provide for a better tomorrow. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
4. Avoiding Covid-19
Goal: How to avoid getting infected
Invert the goal: What can I do to get infected?
- Don’t wear a mask in public
- Step out of the house for every little thing
- Don’t get vaccinated
- Travel to distant locations
- Visit places with large crowds
- Don’t follow social distancing
If you avoid all these, you drastically reduce your chances of infection.
5. Improving your productivity
You can apply inversion to improve your productivity too. Whenever I talk to people looking to get things done, I often hear the concern that they’re unable to hold focus. Most of them are looking for a magic bullet or a sophisticated method that will forever change the way they function.
Unfortunately, such a solution doesn’t exist. To be productive you cannot look for one big idea which will transform your life forever.
You will skyrocket your productivity if you eliminate all the little mistakes which eat up your focus. In short, one massive idea or significant change won’t make you productive. The more you hunt for one magic pill, the longer you will remain unproductive.
So, let’s apply inversion to improve your productivity.
Goal: To improve your productivity so that you get things done
Invert the goal: How can I harm my productivity and get nothing done
- Allow any form of distraction to take control over me
- Spend time on Netflix, Youtube endlessly
- Browse through your phone repeatedly
- Get distracted when the phone beeps or vibrates
- Pick the phone up and scroll through the newsfeed for no reason
- Postpone tasks for the future
- Take long breaks after small tasks
By avoiding all these small attributes, you can drastically improve your productivity. As a first step, if you keep your phone away from sight on DND, your focus will increase. But most people fail to do so because they have one reason or another to keep their phone right by their side. No matter what your reason is, you can find a way to keep your phone away if you want to.
Until you figure out a way to eliminate these little distractions, any productivity tool, no matter how powerful, will only make a subpar difference.
Important aspects of inversion:
To apply inversion, here are a few pointers and guidelines which come in handy.
1. Say no:
Since inversion is more about avoiding mistakes than seeking brilliance, when you practice it in real life you will have to avoid specific decisions and actions. Such choices will include and affect other people, therefore, you will have to say no, turn down requests/offers, and reject things.
If you’re uncomfortable saying no, you should practice how to go about it without feeling guilty and hurting other people.
2. Be honest and spontaneous with the inversion process
When you’re listing down ways to fail at the goal, be honest and spontaneous.
Don’t allow your mind to process too far and analyze too deep. If you do, chances are, you’ll start hunting for big ideas again.
Also, don’t use inversion to reach outcomes that you’ve already thought of. Instead, let your thoughts flow and your mind wander. Write down anything that comes to your mind, no matter how obvious and simple and then, boom, avoid them altogether.
3. Don’t underestimate the importance of avoiding little mistakes
When you list the mistakes to avoid, many of them will appear ordinary. “Of course I’ll avoid them”, you tell yourself. But, the more you underestimate them, the higher your chances of committing them. What is simple to not do, is also simple to do.
Avoiding little mistakes yields returns in little ways which compound in enormous ways over time.
4. Don’t feel discouraged if you lack big ideas
Most goals do not need big ideas if you allow enough time and work with discipline.
A common mistake people make is, aim for a big goal, look for a big idea and give up when they cannot find one.
Instead, invert the goal, and start with the baby steps of avoiding the mistakes. The big ideas will follow eventually if you persist long enough.
For example: Take the goal of making 10 million dollars. If you start with the big ideas, and can’t think of one, you feel demotivated and give up.
Instead, if you start with cutting down your expenses and building an extra source of income, you’re making progress. Sure, those steps alone won’t fetch you 10 million dollars, but you’ll have the momentum to keep moving. One day or another, you’ll find other supplementary ideas and methods to achieve your target.
5. Small changes can be hard too
Not all the same changes are easy to implement. Even if the task takes minuscule effort, the change associated can stop you from taking the first step. Besides, because the job appears simple to do, the tendency to procrastinate it for the future also creeps in.
Even if you religiously make the little changes, noticeable results won’t show up immediately. You need to have the patience to see through the journey based on the belief that your system will work.
The world has always placed the limelight on big ideas and pushed aside the importance of avoiding little mistakes. But, talk to any successful individual and they’ll tell you how they had to put in painstaking effort in increments to reach where they have.
Big ideas are hard to spot, difficult to implement, and challenging to sustain. In comparison, avoiding mistakes is easy to spot, simple to implement, and effortless to sustain.
So, stop looking for big ideas alone. Avoid stupidity and you’ll notice the results yourself.
Inversion: The Crucial Thinking Skill Nobody Ever Taught You. James Clear. (2020, February 4). https://jamesclear.com/inversion.
Inversion: The Power of Avoiding Stupidity. Farnam Street. (2020, January 25). https://fs.blog/2013/10/inversion/.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.