If you ask 10 people “how to be successful”, odds are you’ll get 10 different answers, depending on the person’s background, profession, education, location, etc.
Definitions of success are often based on wealth, happiness, or achievement of some kind, but are difficult to measure and navigate towards.
But what if we flip the question around? What if instead, we ask, “what would make me unsuccessful?”
It turns out this is a much more useful question, and much easier to answer.
What is Inversion?
Inversion is a mental model and strategy popularized in modern times by Charlie Munger, the billionaire investor.
Inversion involves looking at a problem from the reverse direction, thinking through a problem “backwards.”
“How to be successful?” becomes “how to I avoid failure?”
“How to get rich?” becomes “How do I avoid becoming poor?”
“How do I become happy?” is instead “how do I avoid being unhappy?”
You can apply this powerful strategy to many domains.
Knowledge by Subtraction
“In life, antifragility is reached by not being a sucker.” –Nassim Taleb, Antifragile
Taleb notes that it is much harder to know what is right than what is wrong:
“...we know a lot more what is wrong than what is right, or, phrased according to the fragile/robust classification, negative knowledge (what is wrong, what does not work) is more robust to error than positive knowledge (what is right, what works). So knowledge grows by subtraction much more than by addition…” –Nassim Taleb, Antifragile
How does this apply to inversion? Often we want a particular result–usually a success of some kind–but there are so many possible paths that it’s hard to reach a conclusion.
It’s much easier to answer the question “what does failure look like?” and then avoid that.
Thinking From First Principles
Inversion is also powerful because simply reframing the question in the reverse often forces us to think from first principles.
"When Charlie thinks about things, he starts by inverting. To understand how to be happy in life Charlie will study how to make life miserable; to examine how a business becomes big and strong, Charlie first studies how businesses decline and die; most people care more about how to succeed in the stock market, Charlie is most concerned about why most have failed in the stock market.” —Li Lu, China Entrepreneur Magazine, 2010 (taken from Charlie Munger - The Complete Investor by Tren Griffin)
Thinking from first principles is a topic on its own, but it involves stripping a problem down to the most basic assumptions and then building a hypothesis from there.
Elon Musk, Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett and Peter Thiel are all well-known first-principle thinkers, and it has allowed them to identify opportunities over and over that others have missed, because others accepted “common knowledge”, and didn’t think from first principles.
What Else Can Be Inverted?
Just about anything.
Want to eat healthier? Try reducing the number of unhealthy choices you make.
Want to work fewer hours? Try reducing distractions that prevent you from working effectively.
Want to become wealthier? Try reducing the amount you spend.
Trying to save more? Think about how you could negotiate a raise at work, instead of reducing your spending (see? It works both ways).
You can invert when building habits too, by thinking about how to stop doing things you don’t want to do, rather than start doing new things.
Invert, Always Invert
Next time you are faced with a problem, try the simple tactic of inversion. State the problem in the opposite or negative way.
You’ll be surprised how powerful this technique can be for reframing problems.
“Think forwards and backwards - Invert, always invert” –Charlie Munger, Poor Charlie’s Almanack
Avoiding poor choices is often much easier than making the “right” one.