What is 1% Smarter?
Invert, always invert: Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backward. What happens if all our plans go wrong? Where don’t we want to go, and how do you get there? Instead of looking for success, make a list of how to fail instead – through sloth, envy, resentment, self-pity, entitlement, all the mental habits of self-defeat. Avoid these qualities and you will succeed.Charlie Munger
The principle of inversion is a mental model that Berkshire Hathaway vice chairman Charlie Munger swears by.
Munger is famous for his tongue-in-cheek quote which goes something like this:
All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.
The origin to this line of thinking is often credited to German mathematician Carl Gustav Jacobi who applied it to solving difficult math problems.
The English translated form of this principle goes something like this:
Invert, always invert.
It’s a mental model which suggests that sometimes to find solutions to problems, a better way to solve it is to invert the problem. Flip the problem on its head, turn it upside. See it from backwards and forwards.
This is especially useful if you are getting stuck while thinking of a problem in a linear or chronological fashion. Oftentimes all that is needed to get unstuck is to just start at the end rather than the beginning.
As Stephen Covey puts it in his classic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “begin with the end in mind.”
Here are some good examples of the application of the inversion principle.
Applied to life in general
This is again taken from Covey’s 7 Habits, where he quotes Joseph Addison:
When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tombs of the parents themselves, I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow; when I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions, and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great Day when we shall all of us be Contemporaries, and make our appearance together.
Covey reminds us that it is easy to just get lost in thinking about how to solve the problems of life and living in the now and present. This is natural since we live life going forward in time. But you would do well to sometimes fast forward and think about life backwards. Kind of like the movie about Benjamin Button I suppose, who ages backwards.
Applied to finance and investing
- Instead of just trying to pick winners in say the stock market, you could do well to just avoid losers.
- Protect the downside and the upside will take care of itself.
- Don’t just focus on the potential gains but deeply analyze the risks.
Applied to intelligence
Instead of just trying to be smart, another valid strategy could be to try to avoid stupidity or as Farnham Street puts it:
Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.
If you’re to take anything away from inversion let it be this: Spend less time trying to be brilliant and more time trying to avoid obvious stupidity. The kicker? Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.
Applied to tidying up and decluttering
This is a great example of the application of this principle by Marie Kondo as observed by James Clear.
Marie Kondo, author of the blockbuster best-seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, uses inversion to help people declutter their homes. Her famous line is, “We should be choosing what we want to keep, not what we want to get rid of.”
In other words, the default should be to give anything away that does not “spark joy” in your life. This shift in mindset inverts decluttering by focusing on what you want to keep rather than what you want to discard.
Applied in the medical industry
For centuries, medicine has depended on the age-old principle of “First do no harm.”
This principle comes from the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, from one of his works called Of the Epidemics.
The physician must be able to tell the antecedents, know the present, and foretell the future — must mediate these things, and have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm.
Similar language is found in the famous Hippocratic Oath that medical students need to take before becoming a doctor.
I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous.
Applied to blaming and criticizing others
One of the easiest things to do in life is to only look at the fault of others and not our own.
That is innate human nature. As a result this has unfortunately led to lots of prejudice and hatred in the world.
Now if only people would invert and first look at changing themselves before they try to change others, would things be better in the world?
Here’s what the Bible says about this.
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.Matthew 7:1-3 NIV
- Invert, always invert – when approaching a problem, if you are not making solid progress looking at it the “usual” way, try inverting.
- This has wide applicability and has been and can be applied in many different disciplines.
Optional Extra Reading
- Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger
- The Great Mental Models: General Thinking Concepts
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