Inversion: Avoiding the Opposite
Episode #7 of the course Mental models: How to make better decisions by John Robin
Let me say what today’s mental model is not about:
There is nothing about success or results. Instead, it will be about avoiding failure and undesirable outcomes.
This mental model, called Inversion, is a key model used by many successful thinkers, including billionaire investor Charlie Munger, one of Warren Buffett’s associates.
What Is Inversion and Why Is It True?
Inversion is all about avoidance.
In his pioneering work through the 1820s and 1830s, the famous mathematician Carl Jacobi approached hard problems using this mental model. His motto:
“Invert, always invert.”
Instead of seeking the problem, he tried to find the opposite of the problem, then prove it false. Most times, it worked.
Many other great thinkers also use this mental model. The iconic Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, following the Stoic method, practiced premeditatio malorum, which is Latin for “premeditation of evils.” In business and in politics, when deliberating on how to proceed, it is far more efficient to contemplate the ways not to proceed.
Here’s Bayesian Updating coming back again. When making predictions about the future, we gain more accuracy through discarding the wrong assumptions, continually updating as we progress.
Inversion works as a mental model because it forces us to see the problem and its relevance, rather than just a blind objective that might have a vague purpose and low relevance.
Instead of seeking results, look at what is in the way and then work on how to avoid those.
If I am always $200/month short of paying my bills, instead of thinking about how to get that $200, I can invert the problem: How can I reduce my bills by $200? This leads to the question: What must I avoid for this to happen?
Probably the most powerful application of Inversion for me has been with reading. Initially, I wanted to become smarter. This overwhelmed me because I didn’t know what I should be reading, and I approached it like a perfectionist.
Instead, I inverted the problem: Read to become less ignorant.
Suddenly, there was no end to what I could read, because anything and everything read with this mindset has value, since the objective isn’t to boost a preconceived sense of intelligence, but rather to deconstruct a false sense of intelligence (which is the true obstacle and often a source of prejudices that prevent one from seeing beyond one’s biases).
Inverting this problem cultivated humility and curiosity, which has led me to more transformative moments as I read. Even the simplest details can lead to powerful insights!
And this is just one example of inverting a problem. You can do this with anything in your life that seems difficult.
Do you want to exercise more? Instead, ask yourself how you can stop getting less fit.
What factors are leading you to get less fit? How can you address those factors? (And why does this matter?)
Inverting the problem helps you understand the underlying issue you’re trying to address.
In my case with reading, “getting smarter” is an arbitrary, egotistical goal, whereas “reducing ignorance” is a fundamental problem of utmost relevance, and that will inform what I read (and how I process it) differently.
For exercising, there could be numerous reasons you think you should haul yourself to the gym. But when you invert the problem and think about your core needs to be healthy and feel better, you can think about how to address these issues from the ground up. These might relate to self-image, improving diet, and getting more active throughout the day.
Trips to the gym aren’t the only answer! You can do stretches or calisthenics at home, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or add in a brisk afternoon walk on your coffee break. You can put to bed the image you had of getting as big as the Hulk because you realize that’s not necessary (and is an enormous waste of time and energy unless you are a competitive athlete).
Inversion is a mental model that allows us to think about an objective in reverse, which is often the way to get to the heart of the problem we are trying to solve with our intention. Usually, you gain a different and more relevant understanding of what you are trying to do.
Step 1: Take one problem you continually can’t make progress on.
Step 2: Invert it. One trick to looking at a problem in reverse is to take its opposite and how not to do that. For example, for “eat healthier,” the opposite is “eat poorly,” and not doing that would be “stop eating poorly.”
Step 3: Make this another problem you track weekly, applying Bayesian Updating to arrive at desired results.
Stay tuned for tomorrow, when we’ll cover another syndrome, this one relating to doing.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini
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