Personal Growth

Inversion Is a Thinking Technique Used By Billionaires

There's no one way to achieve success. But if you want to follow the success path of billionaire Charlie Munger, doing a little thing called inversion thinking will at least get you in the right mindset. Hint: Don't think about the glory.

Saving the Best for Last

The man we mentioned above, Charlie Munger, is the business partner of Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. His net worth is close to $2 billion, and while money isn't the sole definition of success, that number is pretty darn impressive. He's quoted as saying, "All I want to know is where I'm going to die, so I'll never go there." Though that may seem a little dark, the point he's trying to make is about the importance of avoiding the worst outcome. It's a tactic that has been called inversion.

Here's the deal: Consider your dream accomplishment for a moment, then focus in on its opposite. Concentrate on all the things you don't want to happen and all of the ways your path to that goal can fail. Then take action to prevent those downturns. This process of backward, failure-first thinking comes from German mathematician Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi. He famously said, "invert, always invert," recommending that "many hard problems are best solved when they are addressed backward."

Swimming Upstream

As Jacobi illustrates, this simple little mind hack can be used for more than just trying to achieve great Munger-style success. Got a tough problem to solve? Work backward, starting with the potential disaster first. The method is referenced in Josh Kaufman's book, "The First 20 Hours," in which he gives a super relatable example to help people really grasp inverted thinking:

"By studying the opposite of what you want, you can identify important elements that aren't immediately obvious. Take white-water kayaking. What would I need to know if I wanted to be able to kayak in a large, fast-moving, rock-strewn river?

Here's the inversion: What would it look like if everything went wrong?

  • I'd flip upside down underwater, and not be able to get back up.
  • I'd flood my kayak, causing it to sink or swamp, resulting in a total loss of the kayak.
  • I'd hit my head on a rock.
  • I'd lose my paddle, eliminating my maneuverability.
  • I'd eject from my kayak, get stuck in a hydraulic (a point in the river where the river flows back on itself, creating a loop like a washing machine), and not be able to get out.

If I managed to do all of these things at once in the middle of a raging river, I'd probably die — the worst-case scenario. This depressing line of thought is useful because it points to a few white-water kayaking skills that are probably very important:

  • Learning to roll the kayak right side up if it flips, without ejecting.
  • Learning how to prevent swamping the kayak if ejecting is necessary.
  • Learning how to avoid losing my paddle in rough water.
  • Learning and using safety precautions when rafting around large rocks.
  • Scouting the river before the run to avoid dangerous river features entirely.

This mental simulation also gives me a shopping list: I'd need to invest in a flotation vest, helmet, and other safety gear."

It might sound pessimistic, but analyzing all the ways your plan could fail might be the best way to ensure its success.

Check out Kaufman's entire book "The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast!" for more. The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto July 6, 2018

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