Ever stared at a problem for so long that you were like, “Okay this is it, this time my head really is going to explode?!” We’ve all been there. So let me let you in on a little problem-solving secret. It’s called inversion.
Inverting a problem means flipping it upside down. It means starting from the opposite end and trying to get back to the root of things and make a decision that way. When you invert a problem, you are defining the outcome you don’t want and then planning out the steps to avoid getting that result.
It’s a hugely valuable process that’s paid off for folks in the business world like Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, but one that also has practical applications for everyday life. Just wait til you hear how it can be applied to a very real, very tough problem that many of us (me 🙋♀️) face: going to the gym consistently.
As the billionaire business partner of Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger has clearly done a few things right in his 97 (!) years on this earth. People like Buffett and Bill Gates have even called Munger the smartest person they know.
This #throwback episode of Seeking Wisdom is all about something that will never go out of style – one of Munger’s go-to mental models: inversion.
Invert a Problem in Order to Solve It
Let’s break it down. Most people take a forward approach to problem-solving – you need to get something done, so you plan out the steps to follow that will get you to your desired end result. Easy enough.
Inversion is different. Inversion is more looking at things upside down and planning for the opposite of what you want to happen. So you reverse the equation and identify potential sources of failure up front. Here’s more from Charlie Munger.
“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. Tell me where I’m going to die, that is, so I don’t go there.”
Are you starting to see why Warren Buffett and Bill Gates (and DC) think this guy is so amazing?
Now for some real-world examples where inversion can really come in handy. First up – let’s say you have to give a presentation at work. Now, the forward-thinking approach would be to get all your ducks in a row, and maybe spend a healthy amount of time on Google looking up tips for giving great presentations.
And that’s all well and good. But you’re not really looking at the whole problem. To invert it, you’re essentially preparing for the worst – looking up all the things not to do so that you can make sure your presentation is a hit.
Inversion also has a place outside the office. Take going to the gym. In the episode, DG says he wants to go to the gym five days a week. To invert that, DC says DG needs to identify the things that would stop him from going to the gym every day. It could be a long list of excuses – he stayed up too late, drank at night, didn’t set an alarm, didn’t have his stuff ready, or didn’t have a workout plan. By inverting, DG acknowledges up front all the ways he could fail – so he actually hits his goal.
When you invert, you very quickly establish a clear plan of attack for what you need to do in order to get to your goal. DC says the beauty of inversion is when you start to layer these things on (versus trying to do everything all at once). Because what you’re doing is flipping the problem on its head and attacking it – systematically.
That Charlie Munger is certainly onto something 💡
Books Mentioned in This Episode:
- The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization by Peter Senge
- Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters by Richard Rumelt
- Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success by Brad Stulberg
- The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt
- Marketing Rebellion: The Most Human Company Wins by Mark Schaefer
- Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It by Chris Voss and Tahl Raz
- High Output Management by Andrew S. Grove
- Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company by Andrew S. Grove
Want to watch the full episode in all its glory? Check it out below – and make sure to hit the ‘subscribe’ button while you’re at it ⚡️
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in March 2019 and has been updated to reflect new information.