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Inversion – How to avoid a failure?

Have you heard of the story called – “Appointment at Samara”?


A certain rich merchant was walking through the market place of Baghdad when, standing across the street, he suddenly saw the figure of Death, beckoning him.
The terrified man ran home, mounted his fastest horse, and raced five hundred miles to Samara. Later that night, there was a knock at the door. When the man answered it, there stood Death.
"Why did you beckon me in the market place of Baghdad today?" asked the man. "I did not beckon you." replied Death. "I was merely surprised to see you, for I knew that tonight, we had an appointment in Samara.


What is an Inversion process?

Though a little morbid, but had you been in the place of that merchant then what would you have done?
Our actions might be similar to the merchant’s in this case, that is to avoid the negative consequence.


Ok let’s go back to our childhood.

Where in school, we all had that one strict teacher.
And we also had that one unfortunate day, when we forgot to complete the strict teacher’s homework.
Which resulted in us getting punished or face an embarrassment in front of the class.



Post such an eventful day, we would hardly forget to complete homework for that subject.

What happened there?
In order to avoid future embarrassments and punishments, we become disciplined.


This type of thinking is known as Inverse Thinking or thinking in backward direction.

We can break it down into 3-steps

What Am I doing?
What bad thing can happen to or by my act?
How can I avoid it?


Forward-Backward Thinking Process


By default, we have a forward-thinking process, which means we are focused on the event and parameters defining its success.

What Am I doing? – Writing an article
How can I make it brilliant? – Be creative. Use stories, quotations etc.

And then I would start looking for the stories fitting my purpose.
Which means, I might as well digress from the topic or might write with complexity or my readers might just not find it useful.

Let’s see it from a backward-thinking process

What Am I doing? - Writing an article
What bad things can happen to my task? –Readers might find it useless, it might be too boring
How can I avoid that? – Make it relevant to the readers, include personal anecdotes, explain things in simplest of form

By focusing on what to avoid I don’t have to wander in search of brilliance (which is very subjective!) All I have to do is avoid these blunders and automatically the output will most likely be good.

It is not enough to think about difficult problems one way. You need to think about them forwards and backward. Inversion often forces you to uncover hidden beliefs about the problem you are trying to solve.

“Indeed,” says Charlie Munger, the business partner of Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, “many problems can't be solved forward.”

Inverting the problem won't always solve it, but it will help you avoid trouble.
You can think of it as the avoiding stupidity filter. It's not sexy but it's a very easy way to improve

Avoiding stupidity is the first step towards seeking brilliance


Inversion was used by great thinkers in the past as well

Interestingly, this term or thinking process is nothing new. In the past great thinkers reaped the benefits of using this process to their success

The German mathematician Carl Jacobi made a number of important contributions to different scientific fields during his career. In particular, he was known for his ability to solve hard problems by following a strategy of man muss immer umkehren or, loosely translated, “invert, always invert.”

Jacobi believed that one of the best ways to clarify your thinking was to restate math problems in inverse form. He would write down the opposite of the problem he was trying to solve and found that the solution often came to him more easily

Benjamin Franklin’s famous Virtues system, where he tracked 13-virtues he wanted to have, can be another example of inversion.
Here, instead of marking a day with success, he would mark a virtue which he couldn’t follow during the day. Then at the end of the week, he’ll reflect on the failures and try to avoid them for the next week


Practicing Inversion in daily life


Situation 1 – Public Speaking


We normally think (and eventually end up getting anxious) around success of the event.
Our Google searches appears like – “Dress code for guest speaker”, “Body movement of great speakers”, “How to use voice modulation” and 45 other such queries.

The intent of all of these queries is to view event in the forward direction i.e. Next week I have a speech and after an hour of my speech, I should be a hero.

Now let’s look it from a backward process. I just had a speech and it was horrible. The crowd dozed off, I got fumbled while presenting, my speech got overtime and few more.

Then going further back, you have a week to avoid all these failures. Our searches changed to “How to speak clearly”, “How not to fumble”, “How not to sound boring” and so on.

Come the presentation day, you will be confident that you won’t look stupid. You have tricks to avoid the failures. Maybe you might not become the star after the speech, but you won’t be a dud either.



Situation 2 – Work

I think, sometimes we take our jobs too seriously, that’s a good thing until it starts impacting other spheres of your life. Once that happen, we feel tremendously pressured and it affects our performance at the work as well.

How can we avoid that?

How to avoid becoming miserable at workplace?
How to avoid doing long hours?
How to avoid reworking?
How not to neglect my family?


Answers to all of these questions will give you an alternative perspective to maintain your work-life balance



Situation 3 – Relationships


Inverting a good relationship will show you how to avoid the bad one.

What are the reasons for the failed marriages? – Lack of affection, respect or of trust. No individual time. No co-operation.
Now avoid all of them
How can you become the bad parent? – Neglecting child needs. Being too busy in your work. Pampering your child too much. Giving not due attention to your child. Curbing kids’ curiosity.
How to become a good parent? – By avoiding all these to the least and for sure.



Situation 4 – Productivity

We think of productivity as a magic pill which will help us do everything qualitatively and in the lesser time. And yes, by being productive we can achieve all those things. However, most of the time, our method to become productive is flawed.
We generally spend lot of time in reading self-help books, taking pills, reading too much of “25 good habits of successful people” like articles and then ending up feeling good (But as you know actions help, feelings won’t)

Alternate way can be to think from an inversion.

“What are the ways I can be distracted?” – Too much of Social Media
“How can I avoid it” – By throwing your phone out of the window (just kidding), turning off the notifications, while working keep your phone on Flight mode, Leaving your phone in the other room
Just do these things to avoid getting distracted


Situation 5 – Decluttering

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.”

So, instead of waiting for the months to let things become useless and then only you will remove, keep those things (or better purchase those things) which certainly you will use.


Take Home Message

Inversion is doing the opposite of what you do not desire

How can I avoid anxiety from public speaking? How can I control my anger? How can I overcome my fears?

My recent search looks like – “Top regrets people have in their 30s” so that before entering 30s I should have a way to avoid these regrets

Thinking in opposite direction will be tough, but believe me, it’ll be fruitful

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