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  • Writer's pictureJalal Ali

Think Backwards and Avoid Stupidity in Life and Career



“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

— Charlie Munger

There is nothing more satisfying than being brilliant, but there is nothing more rewarding than to avoid stupidity. Carl Jacobi, a German mathematician, made a number of important contributions to mathematics including: Number Theory, Elliptic Function, etc. which are far beyond my ability to understand. However, what I think is important is Jacobi’s extraordinary innate ability in algebraic development. In particular, he believed that many mathematical problems can be solved by re-expressing them in inverse form. He is known for his mantra, “invert, always invert.”

Several successful billionaires including Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Charlie Munger used the inversion model to solve and/or avoid problems and stupidity.

“Start With the Customer and Work Backward” —  Jeff Bezos

“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.” —  Charlie Munger

But, how do you apply this inversion model in your day to day life? To address this, you need to have two questions in mind:

1. What can go wrong?

This question is extremely important if you wish to be proactive in avoiding potential risks and problems. In the words of Charlie Munger:

“Tell me where I’m going to die, so I will never go there.” 

Here are some guidelines to think about:

  • Think of all the ways your plan/project could go wrong and how you can avoid that. Spending time to find ways you can win is important, but finding ways not to lose is even more important.

  • Identify obstacles and what you can do to avoid those obstacles. And finally, ask yourself, is it wise to go ahead with the plan with known obstacles?

  • Learn about what didn’t work in the past and why, and avoid those mistakes. Remember, repeating the same mistakes is sheer stupidity when we have new ones to make. Always remember what Otto von Bismarck, first Chancellor of the German Empire between 1871 and 1890, said:

“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

2. What is stopping you?

The second question focuses on understanding and solving hard and complex problems by thinking backwards. But, how do you think backwards to solve problems? Let’s take a look at some examples:

Let’s say you are trying to make your department or organization more profitable.

  • In thinking forward, you may think of new business, products, services etc. you can introduce to increase revenue and profit.

  • In thinking backwards, you will focus on what is preventing increased profit. Perhaps your culture doesn’t encourage cost-efficiency. Perhaps your appraisal system does not reward profitability.

Now let’s say you wish to raise well-disciplined kids.

  • In thinking forward, you may want to find all the ways you can introduce to make your kids more disciplined.

  • In thinking backwards, you will want to know what behaviors and habits your kids need to avoid in order to become well-disciplined.

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