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What I'm reading #15: A secret to solving the most difficult problems

By Sam Instone - April 13, 2022

If you know even a little about Elon Musk...

You know he is one of the most optimistic people around in technology.

Some even call him a 'genius who can be overly optimistic.’

From electric cars to Mars colonies, Musk is betting his time and money to take us there.

However, when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI), he sounds different.

He's called AI "humanity’s biggest existential threat” and compared it to "summoning the demon."

When everyone's expecting Al to solve our biggest problems, Musk is imagining how it may destroy us.

Although his claims about Al may be exaggerated...

They remind me of an important mental model... inverting questions.

Asking "how can Al destroy us?", instead of “how can Al benefit us?”.

Inversion is the secret to solving the most difficult problems in life.

With problems come inversion opportunities

Inversion is a way of thinking about what we want, by considering it in reverse.

In other words, what might prevent us from getting what we want.

This idea was popularised by the 19th-century mathematician Carl Jacobi.

When faced with a difficult problem, Jacobi reminded his students to "invert, always invert.

Trying to solve the problem by addressing it backwards.

Even before Jacobi, some 2000 years ago, the Stoic philosophers used a technique called ‘premeditatio malorum' - premeditation of evils and troubles that might lie ahead.

The goal was to imagine what could go wrong in life ahead of time, and in doing so, overcome their fears of negative experiences and make better plans to prevent them.

in 2007, Harvard Business Review wrote about how to perform a premortem, a powerful tool for businesses to use in their project planning. 

In modern times, Charlie Munger explained inversion as:

"A lot of success in life and business comes from knowing what you really want to avoid - like early death and a bad marriage."

Inversion forces us to redefine the problem, by defining the outcomes we don't want.

This, in turn, changes our perspective.

It opens new or complementary sets of solutions that we may have not considered with our original, direct approach.

Jeff Bezos used inversion to solve his dilemma of leaving a high-paying job to start Amazon in 1995:

“I wanted to project myself forward to age 80 and say: Okay, now I’m looking back on my life. I want to have minimised the number of regrets I have. I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this...
I knew that if I failed I wouldn't regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. I knew that that would haunt me every day, and so, when I thought about it that way it was an incredibly easy decision."

Inversion can be useful when you are managing your money.

Instead of asking “how do I pick the best investments to earn great returns?", ask “how do I ensure I lose my capital permanently?".

Then avoid doing those things.

Instead of asking “how do I live a happy life?" ask “how do I live a miserable life?".

Then avoid doing those things.

Inverting a problem may not always help you solve it, but it will help you see it in a different light.

Sometimes, that's all you need.

Further reading

The Psychology of Money' by Morgan Housel

Perform a premortem - Harvard Business Review

How to safeguard your family’s financial future

What I'm reading #14: The only scorecard that matters

Goals vs. capital: Are yours aligned?

Retirement planning for affluent expats: The right balance between spending and saving


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