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What I'm reading: Thinking backward and the power of avoiding obvious stupidity

By Sam Instone - January 19, 2023

Warren Buffet's business partner, Charlie Munger, once said,

“All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.” That thinking was inspired by the German mathematician Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi.

He often solved difficult problems by following a simple strategy: inversion.

Munger said:

“[Jacobi] knew that it is in the nature of things that many hard problems are best solved when they are addressed backward.”

While Jacobi applied this mainly to math, it's one of the most powerful mental models we have at our disposal.

It's not enough to think about difficult problems one way.

You need to come at them from different angles.

Forwards and backwards.

Only then can you reveal hidden beliefs about the problem you are trying to solve.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

Maybe you're a business owner who wants to improve innovation in your organisation.

Thinking 'normally' or 'forwards', you’d think about the many things you could do to promote innovation.

But what happens if you look at the problem 'backwards'?

You’d think about the many things you could do to discourage innovation.

Things you'd ideally want to avoid.

Sounds simple right?

I wonder if your organisation does some of those ‘stupid’ things currently?

The other week I wrote about how to live a good life.

Inverting this, you might think about what you could do to ensure a miserable existence. 

Presumably, you'd want to avoid those things too. 

Thinking both forward and backward results in some action.

They are, however, different. 

Generally speaking, thinking forward increases the odds that you’ll cause harm.

This is the CEO who comes armed with solutions to solve a problem, but in doing so, creates more problems. 

Luckily, for them at least, they’re rarely around to witness the chaos they created. 

Thinking backwards, or inversion is less likely to cause harm.

Inverting the problem won’t always solve it, but it will help you avoid trouble.

Some think of it as avoiding stupidity filter.

It’s not cool, but it’s a very easy way to improve.

So what does this mean in practice?

Simply put, thinking about the opposite of what you want doesn’t come naturally to most people.

And yet many of the smartest people in history, do this naturally.

This great mental model helps improve understanding of the problem.

By forcing you to consider different perspectives.

Seeking brilliance isn't easy.

Instead - spend more time trying to avoid obvious stupidity.

To end with one more quote from Charlie:

"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."

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