Invert

“All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there.”
– Charlie Munger

This is one of my favourite quotes from Charlie.  It’s apparently an old farmer’s maxim and perfectly sums up one of Charlie’s most beloved ideas for approaching life in a witty, paradoxical statement.  Its spirit follows that of Jacobi[1] who used to say “Invert, always invert”, a phrase Charlie often quotes.  The big idea here is that hard problems should be looked at backwards in order to gain insight into the solution.  If you’ve ever tried solving one of these puzzles, you’ll immediately recognize the benefit of this approach.

The genius of this approach is that it can be generalized to so many different situations.  In Charlie’s pithy quote, he sums up how to live a happy life.  Working backwards: “How would I live a terrible life?”  Not too difficult to imagine that: drug addiction, sexually transmitted disease, tragic totally avoidable death/injury due to dangerous activities, I’m sure you can think of some more big ones.  So if you can avoid those things in life, you’re on you way!  Of course, there are many more things to avoid like unreliability, sloth, envy, greed, jealousy, lack of passion, lack of sleep etc.  But this approach gives some new insight on how to lead your life: just avoid things that will make it terrible!  Obvious when you put it like that but if you think about it, it’s much more actionable than generic advice like “thinking outside the box”.

Here’s a related anecdote from my earlier days of being a student.  When I was in high school and university, I was really good at taking tests — especially math based ones.  I was diligent in following the typical advice of doing your homework and working through all the problems but I think one big distinguishing feature that got me really high marks was using this idea of “inverting”.  The thinking goes like this: “How would I do terribly on this test?”  Obviously not studying but more precisely by making mistakes.  So I learned how to avoid making mistakes on the test.  This one idea drove much of how I studied.  I would work through a problem, find out what mistakes I made, mentally take note of it, and then re-work through the same problem until no more mistakes were made.  And by “mistakes” I mean not just calculation errors but also misunderstandings and holes in concepts and ideas of how to approach the problem.  The result was that when I was actually taking the test, it was much easier to get a really high mark simply because I had gone through all the ways I would have likely made mistakes[2].

This general approach can be applied in so many various ways such as relationships, resumes, pot roasts, you name it.  It can even be applied to writing.  For example, the avoidance of using bad puns.  Let me say once you start inverting, it’s hard to stop.  It’s like reading a book about anti-gravity. It’s impossible to put down.



Notes:
  1. You might recognize this name from the “Jacobian” matrix.
  2. Of course, what I don’t emphasize it that it requires a great deal of work, especially when you’re not particularly adept at the subject.