This is the first piece in a nine-part series on General Mental Models.
Mental models are simplifications of how the world works. My introduction to them happened through the fantastic resources on Farnam Street, who in turn are avowed students of Charlie Munger’s wisdom. Since then I’ve noticed them everywhere (there may be some availability bias here) and I’ve enjoyed the process of putting them in practice (with trial and error).
Because mental models can be such an impact multiplier and effort divider, my goal is to air them out to as big an audience as possible so that they can use them. I hope that the process of doing so will test my understanding of them besides allowing for reader feedback that updates the models in my head.
While I cannot talk about mental models better than Farnam Street does, and certainly not as lucidly as Charlie Munger (the OG), I’m hoping to do two things differently: share actionable advice that quickens the learning process for the reader AND share examples from across disciplines so that they have wide resonance.
The first goal is for those being initiated. It essentially answers the question of how can I spend 20% of the time to learn 80% of the concept (or a similar Pareto-like breakdown). The second objective is broader. I’m hoping to, in the process of piecing this series, unearth applications and nuances that may lead to a deeper understanding of the fundamentals of these mental models.
On that note, this is the first of nine pieces on the most general mental models (there are more than a hundred of them and growing). Let’s talk INVERSION.
Most resources you’ll read on the Internet about the model of inversion suggest one way of using it. Here we’ll talk two and when you could typically use each.
Inversion plays with perspective. If we always see things the same way we will most likely (not) see the same things, and come to the same conclusions. To see what remains hidden from us--some of these could be obstacles hindering goal pursuit, while some could be emergent opportunities--it is important to change our perspective. We achieve this by inverting: thinking subtractive and thinking backward.
Thinking subtractive: Avoid being stupid
“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.” and “All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there.” These are two of the better-known quotes among Munger’s many aphorisms.
We have a natural tendency to think additively. What more can I do to make things happen? In opening up the tap (the inflow), we tend to forget about plugging the hole in the bucket (the outflow). Inverting a problem makes us search for the holes in our approach and then plug them. Doing so releases the pressure on us to maintain the same high rate of inflow, which was perhaps pushing us into taking bigger risks. Once we have plugged the leakage, we realize that we perhaps don’t need the same inflow. We can then build a more sustainable plan around this realization.
Or we may decide that the problem itself should go into the “too hard” pile and breaking our heads on it is simply attritional. Either way, thinking of what we can avoid or eliminate saves us time and bother.
Thinking subtractively carries immense power for habit destruction. Say you want to become fitter. You can do more cardiovascular training, for sure. You could also consider taking out habits, like smoking, that run counter to your goal. Then you notice that when you smoke, you tend to go for sugary beverages along with it. Suddenly, not smoking takes away the trigger for double the trouble.
Thinking backward: Start from the end
This is the lesser known of the two ways to invert. Thinking backward can be designed like a thought experiment. Assume you’ve achieved what you’ve set out to (or you’ve failed in achieving what you want to). Imagine what else has to be true for you to be in that position.
When we are contemplating pursuit of goals we are often caught up in the specifics of how to navigate the challenges forward. This approach is particularly useful and leads to eye-opening insights when used to consider the biggest changes we want to effect.
Imagine you’re a crypto evangelist. You could ask “How do I make the internet decentralized?” and there will be several different ideas you may come up with. Chances are you’ll end up with a haphazard wishlist. Instead, should you ask “What would a decentralized Internet/world look like?” you may end up thinking about policy, geopolitics, scale of adoption (1 billion wallets?), role and nature of corporations, et cetera. The very act of re-framing the question opens up a path to the heart of the problem.
If thinking subtractive helps plug the holes before we turn on the tap, thinking backward stops us from thinking incrementally forward when considering innovation (the equivalent of building a car as a faster horse). It helps us identify the root problem. Identifying the root problem draws us closer to native solutioning, especially important for tackling big, hairy problems.
Where do we see inversion applied
Inversion is one of the general mental models. It requires no prior understanding of the sciences or mathematics at a conceptual level. Which is to say, there’s inverted help available to us all around us.
One of Tim Ferriss’ most popular blog posts is about nine habits to stop now. In the spirit of this piece, avoid reading Tim’s post as a rigid list. Read it as a list of distractions that could mis-direct your limited willpower. That way, you will arrive at your own list of habits to cut out.
The anti-resume project at Penn makes for a fascinating case study. While its goal is to not bury failures and give them the same breathing space as our accomplishments, its remit can be taken broadly. Sharing our failures publicly makes us reflect on them and devise an updated approach to meet life’s challenges. This too is an upending of the traditional problem-solving approach.
Here are a few ways to consider the model of inversion:
Marketing: How can I reduce churn?
Hiring: How can I retain good talent? What kind of people do I not want on the team?
Self-improvement: What habits of mine are holding me back?
Career: What would have to be true for me to be successful in the role I desire?
Leadership: In what ways do I undermine my credibility as a leader everyday?
How to use the inversion model
Being a foundational mental model, inversion connects commonly with others. There are two specific models that could be used to invert. Not coincidentally, they correspond to the thinking-backward and thinking-subtractive approaches.
Backcasting allows us to reverse engineer the effort needed for goal accomplishment. Instead of planning our career ahead, we look at it backward in a 3-step process:
Step 1: Define what the ideal future (destination) looks like
Step 2: Looking back from the end to define the pit stops en route (How does the world look like halfway? Or three-quarters of the way?)
Step 3: What behaviors and actions are needed to get to the ideal future
If backcasting compels us to imagine our ideal future in vivid detail so that it’s easier to get to it, premortems help us visualize the worst-case scenario so that we can avoid it in due time. Invented by scientist Gary Klein, an effective premortem has immense left-field power and is therefore used across business and governance settings. A 3-step premortem playbook involves:
Step 1: Gather team before project kick-off and ask them to imagine the project has been an unmitigated failure
Step 2: Ask them to independently make explicit what went wrong
Step 3: Review the reasons for failure and bake a plan to avoid them
Side note: Backcasting is to forecasting what premortem is to postmortem.
Conventional approach has us thinking forward, often incrementally, without sight of what lies ahead in goal pursuit. It also urges us to underestimate or ignore the resistance that we may encounter on our paths. By turning around this approach, inversion offers us a side door to access our chosen goal. It instructs us that success requires ingenuity, not being a genius.