Invert, Always Invert – Avoid Failure to Succeed


All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there

– Charlie Munger

“Suppose I wanted to kill a lot of pilots – what would be the easy way to do it?” That might not be what you want to hear from the guy clearing your plane for take off, but if your fellow passengers are an elderly billionaire and some Cold War era Soviet engineers, they might rest easy knowing the right questions are being asked. That is because thinking about how to do the exact opposite of your goal is sometimes the best way to ensure you achieve it.

Let’s turn to the Soviets – Genrich Altshuller received his first patent at the age of 17 and a passion for innovation led him to study engineering before becoming a Soviet Navy patent officer. His position allowed him to see a wide range of patents, and being curious, he took a critical eye to the uniqueness of every “new” invention. This analysis eventually led to the conclusion that most of the work being done between different fields – biologists, physicists, chemists, engineers, etc – consisted of repeated invention due to ignorance outside of one’s primary field. He eventually pulled together lists of best practices and key principles of innovation based on this work, which became “the theory of inventive problem solving” – alternatively known as TRIZ.

Believing he was on to something, he got a little excited and sent Stalin a letter in 1948 criticizing the lack of innovation within the Soviet system. This earned him a political prisoner title and a 25-year sentence to life in the Gulag Archipelago. Fortunately, Stalin died. In addition to the many other positive outcomes that brought about, Altshuller was released after 4 years and went on to become a science fiction writer while developing his innovation theories, which began to gain popularity in the 1970s as problem-solving tools.

TRIZ practitioners quickly realized that the root cause of some problems cannot easily be identified, which makes a frontal assault on them impossible. This kind of problem is solved with TRIZ’s Anticipatory Failure Determination mental model – rather than solving for success, solve for failure. If you want to design a dust filter that works at 600 Celsius within a steel mill, instead design all the ways you could develop a filter that would fail miserably in those conditions.

This process allows for iteration between designing methods of failure and designing methods of avoiding failure. The iteration eventually chips away at the marble around the sculpture that is the perfect solution. Inverting the problem and solving for failure actually solves for success.

Getting back to killing pilots – in the second world war Charlie Munger‘s aptitude for learning caught the attention of the precursor to the U.S. Air Force and he was trained as a meteorologist. And so he got to spend his time drawing weather maps and predicting the weather. The practical application of the maps and forecasting, however, was clearing pilots for takeoff and making sure they could get back home without being knocked out of the sky by the weather.

Charlie inverted the problem in a similar way to the TRIZ practitioners – if he wanted to kill pilots, he could get them into icy conditions whereby they couldn’t continue flying, or put them in situations where they would run out of fuel and fall into the ocean. So he drew better applicable maps and better predicted the weather factors that were relevant by keeping in mind the best ways to do the exact opposite of his goal.

The way complex adaptive systems work and the way mental constructs work, problems frequently get easier, and I would even say usually are easier, to solve if you turn around in reverse.

– Charlie Munger

USC Law Commencement Speech, May 2007

So, then, how would this actually work in practice outside of meteorology and Soviet engineering? Well, life is complex and the choices that we should make today to influence who we are tomorrow are not always readily apparent . Inversion can be used to think critically about those complex, seemingly unanswerable problems.

For example, let’s say you are trying to figure out “How can I have a great, fulfilling career?” Instead, ask yourself “How can I have a terrible, worthless career?” and whittle away at the choices that you know will ensure that outcome: Stay in a dying industry. Stay ignorant on emerging technology. Continue to be a rent-taker as opposed to adding value. Prioritize near-term income over long-term value. Continue working with people that treat you poorly. Continue to think like a junior team resource. Be reactive to opportunity as opposed to proactive. And so on.

Now you have a list of actions to avoid. Avoiding them begins to move you away from failure and closer to reaching your goal. But the process must be iterative – you have to re-think and re-test your views of how to best destroy your future self. Doing so will continuously refine how you can succeed by avoiding failure. For every action, you can then ask whether or not you are aligned with a future failure or success.

In summary, avoid those surefire ways to achieve failure and you might find out you have stumbled onto a path that is point you towards success.

This post was inspired by Charlie Munger’s 2007 USC Law Commencement Speech. A book of his famous speeches, Poor Charlie’s Almanac, includes a transcript of this speech, along with transcripts of 10 additional talks. 

The title is inspired by a quote from Carl Jacobi, a German mathematician who said “man muss immer umkehren,” which is often translated as “invert, always invert”. He is famous for solving something related to elliptic functions that is far too complicated. Many times in mathematics you need to reverse the problem in order to be able to solve it. Those learnings do not need to stay locked in the world of numbers and can be applied, as this post suggests, to various facets of life. 

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