Think Differently by Inverting Your Questions


Whenever I wanted to take a dietary supplement, I would often search for something like, “benefits of X.” 

X could be anything: From vitamin c to ashwagandha (a herb that’s been popular in recent years). I would also use that same line of thinking for other things I was interested in trying. For example, what are the benefits of…

  • a vegan diet
  • running every day
  • waking up early
  • trading stocks

This is the most common mental model when it comes to researching something. We tend to look at the positives.

But what happens when you only look at the positives? You risk overlooking the negatives, which could be very costly. 

From studying the mental models and thinking methods of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, I learned that it’s important to invert your questions. You must force yourself to look at the negatives as well. So you can avoid them.

Charlie Munger was inspired by the 19th-century mathematician Carl Jacobi, who famously said, “Invert, always invert.” The idea is to look at things backwardly first. Munger says:

”The mental habit of thinking backward forces objectivity – because one of the ways you think a thing through backward is to take your initial assumption and say, ‘Let’s try and disprove it.’

That is not what most people do with their initial assumptions. They try and confirm it. It’s an automatic tendency in psychology – often called ‘first-conclusion bias’.

But it’s only a tendency. You can train yourself away from the tendency to a substantial degree. You just constantly take your own assumption and try to disprove them.”

Inspired by this theory, Munger created a way of looking at life: “All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.”

As long as we’re aware of bad outcomes, we can make an effort to avoid them. The problem is that most people are never aware of that. In fact, most people try hard to only look at the upside and want to ignore the downside. 

Apply inversion to important questions

I must say, it takes a while to train yourself to invert questions. After years of practicing this technique, my first thought is to look at the positive of something.

Here are some examples, and how you can invert the question.

  • Question: How can I make more money with stocks?
  • Inversion: How can I avoid losing money in the stock market?

  • Question: How can I get fitter?
  • Inversion: How can I avoid injuries?

  • Question: How can we grow our business?
  • Inversion: How can we avoid losing our business?

When you look at the benefits of certain things, don’t forget to look at the potential downsides. Try not to get swayed by popular content that mostly talks about benefits 99% of the time.

By challenging yourself to objectively think about potential negatives — without letting fear take over — then you put yourself ahead of the curve. You see what other people ignore. And you can plan and act accordingly.

Avoid being too positive or too negative

Some people have a natural tendency to look at the positives. Others lean towards the negatives.

I bet you know someone who’s always pessimistic about the economy and the world. They’ll talk about a potential nuclear war, hyperinflation, global warming, and so forth. To be honest, we have so many problems in the world that it’s not difficult to be negative.

But I also bet you know someone who’s always positive. There are people who actually get angry if you are not smiling and jumping 100% of the time. 

We both know that being overly optimistic or overly pessimistic isn’t realistic. You want to adopt the concept of “the golden mean.”

That concept is as old as philosophy. From the beginning of modern civilization, smart people have been preaching balance. We simply get better results if we have a balanced outlook on life. Like watching out for your health, even when you live a hectic lifestyle.

So look at yourself: Do you always look at the positives? Try to invert your questions more.

Do you always look at the negatives? Look at the benefits and upside of things.

Think for yourself

There is a quote from Epictetus in the Discourses that I return to whenever I’m reconsidering my own thoughts and perspective:

“Other people’s views and troubles can be contagious. Don’t sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others.”

We’re social animals and we’ll always be exposed to what other people think. When you’re unsure, it’s easy to get swayed by others.

But you can always think for yourself. It’s all about being mindful. When you adopt the habit of inverting your questions, you can think “outside the box” and be ahead of the crowd.

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