Inversion: How Smart People Consistently Avoid Looking Dumb

We look like people who have found a trick. It’s not brilliance. It’s just avoiding stupidity. — Charlie Munger

Jayme Hoffman
Aug 26, 2017 · 3 min read


Inversion is a cheat code for life. You can use inversion in finance, relationships, health, product development and so much more. Charlie Munger and many other world leaders use it to look brilliant by avoiding stupidity.

We typically think about and solve problems in a forward way.

How do I have a good life?
How do I get out of debt?
How do I have a great relationship/marriage?
How do I lose weight?
How do I meditate?
How to get rich off investing?
How do I make cool products?

It is not enough to think about difficult problems one way. You need to think about them forwards and backward. — Charlie Munger

Inversion is the process of addressing problems backwards. Inversion helps you uncover your hidden beliefs about problems and allows you to avoid what you ultimately don’t want. It’s much easier to avoid what you don’t want than to get what you do want.

Forward: How do I get X?
Backwards: How do I not get X?


Premeditatio malorum — Stoics (AD 63–65)
Stoic philosophers practiced the premeditatio malorum or premeditation of evils to envision the worst things that could happen in every situation.

Man muss immer umkehren — Carl Jacobi (1820)
German mathematician Carl Jacobi expressed that hard problems can be clarified by inverting them with his maxim ‘Invert, always invert’ (‘man muss immer umkehren’). Bershire Hathaway partner, Charlie Munger, has popularized Jacobi’s maxim over the past 20 years.

Prospective hindsight (1989)
Deborah J. Mitchell, of the Wharton School; Jay Russo, of Cornell; and Nancy Pennington, of the University of Colorado, discovered that event imagination increases the ability to identify reasons for potential outcomes.

Premortem — Gary Klein (2004)
Psychologist and best selling author, Gary Klein, offers a premortem guide to prospective hindsight in his book The Power of Intuition and HBR article on performing a project premortem.

Fear-setting — Tim Ferris (2017)
Tim Ferris gives premeditatio malorum a more accessible name and guide in his 2017 TED talk. (1. Identify fears → 2. Benefits of risks → 3. Loss of inaction)

How to Use Inversion

Here’s a 3-step guide for using inversion and several examples on how the mental model can be applied to different situations.

  1. Define the problem you’re trying to solve.
  2. Invert the problem to clarify what you don’t want to happen.
  3. Avoid what you don’t want to happen.

Happiness ↔️ how to guarantee misery? via Johnny Carson

  • Ingesting chemicals in an effort to alter mood or perception;
  • Envy; and
  • Resentment.

Debt ↔️ how to stay in debt?

  • Spend more than you have.
  • Don’t use a budget.
  • Buy / lease new cars.

Relationships ↔️ how to ruin relationships?

  • Don’t communicate.
  • Lie.
  • Cheat.

Weight loss↔️ how to gain unwanted weight?

  • Eat fried food, potato chips, candy and ice cream.
  • Drink sugary drinks and alcohol.
  • Sit on couch all day.

Meditation ↔️ how to screw up meditation?

  • Don’t practice consistently.
  • Only use external aids / apps.
  • Have an agenda or goal for practice.

Investing ↔️ how to be an unsuccessful investor?

Startup ↔️ how to make something no one wants?

  • Don’t talk to customers / users.
  • No experimentation.
  • Never launch.

Using inversion in your life? Please share your learning in comments below or let me know on twitter ( @jhoff ).

The Mission

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.

Jayme Hoffman

Written by

Entrepreneur, husband & new dad. Founder & CEO (Acq by Keller Williams).

The Mission

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.