Inversion - The Power Of Opposite Thinking

How To Avoid The Unwanted Outcome

You should take the approach that you’re wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong

Inversion - The Power of Opposite Thinking. Graphic

What Is The Power Of Opposite Thinking?

The power of opposite thinking, also known as inversion, lies in its ability to stimulate creativity, enhance problem-solving, and provide a fresh perspective on challenges. It is especially useful when launching a new initiative or attempting to resolve a difficult problem.

This is a cognitive technique that involves thinking about opportunities, problems or challenges in reverse order. Instead of focusing on how to achieve a desired outcome, you consider the opposite – how to avoid the undesired outcome.

Smallpox and Dairymaids

The English physician Edward Jenner worked for many years to find a cure for smallpox which was one of the most lethal diseases in 18th century Britain. Eventually, after studying multiple cases, he reached a dead end in his thinking.

Then Jenner decided to reverse his thinking and rather focusing on people who had smallpox, he shifted his attention to people who never had smallpox, and he discovered that dairymaids rarely got the disease.

He also discovered that most dairymaids did catch cowpox, which was a similar to but nowhere near as lethal as smallpox.

Jenner then deduced that cowpox had effectively to vaccinated its victims against the more dangerous smallpox. This led to Jenner’s concept of immunising people via vaccination, which in turn was instrumental in the ultimate eradication of smallpox .

The Stoics and the Samurai

The 1st century Stoics were early practitioners of the power of opposite thinking which they called a "premeditatio malorum", which translated from Latin means a “premeditation of evils.”

Their idea was to contemplate all the negative things possible in life. For example, the Stoics would imagine losing their home, becoming ill, losing their status in society, or losing their reputation.

The basis of this thinking was that in imagining the worst possible circumstances ahead of time it enabled them to overcome their fears and create better opportunities to avoid them.

In a similar manner the 12th century samurai warriors used a technique where you "die before you go into battle" whereby they deeply contemplated their deaths before they fought and were released from their fear of death and thus fought more effectively.



In more recent times, the inversion technique is associated with the German mathematician, Carl Jacobi.

He was well-known for solving difficult problems by using the simple strategy of ‘man muss immer umkehren,’ which means ‘Invert, always invert.’

He proposed that hard problems could be solved more easily and more quickly through inversion.

The most powerful benefit of using the inversion technique is that it will help you to avoid the bad decisions preventing you from achieving your goals.

The late Charlie Munger highlights this point:

“Invert, always invert: Turn a situation or problem upside down.

Look at it backward. What happens if all our plans go wrong? Where don’t we want to go, and how do you get there?

Instead of looking for success, make a list of how to fail instead–through sloth, envy, resentment, self-pity, entitlement, all the mental habits of self-defeat.

Avoid these qualities and you will succeed."

The Benefits Of Opposite Thinking

The Benefits Of Opposite Thinking. Graphic

The power of opposite thinking, or inversion, lies in its ability to reveal hidden assumptions, identify potential risks, and generate creative solutions.

By examining a situation from a different angle, you may uncover insights that were not apparent when approaching it conventionally. Here are some of the benefits ofthe power of opposite thinking, it:

  • Breaks Mental Rigidity - Inversion challenges conventional thinking patterns and breaks mental rigidity. It encourages you to step out of your comfort zone and explore ideas and solutions that may not have been considered initially.
  • Identifies Hidden Assumptions - By examining a problem from the opposite angle, you can identify and question hidden assumptions, gain a deeper understanding, and identify otherwise overlooked aspects that can have an influence on the situation.
  • Enhances Decision-Making - By considering the negative consequences or potential drawbacks of different options it helps you make more well-rounded decisions and encourages a thorough evaluation of the risks and benefits associated with each choice.
  • Promotes Creativity - It can lead to novel and creative solutions. It encourages thinking outside the box and generates unconventional ideas that may not have emerged through traditional problem-solving approaches.
  • Mitigates Risk -  By considering what could go wrong and planning accordingly, you can proactively address potential challenges and reduce the impact of adverse events.
  • Enhances Learning from Experience - Reflecting on past mistakes or failures through the lens of opposite thinking allows you to extract valuable lessons about what went wrong and how similar situations can be approached differently in the future.

And yet despite all these benefits, this is not a common or popular way of thinking, and this is why most people fail to benefit from the power of opposite thinking - and frankly often just fail.

    Think about what you want to avoid, or the opposite of what you want to achieve, then plan effectively to prevent failure.

How To Apply The Power Of Opposite Thinking

How To Apply The Power Of Opposite Thinking. Graphic

Guidelines For Applying The Power Of Opposite Thinking

Here are a series of guidelines for applying the power of opposite thinking. This list is not prioritised. The relevance and benefit of each point depends on context and circumstance.

# Winning By Not Losing


Professionals win points. Amateurs lose them.

Professionals win by being better than their opponent. The outcome is mostly within their control. They play a winners game. They have access to more money, better advice, and extensive resources that are not available or accessible to the amateur.

Amateurs play a loser’s game and win by being the person who makes the fewest mistakes.

Unpopular as this may seem, most of the time most of us are playing the game of the professionals, whereas the reality is that we are amateurs.

The sensible amateur inverts the challenge and rather than trying to win, focuses on not losing.

# When Operating Outside Of Your Circle Of Competence

It is important to understand your circle of competence. It’s just as important to know what you don’t know as it is to know what you know.

If you’re forced to make a decision in an area that you know is outside your circle of competence, employ the power of opposite thinking.

# Minimizing Unintended Consequences

It is impossible to completely eliminate unintended consequences, but you can become more aware of them through opposite thinking and working backward.

# Habits You Need to Stop Now To increase Productivity


Rather than reading endless self-help articles and books full of things you should start doing to be more productive, it’s often better to just stop doing things that hinder productivity.

This is about the art of saying no.

# Retrograde Analysis: Working Backward to Solve Problems

In this short video, grandmaster Maurice Ashley walks us through retrograde analysis, which is a method to solve game positions in chess by working backward from known outcomes.

# Subtractive Knowledge: Less Is More

Nassim Taleb argues that the greatest “and most robust contribution to knowledge consists in removing what we think is wrong [subtractive solutions] - we know a lot more about what is wrong than what is right...  since one small observation can disprove a statement, while millions can hardly confirm it, disconfirmation is more rigorous than confirmation.”

What does not work - negative knowledge - is more robust than positive knowledge.

"Being antifragile isn’t about what you do, but rather what you avoid. Avoid fragility. Avoid stupidity. Don’t be the sucker."

# Avoiding Charlatans

Nassim Taleb: "I have used all my life a wonderfully simple heuristic: charlatans are recognizable in that they will give you positive advice, and only positive advice, exploiting our gullibility and sucker-proneness for recipes that hit you in a flash as just obvious, then evaporate later as you forget them."

Real mentors and advisors have skin in the game and they will also tell you what to not do and what to avoid.

The Power Of Opposite Thinking - Key Questions

Improved Decision Making. Graphic

  1. What do I want to avoid?
  2. What can go wrong?
  3. What can I remove?
  4. What can I say no to?
  5. And then what? [Repeat at least three times.]
  6. What unlikely and extreme outcomes am I discounting?
  7. Where are the anomalies and disconfirming evidence?
  8. Does the harm of this intervention outweigh the intended benefits?


    Life is more random than you think and your ability to navigate it rationally is more limited than you think.

    [Nassim Taleb]

Further Reading:

Discernment - Exercising Good Judgement

Elon Musk - Ordinary People Can Choose To Be Extraordinary

Return from: "The Power Of Opposite Thinking"

To: How To Think - Thinking Skills, Focusing On HOW Not WHAT To Think

Or To: Inversion - Avoiding Stupidity Is Easier Than Seeking Brilliance

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