The Flywheel Of Growth: Three Essential Tenets

“Dig in and pull only when you hear go,” shouted my friend, a father of two little boys. Before I could repeat for the children standing closer to me, at the far end from where my friend was, I could hear him shout three, two, one and… A few of us were helping some little kids play a tug of war between two neighbouring housing societies. As the kids lined up, we realised the kids from our apartment were little children in their fives and sevens, definitely looked tinier than the kids on the other side, who were more like ten year olds. A fun game, but there is no one who doesn’t want to win. Realising this difference between the two sides, my friend and some of us who were standing on the sides, jumped closer to our gang of little kids, screaming instructions, lining up height wise and just getting them more organised. As some more kids ran and joined the tug of war on both sides, suddenly the attention shifted to this area and we noticed the imbalance. I remember the friend shouting three, two, one and I joined him in … GO. 

Our little gang, as instructed, pulled at one go. And yeah, despite being tinier than the other lot, they were able to pull the opposite team down on the grass. We won. No one expected it. Everything happened at a fast pace, the coming together of kids on both sides, cheering and running parents and the referee standing in the centre blowing the whistle to begin. Ecstatic was the word for the winning team’s reaction. Magic was the word that the losing team thought of when they saw a younger team pulling them down. Collaborative effort is what my friend smiled as his timely strategy worked. He had noticed that kids on both sides of the rope were not organised, it took him a loud voice to get them together and act. 

Business life is also a tug of war, not with another competitor but with the market forces itself. It is not about winning just one tug of war, but it is about continuously winning many tug of wars. In this week’s Habits for Thinking, I want to bring your attention to a concept highlighted by Jim Collins, author, Good to Great  – called the Flywheel effect. 

Here is an excerpt: 

Pushing with great effort, you get the flywheel to inch forward, moving almost imperceptible at first. You keep pushing and after two or three hours of persistent effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn. 

You keep pushing and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster, and with continued great effort, you move it around a second rotation. You keep pushing in a consistent direction. Three turns… four…five… six… the flywheel builds up speed, seven … eight… keep pushing… nine… ten… it builds momentum… eleven… twelve…. Moving faster with each turn…. Twenty… thirty… fifty…. A hundred. Then at some point- breakthrough!  The momentum of the thing kicks in your favour, hurling the flywheel forward, turn after turn,,, whoosh!… its own heavy weight working for you. You are pushing no harder than during the first rotation, but the flywheel goes faster and faster. Each turn of the flywheel builds upon work done earlier, compounding your investment of effort. 

What was the one thing that caused things to go so fast? You wouldn’t be able to answer. Flywheel momentum is not an act of one big innovation, it is a combined effort of many small activities. 

For example, free shipping by Amazon is considered to have greased the flywheel for Amazon. “People who want something in 2 days are going to pay for it, but everyone who wants free shipping will get their stuff in 5 days,” says Jason Child, who describes the 2001 shipping fees debate as fundamental for the Amazon Prime program and Amazon’s explosive growth. The team was debating whether free shipping would cannibalize their revenue from shipping. The decision to offer free shipping to Amazon Prime customers was a journey from a debate to trials to a success story today. 

Not every idea is successful. Amazon too had launched and withdrawn other ideas. For example, placing a button on the fridge of the household for monthly repeat orders. These were called Amazon Dash buttons. It was rolled out only in a few markets. Designed as a stick-on button to be placed on the fridge or any convenient location, the button made it easier for customers to quickly reorder frequently used household items like paper towels, detergents, soaps etc.  The idea was to make it effortless for frequently ordering items. It didn’t roll out in many markets and after a few years of being in the market, Amazon pulled it out of the market a couple of years ago. 

Free shipping is not just one push in the giant flywheel of Amazon. There are several other activities too. Like getting to put the customer order in a package under a certain time limit in the inventory team. Or, to work on the ease of returns and refund. Every step that solves a customer problem was not taken as one giant step but  was seen as a small push in that area. The only common thread across all teams is focussed towards the goal: customer satisfaction. 

Several initiatives by Amazon have kept the Amazon flywheel in momentum. 

Flywheel is not one giant push. It is a matter of gaining momentum through multiple initiatives. Keeping the flywheel in motion is about keeping the business in good shape. The Flywheel of growth is fueled not by several push initiatives but is also strengthened by three tenets: 

1. Discipline fuels the flywheel: 

The discipline of remaining aligned to the mission. The discipline of keeping the momentum going. The important part of the flywheel growth is it doesn’t stop turning.It takes a disciplined approach to keep the pace of the flywheel. Success often makes businesses complacent. The discipline of turning customer knowledge into action, reading market pulse and maintaining the rigor does not allow any complacency to set in. 

2.Innovation adds to the flywheel momentum:

Flywheels do not move overnight. As a startup, a new innovation in product or service, customer engagement gets the flywheel moving. But as the startup moves and the flywheel gains momentum, the culture of innovation starts working on creating the next push for the flywheel. In established companies too the innovation culture has to keep the flywheel moving in the new digital world. A discipline of prototyping, testing, redesigning or embracing failure for that product or service makes the culture of innovation.

For example: UPS, the global shipping and logistics firm, took an innovative step. Realising the growth of small medium enterprises and e-commerce, UPS launched a new technology company called Ware2Go aimed at connecting small- and medium-sized businesses with warehouses to help streamline online orders. “This is really a technology and platform company – more than a services business – with merchants on one side, looking for order fulfillment capabilities, warehouses looking to fill space appropriately. We wanted to build that using the best of both worlds,” said Nick Basford, vice president of global retail and e-commerce strategy for UPS. Ware2Go is one innovation push to UPS flywheel. 

But it doesn’t stop there. Recently, Ware2Go has added another offering – NetworkVu that analyzes merchant sales and transit data using machine learning with the aim of recommending ideal warehouse placements to small and medium enterprises. This is to maximize delivery speeds within ground networks and control costs.

Ware2go is a new business offering. It is further aided by recommendations for warehouse placements. Each of these add momentum to UPS flywheel business.  

3.People keep the flywheel in motion

The culture of flywheel is dependent on people- not just leadership but also on the middle management. To get teams aligned, especially the middle management aligned towards innovation is not an easy task as this set of people are focussed on regular work delivery. Also, flywheel can stop if the momentum drops due to leadership change, management change. If the business holds a strong culture of innovation and keeps the team aligned to the main purpose, businesses  get built further on with that culture. 

Discipline, Innovation and People are three essential tenets for keeping flywheel in motion. Getting complacent in any one area will initially slow the speed and later will bring it to a halt. It is almost like being in the tug of war and getting all three, the discipline, the culture of innovation and people digging in and pulling together with the sound Go. 

6 impacts of anchoring bias on mind and money

One hour. No, just 5 minutes. Please dad, 40 minutes. No, max 15 minutes more. This is a regular small stake negotiation between the father and the child at home for extra television time. The negotiation begins only when the agreed time is over. Which means, ideally there should not have been any negotiation. Ideally it should have been zero extra minutes but the child ends up winning most of the time, because the negotiation always starts with a large number. This number anchors father’s mind and his quick reactions.  

Anchoring bias is the impact on human behaviour after receiving the initial piece of information. Like in this case, the child says one hour and father’s thoughts get anchored around one hour. Instead of negotiating from zero to fifteen minutes, he actually negotiates from sixty minutes and brings it down to fifteen minutes. Obviously, this behaviour also covers father’s indulgence for the child. 

Anchoring is a concept explained by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow. In today’s Habits for Thinking, I am bringing your attention to how anchoring impacts our decision making. Viewing the screen for an extra few minutes is not a high stake decision but there are other decisions that have an anchoring effect and we need to be mindful about it. 

Here are six features and impact of the anchoring bias in our decision making.

Table of content:

  1. Anchoring as priming effect
  2. The anchoring index
  3. Anchoring is a marketing strength 
  4. Anchoring is used in policy making
  5. Anchoring is for focussing mind 
  6. Anchoring in wealth and investing

1. Anchoring as priming effect:

A textured premium paper box in navy blue with lettering in gold and a brown cardboard box with black lettering are identical in shape and size. Both of these boxes are shown to consumers and they are asked to estimate the price of face cream inside it. Unmistakably, consumers vote for the blue box with a higher price than the brown box. The packaging of the box is the anchor here that gives an initial piece of information to people. The packaging suggests that one in blue is more likely to be premium than the other one, even if the facecream is exactly the same inside the box.

This priming effect applies in our lives on a daily basis. Picking up a product from the shelf on the basis of packaging is just one of these decisions. The priming effect of anchoring also applies to first impression. This is the reason we dress up appropriately for an interview, which makes the first impression. 

2. The anchoring index:

“Powerful anchoring effects are found in decisions that people make about money, such as when they choose how much to contribute for a cause.” Quoted from the book, Thinking Fast and Slow. Research has shown during a donation drive, when the anchoring amount or the suggested amount was only Rs 1000, donations averaged around Rs. 500 but when the anchoring amount was made an extravagant Rs10,000 as suggested amount to be donated,  willingness to pay rose up to Rs. 5000 or more. 

Anchoring Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman writes, “a key finding of anchoring research is that anchors that are obviously random can be just as effective as potentially informative anchors.” Even a simple roll of dice with a number on it, can have an impact on the decision unrelated to the dice. The point to remember is that anchors do not have effects on people because they are informative. People just get carried away by the number. 

3. Anchoring is a marketing strength 

Discount on MRP of products work on the basis of anchoring. You like a jacket, you get it on a discounted price and you feel happy about the savings you have made from the anchor which is the original price of that jacket. In another instance of shopping, you end up buying an item because it shows ‘only one piece left’ in the ecommerce site. You click to buy even if the item is not an immediate need. This is priming of the anchor ‘one piece left’ which makes you take the quick decision. 

4. Anchoring is used in policy making

Traffic fine for drunk driving in Mumbai was Rs 2000 and for speeding Rs 400. In 2019, with the new policy change , drunk driving fine was made ‘Rs10,000 and/or 6 months prison’(or Rs.15,000 and/or 2 years jail for repetitive violation) plus for speeding it ranged between Rs 1000-4000 + licence seizure in certain conditions. In 2019, when the policy was redesigned the fines were not only increased for these two offences, but also for other offences like overloading of a vehicle, obstructing the path of an emergency vehicle etc. 

According to a report, approximately 2348 road accidents were reported in Mumbai between January-October in 2019. A dip of about 18% had been noticed in road accidents in comparison with 2018 (January-October) when the total number stood at 2619. The decline in the numbers of road mishaps can be partially attributed to the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 2019. 

Speeding and drunk driving fines work as anchors for policy making in other areas too. This large fine has an impact on the overall behaviour of drivers thus reducing the accident rate. Anchors are used in policy making to have a large umbrella impact on other aspects of the policy too. 

5. Anchoring is for focussing mind 

In sports psychology, athletes are trained to have winning mindsets. To enter this winning mindset just before a competition, they get into a ritual designed well in advance. This ritual works as an anchor, almost like a switch on button to enter a winning mindset. Like, see this “Micahel Phelps dynamic stretch arm swing on the block. Not only did it tell Michael that he was ready to pounce on the competition, the loud slap on his shoulders of his hands also anchored to every one of his competitors that Michael was ready.”

6. Anchoring regarding money and wealth: 

In our own life, the anchor effect plays a role in many thinking processes. Here is a quote: 

Anchoring to a number is the reason people do not react to their total wealth, but rather to differences of wealth from whatever number they are currently anchored to. This is in major conflict with economic theory, as according to economists, someone with $1 million in the bank would be more satisfied than if he had $500 thousand but this is not necessarily the case. ”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

Anchoring bias in trading and investing is a common behaviour. Like anchor effects in other areas, anchoring bias in trading is similar. Suppose a buyer wanted to buy a stock at Rs70, but he didn’t buy it then and now the stock price is Rs110. The buyer feels that the stock will go higher after studying the company’s reports but he is still dilly-dallying to buy the stock at Rs110 as he is facing an anchor of Rs 70. A similar bias plays in while selling stocks. An anchor effect of a higher price makes the person hold the selling decision.  

Money led transactions like selling of an old car, buying of a house, buying and selling of companies in businesses can be influenced by anchoring bias. Negotiations, business dealings are a lot more dependent on anchoring. It becomes important to who begins first. As mentioned earlier, the mind has two systems, one that reacts immediately, and the other that thinks, weighs the details and then reacts. To counter the adverse effects, it is important to train the mind to think the opposite. It helps in avoiding decisions that get influenced by anchoring bias. 

As a conclusion, here is an excerpt from Kahneman: 

You are always aware of the anchor and even pay attention to it, but you do not know how it guides and constrains your thinking, because you cannot imagine how you would have thought if the anchor had been different. However, you should assume that any number that is on the table has had an anchoring effect on you and if the stakes are high you should mobilize your thinking. 

Babies are great negotiators, they get their way. But to avoid anchoring bias, grown ups have to behave in a conscious manner and apply thinking. 

Your food habits can teach you how to think

Facebook lunch was the best, their cheese spread was eclectic during one of the meal times. Google’s spread of a variety of cuisines were mind boggling. Never seen before or after, a large spread like that in a corporate, everyday work setting. There were at least three lunch places, each with a wide range of food in a particular cuisine.  Microsoft felt a little more like a workplace lunch, thankfully. Twitter was a small gathering. Each place left an overwhelming memory of food that still lingers years after our trip to the headquarters of internet giants. I was a part of an IAA delegation that visited and spent a day at some of these corporate headquarters in order to immerse ourselves in the way of their thinking. Digital tourism is the name we gave to this trip. While there are several memories and notes about the experiences gathered across several cities in America, one that tops the charts is the food that we experienced at these places. It was lavish not just as our welcome meal, but as a culture of the workplace. 

Food makes the culture. Culture of a workplace, culture of a community, of a family. Food is a necessity, like air, like water. Yet, most of us have been brought up to leave our own decisions regarding food to someone else. Think about it, we have read about Mark Zuckerberg’s uni color t-shirt choice so as to avoid everyday decision making on what to wear. Ever wondered how he makes food choices, so many decisions to be made in a day? Maybe, like most of us, he is largely dependent on someone else for those decisions.  In most households, the decision lies on the lady of the house. What is served on the table is something that is accepted as a matter of fact. There is nothing wrong with it, except that one has outsourced the most important decision about his mind and body to someone else.   

In today’s Habits for Thinking, I am bringing your attention to something as basic as food and to understand how it is a mental model for thinking and for making right decisions. Let us first understand the theory of First Principles.  

To explain, theory of First Principles, here is an excerpt from an interview with Elon Musk: 

I think people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They’ll say, “We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.” Or they’ll not do it because “Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good. But that’s just a ridiculous way to think. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up—“from the first principles” is the phrase that’s used in physics. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past.

I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So the normal way we conduct our lives is, we reason by analogy. And it’s … mentally easier to reason by analogy rather than from first principles. First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world, and what that really means is, you … boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “okay, what are we sure is true?” … and then reason up from there. That takes a lot more mental energy.

Nutritionists are people who understand the first principles of the food. They understand the value of components and what it brings to the body. To a large extent, our mothers and grandmothers who have spent days in the kitchens managing meals with limited seasonal produce have the understanding of first principles. They can toss a meal with equal panache of nutrition and taste even with limited resources as compared to internet-recipes-driven generation. 

First Principles here means understanding the role of food, its nutrients, its pairing,  understanding the needs of the human body at a particular time, at a particular age etc. Over the generations, as the world opened up to travel and cuisines, the knowledge of first principles passed down from one generation to another as a diluted version, mixed with global influences. 

You would wonder, where does this take you in Habits for Thinking? Why and how understanding food becomes a thinking model? A mental model helps us define questions, seek answers and seek solutions. Food has a direct impact on our body and mind. Yet, we take it for granted and depend on others to understand it for us. In today’s habits for thinking, I bring your attention to four areas where you can think about food and that it can have direct impact on our growth. 

“I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!”

—Richard Feynman

1. Understanding one’s own food habits is thinking in First Principles

Have you been taking Vitamin C and Zinc and other multivitamin supplements? Pandemic has brought attention to our nutritional needs. Each body has a unique requirement not just the quantity, but also the variety. This requirement changes with seasons and age. Understanding one’s own food requirement need not come from a third person who serves the food but by owning the responsibility. An athlete, at a competitive level, irrespective of his age, would know his food needs. He has to think and plan for strengthening muscles, building endurance and most importantly recovery. We may not have a similar need, but we still need to understand our rhythmic requirements like when and what to eat, how much to eat. Understanding is a responsibility. 

2. A mental model to exercise control:

Rujuta Diwekar, nutritionist, talks about overeating and portion control.  One of the ideas  she shares to control portions is something that she picked up on her travels: “On a visit to Jordan for a talk, I learnt that there is actually a rule to how many dates and cups of Arabic coffee you can drink at a time. So, of course, you must drink that one cup that your host offers when you arrive, along with one date. But you should allow yourself the second only if you can have the third (date and coffee). Stopping at two or four or even numbers is not allowed. This, I felt, was such a beautiful way of knowing when to stop eating and such a practical way of stopping before getting full.”

Paying attention to overeating trains your mind to exercise control. Something that is important in life to stay away from distractions like doom scrolling on social media.

3. Food language impacts your decisions

In last week’s article we learnt about the importance of the right language. Have you paid attention to the food talk around you? Not just food conversations, words on the menu to describe food influences our perceptions of food. For instance, a research found that people are more likely to choose vegetables as a meal component when described using indulgent (e.g., zesty ginger-turmeric sweet potatoes) language compared to other types of language descriptors, such as healthy (e.g., wholesome sweet potato superfood) (Turnwald et al., 2017) 

Be mindful of the influence that food talk has on you. For example, following intermittent fasting on the basis of what most friends do is the lack of first principles understanding.    

4. Food binds culture. 

It is the warp and weft of our social fabric, whether at home, at work place or with friends. Even in days of physical distancing, food keeps people connected through images, memories and shared experiences. A good food culture can be a pillar of purpose for a group of people fulfilling our social needs. 

If the pandemic will leave us with something good, then it will be a heightened awareness of physical and mental well being of individuals. Consciousness to work out to stay fit is as important as the alertness of nourishing the body with food. It is time that we not only question our own understanding, we also contribute to overall well-being through sharing of knowledge, control on sharing of fad based concepts and build better relationships through food as a binder. 

Paying attention to food is nurturing a growth mindset. It begins with the responsibility of taking mindful decisions and learning as one progresses in the journey. 

The right word is a powerful thinking tool

Kaun bola mujhse naa ho payega? (Who said that I can’t do it?)

Kaun bola, kaun bola? (Who said it? Who said it?)

Apna time aayega! (It’s gonna be my time, soon.)

Uth ja apni raakh se (Rise like a phoenix from the ashes!)

Tu udd ja ab talaash mein (And now start looking for your destiny.)

Parwaaz dekh parwaane ki (As your wings spread)

Aasmaan bhi sar uthayega (The sky will bow to you)

Aayega, apna time aayega (It will; my time will come soon)

Apna time Aayega! 

Our time will come. Bollywood movie, Gully Boy is based on the rise of street rappers from Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi. Coming from a background of insignificance to the light of fame and glory, the story is ripe with grit, determination, passion and obviously struggle. The director  of the movie keeps the audience pumped up with the slogan Apna Time Aayega not through just a song but also through the background score. The experience is so impactful that I remember coming down on the escalator that was thumping with the rhythmic footsteps of almost every one coming out of the movie theatre. Apna Time Aayega, Apna Time Aayega echoed in the ambience. That is the power of words. Years after the release of the movie, the line continues to linger in our lives. Apparently, the original lyrics were sabka time aayega (everyone’s time will come) and the story goes that Javed Akhtar, the renowned lyricist and father of Gully Boy’s film director, Zoya Akhtar, suggested to replace the word Sabka to Apna. Apna means my own and sabka means everyones. Apna, my own, has a magnificent power to connect with the listeners as compared to sabka. 

One word, just a change of word, changes the mind and makes it more adaptable. In todays’ Habits for Thinking, my focus is on the language that we use and how it shapes up our thinking. There is an immense amount of work done on how language and thinking are intertwined. Roger Martin writes in his book ‘Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers”: 

Thinking – especially thinking in words and sentences – is a form of internal communication. In thinking, you-in-the-present communicates with you-in-the-future. But though thinking is a private and covert activity, it is influenced by external interactions – in particular, by how you communicate with others. Communicative patterns become mental habits.

Roger Martin

He further guides: 

Our ‘mind design principle’ for new and more successful mental habits is thus a simple one: because thinking is self-talk, talk and thought are linked. To change patterns of thinking, change the patterns of talking.

How we speak makes a difference to how we think. And sometimes, just a replacement of a word makes a sea of difference in the thought process and therefore in the action that follows. 

A constructive word: 

On a podcast, The Knowledge Project, Angela Duckworth, a professor of Psychology at University of Pennsylvania and author of Grit:The Power of Passion and Perseverance, a New York Times bestseller, was asked what she had to say to ‘follow your passion’ as an advice to people.  She said, I would like to change it to ‘develop’ your passion as an advice and not follow your passion. She went on to explain that many young people, at 18-22 years of age, do not know what their interest is and to give advice as ‘follow your passion’ is not a helpful suggestion to give. She suggested replacing the word follow with develop. Develop your passion gives a constructive path. You work on your interest on one day, and second day and third day and over the years you see it developed into a meaningful purpose that can either be a mainstream of your work life or your defining trait. Irrespective, that developed passion becomes a strength. One word- develop instead of follow changes the mission of the statement. 

A transformational word: 

If you have been active on Whatsapp groups that share lifestyle articles, you might have received the New York Times piece on naming the current state of mind by Adam Grant. It reads: ‘There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing. The neglected middle child of mental health can dull your motivation and focus — and it may be the dominant emotion of 2021.’ The author suggests that giving a name to an emotion, like languishing that means a sense of stagnation and emptiness, helps in managing that emotion.  

A couple of weeks later to this article, Whatsapp circulated another New York Times piece almost as an antidote to this one: The Other Side of Languishing Is Flourishing with suggestions on how to come out of this blah state of mind. Some excerpts are here:

A growing body of research shows that there are simple steps you can take to recharge your emotional batteries and spark a sense of fulfillment, purpose and happiness. The psychology community calls this lofty combination of physical, mental and emotional fitness “flourishing.” It is the exact opposite of languishing, that sense of stagnation Adam Grant wrote about recently for The Times. 

Acknowledging small moments is also important for well-being, research shows. Psychologists call it “savoring.” Savoring is about appreciating an event or activity in the moment, sharing tiny victories and noticing the good things around you.”

This  post suggests replacing the word ‘languishing’ with ‘flourishing’ with a middle path of using ‘savouring’. Words shift mindsets, almost like from languishing to savouring where you move from being in the state of emptiness to being in the state of gratitude. 

Words have the power to influence the way we think and act. Actually, our thinking, like stated earlier, is an internal conversation in words with our own self. A word has the power to lower the intensity of a negative thought to an extent that it starts fading into oblivion. And similarly, a word has the power to manifest a dream into reality. One can start small with everyday lexicon, where you soften a negative impact like ‘devastated’ with ‘upset’ or amplify a positive one with ‘ecstatic’ instead of ‘pleased.’ It works. 

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

George Orwell wrote in his novel, 1984

A thought can control words 

This week make a mental note of words that you use in your thoughts and your speech. You can change just one word and make it a constructive statement. You can change just one word and allow growth around you. Every thought has a dark side and bright side of it, diminish the negativity and amplify the brightness with your words. The thought will grow too. 

A couple of decades ago, as I joined my first job in a large media house I realised my language was changing. To fit into a new culture, the easiest thing to do is to pick up the language of your colleagues and workplace. At many urban workplaces, language is not clean, sparkly white and devoid of any abuse. It took me a deliberate effort to remove the newly entered F words and other not so pleasant lingo in my everyday language. A constant thought anchored my effort to change words. It is Mother’s Day tomorrow and I am so grateful to my mother for the gift of the right language. The thought that anchored my efforts to change my language was my mother’s saying to us:

“Apshabd na kaho. Labhon se nikla apshabd hamare vatavaran mein rahta hai aur kahin na kahin hamaare saath juda rah jaata hai.” 

Do not use bad words. Once spoken, it lingers in the air around us and affects us in its own way. 

The terrific value of inversion thinking

“It’s just a joke, I can delete it.” -Jacob

“That doesn’t mean it goes away.” -Andy

Have you seen Defending Jacob on Apple TV? Jacob is a teenage child who is accused of killing his classmate. Andy is his father and as the title suggests, the eight part series is about Defending Jacob. Jacob, like any other teenager, has made social media posts that direct the court’s discussions towards him being the culprit.  

Andy, when he discovers the mistake, confronts Jacob on his post to which Jacob replies that he can delete the post. Teenagers may not understand that deleting or undoing doesn’t mean that the damage caused by that act can be undone too.

Not just teenagers, even adults are not trained to look for negative space or invert their thinking. In this week’s edition, the last edition* for Twenty Twenty, I want to bring your attention to something which we do not see easily, which is thinking in inversion mode, thinking upside down. Andy can see that for his son, he can see the impact of those posts in courtroom discussions. 

Inversion or turning upside down is explained nicely in creative designs. Before I take you to Inversion Thinking, let us see what negative space means through visuals in design. 

Artists, photographers, painters, web designers understand the concept of negative space in their designs and in their creative work. Negative space, when given attention, makes the design unique. By definition, negative space in a design or in a photograph is the space around and behind the object. This is the empty or the blank space in the art form, be it in a painting, a photograph, a logo design or a page on the mobile app. The area is designed in the manner that the object stands out. Imagine a web page with a lot of images and text and no empty space in it? The page loses your attention. 

The negative space gives a form, a perspective, a proportion or placement to the object in the frame. The negative space exists only in relation to the positive space. There is nothing in design called a negative space in the absence of the positive space. It is like the Yin and Yang- without one, the other doesn’t matter. 

The negative space can actually be a designer’s strategy. An artist can focus on the negative space as the composition strategy and use the space to make the work stand out distinctively. Usage of negative space or the prominence given to it creates unique work as seen in some real life examples here:

Negative Space In Logos 

Fedex: The white arrow between the E and the X, once seen is never forgotten. The logo has won ample design awards and is constantly featured in ‘best logos’ lists. The logo was originally designed by Lindon Leader in 1994. 

Formula 1: This clever negative space logo, with a number 1 in white space, designed by Carter Wong studio, served Formula 1 well – it was in use

Negative Space In Book Covers

Testament: Noma Bar is well-known for his negative space imagery, and the cover he created for Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments is no exception. Look closely at the hooded figure’s robe, for example, and you’ll see another figure hiding

Negative Space In photographs 

  • Still waiting by Nathan Kendall 
  • New York City by Steve Kelley

Attention to the negative space is a necessity in design. Ill defined negative space leads to clutter and overload of information. As Aarron Walter author, Designing for Emotion, says, “if everything yells for your viewer’s attention, nothing is heard”.

Our thinking is like that. Sometimes, when there is too much clutter, there is no clear thinking. Like in designing, we need to value the negative space, similarly we need to pay attention to negative space in thoughts as well. It is called Inversion Thinking. And, like negative space can be a designer’s strategy, Inversion thinking can be used as a thinking model at times. 

I read about Inversion Thinking in an interview with Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway Partner. He had said:

“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. Tell me where I’m going to die, that is, so I don’t go there.”

–  Charlie Munger

Tell me where I am going to die, that is, so I don’t go there. The maxim forInversion thinking. Apparently Charlie Munger picked up Inversion Thinking from German mathematician’s Carl Jacobi. Jacobi had expressed that hard problems can be solved by inverting them. His thought was, ‘Invert, always invert.’

Inversion Thinking is NOT setting up a goal and thinking backwards on how to achieve the goal. 

Inversion thinking is different. In Inversion Thinking you actually turn the situation upside down and completely reverse the equation. Like in forward thinking you think about how will you succeed, in Inversion thinking you think how will you fail. It is similar to the negative space in any design.  Inversion Thinking is when you actually use the negative space as the design focus, reverse the focus from what you want to attain to what you do not want to attain. 

In a crude way, if I have to ask you, How will one ensure getting infected with Covid? The answer would be by not wearing any mask, by mixing in a large, unknown crowd, by not following isolation rules etc. Somehow, this question has more power to nudge people who avoid masks than making a simple request to wear the mask. Asking this question is inverting the problem.  

By inverting the problem, you outline the results you do not want. This helps you plan your process to avoid those unwanted results. 

How and When to practice Inversion Thinking:

While Charlie Munger practiced and talked about Inversion Thinking in his investing decisions, in my view Inversion Thinking can be brought about while facing a dilemma. In situations of complex problems, or uncertain situations one can invert the problem and start from the end instead of starting from the beginning. 

Tip 1:  saying ‘No’ is one step towards Inversion Thinking. 

Sometimes, we do things we do not want to do and we regret later. Taking too many things on the plate is an example of creating clutter, whether in work life or personal life. Just a no, a simple decline to another work or another social gathering helps in removing the clutter. A NO is similar to the negative space in a design. It always exists with a yes like the positive space always exists with the negative space. We just have to learn to focus on that. 

Tip 2: Many times avoiding stupidity is a better option than trying to be smart and brilliant. 

“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.”— Charlie Munger

Inversion Thinking helps one avoid being stupid. Like, in Defending Jacob, if asked what series of actions will lead to Jacob’s conviction? The answers could be media reports, what his friends said, his past behaviour, his social media behaviour etc. Therefore, his father is worried about the social media post. Jacob only wanted to look smart and made a funny post. Being stupid and keeping quiet would have been a wise step. 

Inversion Thinking also has the ability to make you hold two opposite point of views in your mind. These opposing views firm up your decision in the best direction. For example, if you invest in a company you are in love with, you should practice inverting your decision. How will the business, say a biscuit company, will have the lowest market share? By not focussing on distribution, by not marketing the products and by not having a sales team. If you can evaluate your investment decisions based on these parameters, you would have just practiced Inversion thinking. 

Inversion Thinking is an asset. All that we need to remember is “Tell me where am I going to die, so I will not go there.”


  1. *The next week’s edition will be a review edition, not a new column
  2. ** The cover design has Apple logo, an example of the negative space usage – this was a tribute made by Team Apple on Steve Job’s death.