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. 

The sound of silence

Have you been to the Amazon rainforest in Brazil? A few years ago I had the experience of Amazon rainforest. There were many firsts that made to my list of experiences and knowledge in that trip. The first canopy walk, at least three layers of trees could be seen below, the first sighting of red monkeys, white caimans, ants that could kill, trees that walked, an animal called tapir, the sunrise and the sunsets. The most exhilarating of all these experiences was the sound of silence. On our first boat safari at night, the boatman switched off the engine and the lights in the middle of the river for us to ‘soak in’ the night experience. Intimidating for the first few seconds, the quietness of the night enters your soul. Our tour guide repeated the same act of going still while on a night trail in the jungle. Scared in the beginning, of snakes and ants that could crawl up, the feeling of stillness has lingered ever since. 

So this week when I curated my weekly edition of articles for the Read Aloud club, I included one story on the sound of silence in New York during this pandemic. The article is about the absence of daily humdrum and noise that was a significant assurance of a safe life.  It says, ‘We ache for – what was’ & ‘Now, perhaps, we will listen more closely.’ 

Silence at the Amazon river was about soaking in the sound that we miss otherwise due to other ambient sounds. Silence in the New York Times article is the opposite of being calm, a not-so-happy reminder of what was a normal life. 

Silence as an experience: 

The sound of silence is always powerful as silence is both an individual experience and a collective experience. Silence can be a reaction in affirmation or in revolt, it can be an expression of stun or of pain. One can choose to remain silent or can be forced to be quiet. It is easier to take note of an individual’s silence. It has the ability to evoke different kinds of emotions within you.  Like, there is a stunning, short moment of silence before applause of a great performance that amplifies the joy. At the same time, if it lasts too long, like a pandemic’s sound of silence, it urges the mind to get back to the noise, making one feel restless. If you live in Mumbai, you would have noticed the heartbreaking lack of dhol music, noise for some, that filled the air during these ten days of the Ganpati festival. It is eerily quiet and I am sure many of us long for the music.

In 2020, we experienced collective silence, the quietness that has been evoked by lack of music, lack of traffic sound and has been heavy on everyone experiencing it. It is this quietness that we need to be cognizant of as it carries a message in the business life. A message that can abode both good and bad. 

In the education world, silent pedagogy is focused around two main tenets: reserving judgement, and acknowledging our shared ignorance. As a space before opinion but after recognition, silence can help students experience the emotions of reverence and sympathy without having to dissect or explain the phenomenon before them. In this space, ignorance becomes a reality that we all share, not a liability to mask or overcome.

This is however missed at workplaces and in day to day life. The value placed on talk as opposed to silence is a cultural bias towards talk means that silence is commonly perceived negatively. 

Practice silence at work

Observing silence in and around life is the ability to think. Like listening, it is a skill. This is not related to meditation but is the ability to be observant and then to draw further notes about the silence. 

In teaching, educators have been trained to observe the importance of silence for students to learn. The paper- Silent pedagogy and rethinking classroom practice: structuring teaching through silence rather than talk1 concludes by proposing that classroom observations should take into account the complex skills of ‘silent pedagogy’ where the teacher makes conscious decisions to abstain from intervention based on continuous sensitive readings of the learning environment.

Encouraging silent pauses during meetings helps in thinking and responding carefully by other participants. Silent pauses also encourages people, who speak less, to voice their opinion. Silence creates a safe space.

The problem of plenty: too much silence

Prolonged silence or the missing sound, like due to pandemic, has created numbness in a different form. What are the types of sound that you miss about work? Give that a moment. Ask your team. Take a note if it is just the clanking of shoes running for the elevator or is it the laughter of the canteen? While writing this, here are some ‘missing’ things that I picked up from linked in post by Meghana Chandani that showed up on my timeline. 6 out of 9 things she has listed are sound related.

  • A colleague hurriedly calling out to you saying that the cab is down, while you quickly take the last bite of your lunch
  • Those moments when everyone is speaking at the same time and you’ll realise – ‘wait, what just happened ?’
  • The constant banter, the plans for saturday night house parties and the plans for early morning cycling tours (that never really happen) 

How about hosting a zoom session while eating lunch? Let the spouse, family, everyone chip in to the banter. Observe the sound of silence in your dealers’ routine, in your customers’ life. A restaurant had a large bell on its exit. It encouraged satisfied customers to ring the bell and as the bell rang, all table bearers would cheer up with a ‘thank you’ shout in unison. Can this be replicated between social media and home delivery? 

Can one send a sound mail of the factory running or the truck loading or the cash drawer ringing to the team to enthuse work from home? 

Sound plays an important role. A brief period of silence, a pause encourages thinking while in contrast, the absence of sound for a long period of time may create an impression of a loss or dullness. Brighten up lives by observing the sound of silence. It makes the business more empathetic. It brings in a culture of joy and happiness and productivity. And, just observing the silence gives you plenty of ideas. 

There is always some music to the ears in the sound of silence.

1., Cambridge Journal of Education, 38:2, 265-280,

(This article, the sound of silence was originally published in 2020)

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