The terrific value of inversion thinking

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. 

One thought on “The terrific value of inversion thinking

  1. Very nice article. New way of thinking may be applied to all kinds of situations in life so that one may choose the correct outcome

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