Inverse thinking: Why you must think backward


Every leader and manager is a thinker. Therefore, the success of your career largely depends on your analytical and thinking skills. However, there are different ways to think and solve problems. Most people don’t have a clear thinking process. They also think in the so-called “forward way”. For instance, if given a task to find a great team to develop a mobile application for their company, most managers would do just that – look for good candidates.

However, it is not the only way to solve this task. To find a great mobile application development team or an iOS developer, a smart manager would also ask what he or she should avoid. In fact, knowing what companies to avoid, would likely hint the manager which firms are a good fit.

To use a simpler example, if you’re playing hide-and-seek, instead of thinking of possible places where to find concealed players, you can think of places where they definitely cannot hide – this may point you to places where they might be actually hiding.  

The power of inversion

As you can see, this type of thinking is quite different from how most people think. It’s called inverse or backward thinking and it’s a powerful mental tool for solving all kinds of problems which you can and should use in your day-to-day life to become a better thinker, manager, and leader, and enjoy more success in your career.

In this brief guide, we’ll explain in detail what inverse thinking is, its history, how to apply it correctly, and mention a few famous and successful people who use it in their work. Let’s get started!

History of inversion

One of the first proponents of this thinking method was a famous German mathematician, Carl Gustav Jacobi (1804-1851). He widely applied inversion in his work, using it to solve numerous mathematical problems and equations in particular.

He discovered that sometimes, a math problem is much more easily solved by inversion, for instance, by making some numbers negative or performing an inverse operation i.e. dividing instead of multiplying and so forth. He was a big believer in the power of inversion and advised all his students to use this method. His famous maxim states: ”Invert, always invert”.

Why inverse thinking is so powerful

Inversion proved to be a really effective problem solver, especially when students failed to solve a problem with forward thinking. However, this principle can be successfully applied in almost any area you can imagine.

For instance, if you want to become good at chess, instead of asking what moves to make, ask yourself what moves you should avoid. If you want to build a successful business, ask yourself how not to build a successful business. In almost all cases, you will be pleasantly surprised to discover that the answer to an inverse question provides you with valuable insight for the forward question.

Knowing what not to do is as important as knowing what to do. Avoiding stupidity is easier than being smart. Therefore, inversion is an extremely powerful and useful tool which you can apply to solve the most complex problems and come up with new ideas and solutions in your work. And in case you’re wondering, some of the most brilliant and successful people in the world use it whom we are going to mention below.

Famous people who use inverse thinking

One of the most famous individuals who is a big fan of inverse thinking is a billionaire Charlie Munger, a business partner and longtime friend of Warren Buffet. Charlie is a big believer in the so-called mental models and inversion is one of his most favorite ones on that list. He applies inversion is his work and recommends it to everyone. In one of his famous talks, he mentioned a story about a man who wished to know where he would die so that he would never get there. This is one of the examples of brilliant inverse thinking.

Also, in one of his graduation speeches before students of a prestigious American university, he talked about things one should avoid in life to be successful. He emphasized that most speakers talk about what to do in life to achieve happiness and success. Yet, he turned to inversion to tell students how to become successful in life by telling them how to avoid misery.

His famous partner, Warren Buffet, applies inversion in his business. His mentor Benjamin Graham always emphasized the importance of avoiding losses over generating a return on investment. Avoiding losses is more important to Buffet then generating a return. This is a great example of using inversion in business. Now, if these two legends both use inverse thinking, shouldn’t you too?

Final words

As you see, inversion is an unbelievably effective thinking tool which is used by some of the world’s richest and successful people. Originally used to solve complex mathematical equations and problems by Carl Jacobi and his students, it can be applied in virtually any field and for solving any problem. Applying inverse thinking in your work and career will likely make you a better thinker, problem solver, manager, and leader.