Turn Your World Upside Down.
In the movie “Mary Poppins Returns” Meryl Streep plays Topsy, Mary’s cousin. Topsy runs a fix it and repair shop, and every second Wednesday of the month everything turns upside down. Topsy is most discombobulated when the Banks children visit her on such a Wednesday and, on cue, the world turns upside down and everything becomes opposite. The lovely message in this scene comes from Mary showing Topsy that she just needs to take a different point of view. When she inverts herself, everything makes sense again.
Inversion is a powerful concept. When tackling a problem, instead of thinking about it forwards, flip it, just like Mary Poppins, and think about it backwards.
This way of thinking has been around for centuries. The ancient Stoic philosophers used a process known as premeditatio malorum, or “premeditation of evils”. Instead of thinking about all the things that they wanted in life, they visualised all the things that could go wrong. Things like being homeless, becoming paralysed, being an addict. The Stoics believed that if they visualised the worst-case scenario they could not only mentally prepare for any outcome, but they could also take steps to make sure such things didn’t happen.
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits wrote, “while most people were focused on how they could achieve success, the stoics also considered how they would manage failure. What would things look like if everything went wrong tomorrow? And what does it tell us about how we should prepare today?”
Instead of thinking about what you want, think about what you don’t want. That’s inversion. Most people don’t think this way.
Two of the world’s most famous thinkers do think this way – Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett. They have long talked about success as being about avoiding stupidity as opposed to getting everything right.
Warren Buffett once said:
Charlie Munger said:
In a recent podcast James Clear talked about the power of inversion and how you can practice it in almost every area of life. It’s particularly useful with habits, things like building wealth, getting fit, meditating. These areas are not intellectually challenging – the concepts are simple and most people can understand them. The things you need to do in order to build wealth or get fit are fundamental. As James discusses, it’s not that you have to know some secret advanced level tactics, it’s simply that you need to avoid the mistakes that most people make.
When we think about our future as it pertains to our money, we tend to think about what we want. A bigger house, more trips, less time at work or a long care-free retirement. I have always thought that visualising the future life we want to live is the first step in motivating us to make sensible money decisions. Maybe we need to invert and think about the things we don’t want, visualise that and then take steps to avoid or prepare for those things.
Let’s work through this.
What don’t I want?
I don’t want….to be in a position where I can’t pay my bills
I don’t want….to have to work forever
I don’t want….to run out of money and be dependent upon my children or the State
I don’t want….to die leaving my family struggling
I don’t want….to owe so much to the bank that I go bankrupt.
How would those things happen?
I could….spend more than I earn (or at least spend everything I earn)
I could….not save anything month-to-month
I could….take on debt to fund my lifestyle
I could….get used to a lifestyle that is beyond my means
I could….buy lots of things that I don’t need or want
I could….try and keep up with people who earn more than I do, or have different priorities.
Now it becomes very clear what we need to do.
I must….spend less than I earn and live well within my means.
I must….start setting aside a percentage of my earnings every month
I must….not take on debt to fund my lifestyle
I must….live a lifestyle that I can afford
I must….understand the difference between wants and needs and spend thoughtfully
I must….stay focused on what is important to me and live accordingly
I have long known that there is a gap between people knowing what to do, and actually doing it. This seems particularly true when it comes to money. This process of inverting could be a powerful way of closing that gap between knowing and doing.
Where else can we use inversion?
In this article, James talks about the power of inversion in business. For example, if you want to be a good leader, think about avoiding all the things that a terrible leader would do. If you want to innovate, think about how you could make your company less innovative, and then eliminate those barriers or obstacles. If you want to attract new business, ask yourself what would alienate your core customer?
In relationships, ask yourself, what would make me a bad husband/wife/partner/friend, and get busy avoiding those behaviours. Ask yourself what might ruin a marriage and work to avoid those things.
I always talk about how counter-intuitive investing is, and inversion is similarly counter-intuitive. It’s not an obvious way to approach life. But as Mary Poppins showed Topsy, a different point of view can be revealing. Try it.