Inversion Thinking, Flexible Consistency and Warren Buffet's long game

The High Five - Edition #14

Hello folks,

So November is here. Well, almost. It’s been nearly 4 months since I started ‘The High Five’ and I am very glad to receive great feedback from you!

This week, we will talk about Inversion, Flexible Consistency and Warren Buffet’s long game.

Mental Model: Inversion - A skill nobody taught us till now

James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, recently shared this interesting post that discusses one of the powerful critical thinking skills that nobody teaches - Inversion. This type of thinking traces back to ancient Stoic philosophers, who used to imagine worst-case scenarios ahead of time and make plans to overcome them. So instead of focusing on success plans, they used to practice Inversion - by focusing on avoiding failures. This article posits that one of the best ways to clarify our thinking is to restate our problems in inverse form. In a way, it is Inversion Thinking that is at play when we look at areas like ethical hacking - where ethical hackers focus not on building a secure system but find myriad ways to crack open a system and in the process, discover the loopholes to close. Inversion is also practised by pathbreaking artists and innovators who break the rules and prevailing norms of the art-forms and products/systems. Newer standards, norms, anatomies of products are established by these people because of their power of inversion thinking. Inversion thinking is a way of subverting orthodoxies, are starting with the thought - "What if the opposite is true?". This results in forward and backward thinking, which is what some of the great thinkers, artists, innovators do.

Some of the recent examples of Inversion Thinking I came across are:

  1. Systems (processes) are more important than goals (by James Clear himself)

  2. Motivation is a myth

  3. Thinking inside the box

  4. Imposter's Advantage

There is a subtext of Inversion Thinking in all these examples. There are more if we look around. In the realm of project management, there are organizations where the leaders, in the very first team meeting, encourage team members to picture a fictional future state of project failure and perform a post-mortem analysis (what went wrong? what caused it? etc.). It brings a sense of alignment with the purpose of the team. If you are familiar with Marie Kondo's famous bestseller and Netflix show - "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up", the crux of her philosophy is decluttering and giving away anything that doesn't spark joy.

Inversion is a powerful way of thinking that can help us challenge/avoid our own confirmation biases and see situations from a different vantage point. In a way, it is a risk-mitigation thought starter, for some of the plans, we make in life and career. While we all can learn a lot from "what might work" approaches, understanding "what might not work" can provide a richer learning experience and contribute to our foresight.

Productivity: The power of Flexible Consistency

One of the best blogs I read regularly is Ness Labs, which has some wonderful insights on psychology, productivity, creativity etc. This recent article on the blog discussed one of the most valued aspects of everything we do - 'consistency'. For every pursuit or habit that we have (or aspire to), a critical success factor is ‘consistency’, and in many cases, it is the hardest part of our efforts. This article makes a case for 'flexible consistency'. Oxymoron? Just read on. The author defines flexible consistency as a combination of ‘proactive planning’ (using Inversion Thinking here) and ‘reactive adaptation’. The author says:

“Instead of having an “all-or-nothing” approach to life, where each failure or unexpected event can derail a routine, flexible consistency offers a set of principles to bounce back and keep on making progress.”

So, how can we implement flexible consistency? Here are some guiding principles:

Ways to practice flexible consistency:

  1. Plan for disruption: Make contingency plans ahead. I recently missed going for my evening run on 3 consecutive days as the rain played spoilsport. On the 4th day, my contingency plan was to go for the run in the morning.

  2. Fail like a scientist: In the last edition of ‘The High Five’, I briefly touched upon 'growth mindset' and 'fixed mindset'. Failing like a scientist means overcoming fixed mindset, and adopting a growth mindset. For scientists, every failure (or every result) is a new data point, to adjust their hypothesis and experiments. Adopting a similar mindset will help us to zoom out and see minor blips as data-points that help us to score better in the long run.

  3. Schedule over scope: Many times, we take a binary approach to our tasks, habits or pursuits, without granting ourselves some room to adjust the metrics/scope. As James Clear advises: “Reduce the scope, but stick to the schedule. If you don’t have the energy to run your planned 3 miles, just run 1 mile instead". This approach can give us some space and bandwidth to attend to other priorities while not reducing our tenacity to staying on course.

  4. Mindful time-blocking: When we block our calendar for the tasks that are extremely important, we also need to build in some flexibility using approaches such as blocking shorter duration slots or allowing some room around the slots. Deleting a slot (i.e., not acting on the plan) is the very last option, only if it is inevitable. Many times, working with shorter slots is very efficient. It helps us counter the effects of Parkinson’s Law. Shorter slots also help us measure our output with greater precision, as we look at things in a very zoomed-in mode. And shorter slots allow some room for us to take breaks. I practice this for all my work meetings - I schedule 10min, 25min and 50min meetings so that I can take a break during the micro-intervals after each meeting.

Caught in well-intentioned goal to practice discipline, we often place a few rigid rules around consistency. However, we need to realize that consistency needn't be viewed through a binary lens as it is not possible to hit perfection all the time. Building for flexibility is necessary as life, as such has some inherent chaos.

A fact that reframed my thinking - I recently read somewhere that $80 billion of Warren Buffett's $85 billion net worth came after his 65th birthday. Beyond the numbers and wealth creation, there is a deep lesson there about how we view success and age. I found it incredibly fascinating. The power of compounding aside, I think he enjoyed playing the long game. What do you think about success and age?

A quote from a less-likely source: On lowering our standards, from Schitt's Creek (my new favourite show).

A question I have been thinking about: Why do societies view ‘privilege’ as ‘presence of some advantage’ and not as ‘absence of a disadvantage’?

I revisited Yanni’s Tribute this week. One of his best works ever! Try ‘Deliverance’ - an interesting blend of Indian and western classical.

If you have read this till here… do let me know if you liked this edition. Signing off with his gorgeous shot I got recently.