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Invert, always, invert (anup.io)
678 points by anupj 18 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 172 comments

This is also a great way to surprise people.

Surprise seems to be one of the most important ingredients to getting things to spread (I won't quote the academic or anecdotal research of that here.) So I use this inversion analysis often in thinking about coming up with ways of surprising people. My most successful example of this:

I was originally thinking, "How can I get more customers?"

Inverting it I came up with, "How can I lose more customers?" (A different inversion from the OP's but an inversion nonetheless).

Using that as my base I came up with this funny campaign where I tried to figure out how to fire more of my customers. What if I could fire the worst of my customers. So I invented a honey pot website called trickajournalist.com where I described some software you could signup for to spam journalists. And then I used the list of people who signed up for that and banned them from using my product that had an email newsletter component. We didn't want spammers.

It was a nice media/traffic win for what we were doing. And it all came from inverting what we originally struggled to answer.

P.S. If you're interested more in the whole trickajournalist.com thing, the original site is dead now, but some articles about it:



So you lied to a bunch of people? While enticing them to participate in bad behaviour? I don't get the joke

This was definitely a point of debate before and during this. Honeypots are by definition a deceit. Whether they are a net positive we may have to disagree on. I think in many cases they are a positive as in this case.

Spam is out of control. After we launched our bulk email tools, we immediately saw bad actors. So this was one novel attempt at filtering them out. If someone were awful enough to signup for a tool that had the copy and intent of the trickajournalist.com website had, they shouldn't be using our email tool. We didn't publicly shame them or make their lives any worse than they might already be. They just couldn't use our tool.

Maybe I'm not understanding, but I thought these are not professional spammers. More like people not happy with journalists that you enticed to behave badly. A minor form of entrapment.

People who sign up for both TrickAJournalist.com, and the Highrise CRM tool (GP's software), are very likely professional spammers, looking for whatever bulk-emailing software they can get.

There's no negative consequence to just signing up for TrickAJournalist; only a negative consequence for attempting to sign up for Highrise while already having signed up for TrickAJournalist.

Someone who just literally wants to "trick a journalist", once, might sign up for TrickAJournalist; but such a person has no reason to also to use that same email address to sign up for the B2B CRM software Highrise.

Someone who wants to send knowingly-spammy bulk emails while purposefully dodging spam filters, would sign up for TrickAJournalist (which claims to be exactly for that); and also would sign up for Highrise, since it has bulk emailing capabilities and likely also has positive spam-filter cachet from all the legitimate uses other companies put it to.

Thanks, this clears some things for me. I guess trick a journalist was mostly geared towards spammers.

As an aside, the main reason I didnt follow these links and find out for myself is because this is in part satire but mostly a marketing scheme to advertise Highrise. Sorry, I dislike these sort of tricks, it makes me feel manipulated. And I prefer not to add my traffic to such endeavours.

And come on, spam is hardly an unnoticed issue which one meeds to raise awareness for.

"spam is hardly an unnoticed issue which one meeds to raise awareness for" - I thought so too. Until I tried to run a bulk email service. We had a countless number of people, good people, sending spam, not realizing it's spam. There's a ton of awareness that needs to be raised to email senders what spam is. There's also awareness that needs to be brought to the attention of developers creating email tools. They will be and might already be misused in ways you are probably not protecting for today. During this phase I also saw some very elite developers (not on Highrise) go through some "we've been hit by spammers and we never predicted they'd use our tool to do this". I could go on an on how we should still be educating ourselves on how to fight this and what I learned even being an experienced operator.

> There's a ton of awareness that needs to be raised to email senders what spam is.

Someone should create something like Grammarly or Medium's community-editor feature, for email campaigns. "Before you hit send, get a first impression on your campaign from 10 random beta readers from our community." Then give the beta-readers a prominent "this looks like spam" button to press.

Probably it wouldn't give any different of a response than a regular spam filter; but I imagine that most ad people will think of "it went into the spam filter" as a technical problem, rather than a problem with their messaging. Whereas, if real humans tell them the campaign looks like spam, maybe they'd listen.

That's a super interesting idea. There's a ton of community incentive to participate too since everyone's sharing this IP reputation. On the biz side, policing this sucked. Ate up a ton of support time analyzing the email being sent, freshness of the contact uploaded, etc. Not to mention the fights with customers about buying lists, getting optins, etc. This might just be a really great intermediary. Cool thought.

"The only kind of moderation that scales with the community is the community." - Jeff Atwood [1]

This always seemed like a powerful quote to me, not least because I seem to be able to keep finding new applications for it.

[1]: https://readwrite.com/2014/05/29/jeff-atwood-stack-overflow-...

Since Highrise doesn't take new signups (for the last two years actually), it was just a fun story

I doesn't seem like a joke to me. It seems like a sincere way to filter out bad actors.

...by being a bad actor yourself? I'm with the parent poster, I don't get it.

Context matters.

A bad actor towards spammers and a bad actor towards your legitimate customers are not the same thing.

A bad actor towards spammers, is being a good actor towards their legitimate customers.

Thank you for taking the time to respond instead of just downvoting. However, this is an Ends Justifies the Means argument, which I have always disagreed with and also disagree with here.

OP description seemed like it was mainly a gimmick for him to get media attention at the expanse of other people.

I think the original site might make it more clear. But the forbes article might help: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nathankontny/2018/02/27/trick-a...

"Treating journalists like suckers" or "stalking them" isn't the same demographic as "folks who are disgruntled with journalists".

And really, what "expense"? They weren't outed. They lost nothing but possible future use of an email tool we produced (we found no current users signing up for trickajournalist.com).

And as for the intent of the site. It was a lot of things. But first and foremost it was to raise an awareness of how bad email has become. People are doing awful things with email. All the automation, cold email targeting, etc. I wanted to put some satire out so maybe some folks operating sites might take pause at what they're offering, and who they're offering it to. I wanted to raise a novel method of how to deal with things like this. I wanted to raise how easy it is to promote awful tools like this was even when ads are supposed to be human moderated on a lot of places.

Did it actually work?

What was the yield on that?

As a software developer I have been doing this exact thing for the past twelve years: think of all the possible reasons why something can fail.

The downside is that I have trained my mind in such a way that it is difficult to turn it off outside of work and it is influencing my personal live negatively.

(or maybe I'm just wired to be a doom thinker and that is what makes me a good software engineer)

God, yes, this. I have twenty years's of failure-mode engineer mindset training, and my wife has generalized anxiety. Between the two of us, we are constantly in this state of trying to prevent bad things from happening.

And, in many ways we have. And that's good. We're in a pretty stable, safe, comfortable state, which not something everyone can say in 2020.

But as an unintended side effect, we have also prevented good things from happening. Because we are so focused on controlling outcomes, we have eliminated almost all serendipity from our lives. The only surprises left are unpredictable, unpreventable bad ones: health issues, political disasters, stuff breaking in the house, etc.

It is a recipe for slow-burning misery. Even before COVID-19, we found ourselves going out less and less, trying fewer new things, and just... sort of winding our way into an introverted, over-thinking, ball of anxiety.

I'm now trying to re-train myself to consider the inverse of that mindset: what's the best that could happen? If we knew for certain that activity X was going to work out, would we give it a try? Do we need to keep thinking about and analyzing this, or is our anxiety just using "you need to think about it more" as a rationalization to keep us inside our comfort zone?

It's a hard habit to break. And, obviously, 2020 is like the worst possible fucking year to be dealing with this. (Though, conversely, we entered the lockdown pretty well-prepared to handle being stuck at home since we're so used to it...)

I think being stuck at home in a ball of anxiety is a fair response to the current pandemic and general situation. Be kind to yourself - this is a rational response.

I'm sure the two of you can come up with new adventurous things to do and the will to do so now you've identified the problem.

> I think being stuck at home in a ball of anxiety is a fair response to the current pandemic and general situation.

Yes, true. Would have been nice if we hadn't been like that before the pandemic, though. :)

Look on the bright side. Everyone else has to deal with a drastically different way of living, but you're prepared!

Yes, we have definitely made that joke amongst ourselves several times. :)

How about asking yourself a new question. "How can we make sure that we never try anything new or experience happy surprises?" and try to avoid doing that?

How about asking yourself where does the inversion principle apply? and avoid applying it where you shouldn't?

surely going by the OPs inversion, you'd ask 'What is preventing us trying something new this weekend?'

Thank you for sharing this. I'm in a similar situation and asking myself "what's the best that could happen" makes me feel surprisingly uncomfortable.

Sounds like paranoia to me. I'd suggest therapy.

I wanted to contribute the same to this discussing.

At work, I'm really good at thinking things through and avoiding unnecessary work. Outside of work, I worry that when we restructure our roof, we will negatively impact the neighbors solar panel output. I constantly grind about how I'm going to discuss this with them. Even though we may not even restructure the roof.

Or I wonder how I'm going to handle it the next time my neighbor turns on an outdoor speaker. Even though he may not, for months to come, and when he does, I might just be on my way out.

Now the wife and kids want chickens, and I'm sitting here discussing (in my head) how our neighbor is wrong about all the downsides she may bring up. Even though she may even like that we have chickens.

It's tiring and impacts my life negatively.

At work I do manage to keep a "do-ers" attitude, I mean I will start many things, take in criticism, change my approach. I think I'm generally pretty good at my job and radiate a positive attitude. I wish I was the same at home.

It seems like you get caught in a worry loop. The solution I’ve found is I have to fully answer the questions in my head. Worry loops happen when things get almost resolved, then you move on. For example:

> Or I wonder how I'm going to handle it the next time my neighbor turns on an outdoor speaker. Even though he may not, for months to come, and when he does, I might just be on my way out.

Really answer the question. Something like “at 10pm I’ll go over and ask them to have it off by 11pm. If it’s not off by midnight, I’ll make a noise complaint”. Or “If it’s too loud, I’ll ask them to turn it down a bit.” Or “I’ll trust myself to make the right decision if that happens.” Then consider it resolved. Write it down if that helps.

I'll try that, thanks! I did do something similar once when I could not stop fussing about what job to take (current one or a new one). I wrote and printed 2 a4-papers full of text and it was pretty clear I liked my current job more but was afraid I was just taking the easy route (and that I would feel weak because of it later). I was able to let it go and feel better after that indeed.

May I chime in with some more practical experience WRT writing down worries:

- I tried something similar to this Negative Thinking Analysis Form [1]

- In my experience this takes a lot of time, when you try to do it right. You really have to let a thought sink in for a long time to actually find out where it is distorted. And it sometimes even takes longer to find the underlying thought behind a series of thougts and worries.

- But once done the thinking is usually over and sometimes I learned something about the beliefs that underpin my thinking.

[1] http://discoveryoursolutions.com/toolkit/negative_thinking.h...

Yes, I am exactly the same. While at work I feel very productive eliminating future risk by being very conspicuous towards all design decisions, but the same attitude in "real life" is very troublesome.

For example, a very small random sample of thoughts that routinely pop up:

- Lent somebody your bike? Oh my god he/she may die, because it's badly maintained (and thinking about the details about different kinds of breakage vs. harm caused).

- Opening plastic containers or cans for food: oh my god, sharp edges may fall into the food (how to keep parts of packaging from falling into food while opening is surprisingly complex topic, think about knifes vs. scissors vs. tearing it open, all have very different hehaviour wrt. creating debris :)

- doing mistakes when filing taxes vs. the risk and penalties that may ensue

- furniture / cupboards being insufficiently bolted to the wall and coming down (and thinking about how it would move, where it would hit and the likelhood of bad injuries)

- risk of injuries due to electricity after fixing electric installation at home (am I sure I didn't damage some insulator, is the ground wire really properly attached, is the strain-relief properly done etc.)

For me this is pretty much modulated by stress level. Doing a lot of sports, less coffee, and sleeping enough usually leaves me much less inclined of doing these not so helpful analysis for stuff outside work. And I'm always amazed how other people can just "wipe away" such thoughts as unnecessary without any analysis at all. Maybe that's the difference between employing proper intuition vs. striving for "mathematical proof" kind of certainty in all areas of life.

[edit] adding another perspective that is sometimes helpful in stopping overthinking: trying to analyse the full tree of possibilities is the chess computer kind of reasoning (alpha-beta search). It is pretty limited in what domains it can be applied to (e.g. it does not work for Poker or the Game of Go). On the other hand try to learn some Go and feel the difference: after gaining some experience you will give up on exhaustive analysis in many situations and just start relying on intuition, because it's the only thing that actually works for complex, unclear situations. Now sometimes I try to remember how playing Go feels when faced with real-world problems where I'm tempted to do an exhaustive analysis. See also [1].

[1] https://xkcd.com/761/

Yeah sounds familiar. I feel it's related to stress and to not taking time to stop thinking or make myself stop thinking (and indeed do sports or play with the kids, while first clearing my head).

I have had moments where I felt I was almost loosing it because I was just constantly thinking about some (in hindsight minor) issue. And I then start to meditate just to stop the thinking. I don't know if that helps or if there is a natural cadence to it but I do get better after doing that for some days usually (10-15 min here and there, I used the free tier of HeadSpace during 1 period as well). I should just also meditate regularly to see if my general mood improves. From everything I read, it should.

I am about to go camping, that will help, although I'm already getting pissed (and finding nice ways to express said emotion) at that fictitious family with the bluetooth speaker on all day in the spot next to me. What a waste of thought. Just stop brain.

+1 for reducing caffeine intake. Some years ago I used to wake up in the middle of the night with extreme anxiety about ridiculously small problems. Cutting caffeine can definitely help (although it may also have an adverse effect on work efficiency :)

I can relate to this. Let me ask you a thing: when you ship things (release a product), do you feel lifted/happy like ppl here tell you, or does your worries increase (like it happens for me, I hate shipping)

Personally when I finish a project I feel great. When I release a project to the world, that’s when the worry kicks in.

Can you elaborate what exactly you mean by 'finish'

When the code works the way I want it to for the version I’m about to release.

Like if I’ve finished the code for v1.6 and am ready to ship it to customers, I feel great. When I actually send it to customers my anxiety kicks in thinking of all the support requests and criticism I’m about to get.

I can relate to this a lot. A technique you might wish to entertain is the "beginners mindset". The idea is to approach a situation or problem as if you were tackling it for the first time, or had absolutely no prior context to work from.

The thinking being that some (all?) of the side assumptions your brain is fixating upon developing responses to, could in fact be erroneous. By experimenting with adopting a "noob" mindset, you create the opportunity for new experiences to emerge which may well be more successful.

Try inversion:

"How can I guarantee that I will spend absolutely all of my time grinding on projections of the future?"

Best advice I've ever been given: Wait to worry. If you can't do something (anything) about it immediately, don't worry about it.

Using your example, you haven't decided to restructure your roof, so there is nothing actionable you can do right now WRT your neighbor, so don't worry about that.

Funnily enough I'm really good at this at work and always tell my colleagues this. They often find me ridiculously relaxed in difficult situations. But at work, if I can't change something I don't worry (when a boss asks me 10 min before an important meeting to present it, I just wing it because the thought "They can't expect it to be perfect with only 10 min prep time", makes me very relaxed. But the thing is, with the small things I do worry about at home I often can change something. I can prevent the neighbor to be bothered by my new roof or at least I could talks with them about it. Of course, that only makes sense when we actually change the roof... But then again if they know we may change the roof they can also keep that in mind... At this point just tell the neighbor, but what if we never change the roof and he changes his plans based on my remark? I'd better move somewhere else quickly...

> The downside is that I have trained my mind in such a way that it is difficult to turn it off outside of work and it is influencing my personal live negatively.

I think it's important to remember taking on too little risk can be dangerous and lead to negative outcomes.

Maybe you need to invert and ask questions like "What is keeping me from spending more time with family?" or "What is keeping me from going to more parties?" or "What is keeping me from asking that person out?" or whatever the situation is in your personal life.

For me, it has made driving difficult. I think of everything I can do incorrectly and everything others can do incorrectly. I think of all possible events happening on the route. On the plus side, I am a careful driver. On the negative side, I _really_ hate driving.

I think this is healthy and actually comports with reality. Driving _is_ dangerous, and a lot of people do it really badly. I see way too many people on their phones on the highway to ever feel safe driving.

I agree. Now recently after having spent days reading and thinking about a legal agreement with another company, I'm wondering, why am I so careful with that, but at the same time accept being a passenger in other people's cars -- when I know some of those drivers text-and-drive, making them as dangerous as drunk drivers.

Or they don't keep the distance to the car in front, or try to overtake two large trucks at once, limited sight. Should I be fine with that, saving me a few hours,

Whilst spending days reading an agreement?

So it's not just me being paranoid. If my luck is any worse and the worse possibility happened, I've already hit 5+ people and crashed my cars 5+ more times.

Driving is very very dangerous but not many realized it.

Apparently everyone experiences an accident once per every 17.9 years of driving.

My wife just got hit by a truck on the freeway yesterday. Amazingly there was not a scratch on her. It made us re-evaluate what we drive though as when we checked our car had only a 2 star safety rating and apparently where we live 2/3 of fatal crashes are from 1 and 2 star safety rated cars. Today we're car shopping for a 5 star safety rated car.

So, yeah it carries an inherent risk and it's important we do what we can in terms of driving safely, driving the safest car you can afford and upgrading to a safer car when you can afford in order to minimize those risks.

Sometimes while driving I wonder how come I’m always crashing cases in video games, but in real life i can survive for hours.

There is a secondary issue on this sort of thinking too. Sometimes you can doom out anything worth doing. I see it on the internet quite a bit. "look at the cool project I built". Then come out the doomsayers. How everything is wrong with it. The opposite happens too. But the negative ones stick out in my mind this morning :)

You can always answer those doomsayers with one of my new favorite quotes: "Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly"

Back when blog syndication tech was being actively developed, Dave Winer called that sort of reactionary response "stop energy".

Can be very difficult when you can only see the problems in other people's ideas. Knowing that it's not the purpose, but rather to actually help, people that don't know you will not appreciate it.

My advice is to stop doing it with people that don't know how you think. It's usually the people who have unexpected problems again and again in their life.

Something I've taken to doing is a pre-mortem with my team. A few months before launch I say "Let's fast forward and pretend the project failed. Why did it fail."

This usually catches a list of things to make sure you're keeping an eye on.

Sounds as if this has been working fine :-)

I very much like the idea

Try inverting your perspective outside of work.

The basis of the advice is I have a hard problem --invert problem statement--> new perspective/approach angles.

Your problem is just a little more meta.

> difficult to turn it off outside of work

May I ask what situations do you have in mind?

> influencing my personal live negatively.

What if everyone else is crazy not you

this has been identified as a regular personality trait in operations teams where it is a benefit in work context.

The best coder I know is also the most paranoid coder that I know, I don’t think it is a coincidence.

Do you know if s/he is a bit paranoid also in the spare time?

To all of the people who feel similarly, and have problems ruminating:

Try thinking in terms of probabilities - that's the real way out, to recognize that all of the negative scenarios you keep replaying in your head are very unlikely to happen at all.

Once you realize that much it might get easier to brush these thoughts aside sooner.

A cool example of this principle in action is to read the WWII-era “Simple Sabotage Field Manual” (https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/...), which reads like an inverted guide to productivity. Some fun bits:

> Managers and Supervisors: To lower morale and production, think of the worst boss you’ve had and act like that. Be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work. When possible, refer all matters to committees for "further study and consideration." Attempt to make the committees as large and bureaucratic as possible.

> Employees: Be forgetful. Clumsy. Work slowly. Think of ways to increase the number of movements needed to do your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one; try to make a small wrench do instead of a big one.

> When possible, refer all matters to committees, for "further study and consideration." Attempt to make the committees as large as possible - never less than five.

> Apply all regulations to the last letter.

Admittedly, some of the techniques—like releasing a bag full of moths in a movie theater to disrupt enemy propaganda—are oddly specific and not easily inverted.

Before holding a meeting, collect any moths in the meeting room and store them in a bag.


BRB. Going make a cinema-focussed remake of Hitchcock's "The Birds" that _relies_ on a few bags full of moths being released during each screening...

I work on the algorithm for a widely used search engine and can confirm that this line of thinking has been very effective in improving our product over the years.

Rather than trying to generate hypothetical ideas for "how can we make our search better", we spend a lot of time analyzing our data to find where we are failing. Many of our biggest relevance improvements have come from tracking and understanding the types of queries where we consistently fail to generate results or user engagement.

I think it is a very effective approach, but can require some discipline and perspective. When you spend so much time focusing on the failures of your product, it can create this internal perception that the product is constantly failing and broken. So you do need to actively remember what you're doing well and how far you've come as a team/product.

> Rather than trying to generate hypothetical ideas for "how can we make our search better", we spend a lot of time analyzing our data to find where we are failing. Many of our biggest relevance improvements have come from tracking and understanding the types of queries where we consistently fail to generate results or user engagement.

This sounds a lot like the 6-sigma approach of driving improvement by focusing obsessively on eliminating "defects".

There are certainly huge wins that can be obtained by identifying and eliminating bugs or corner-cases with undesired behavior. But it's scary to imagine a world where this is used as a replacement for innovative thinking - ie, "how can we make our search better". If Steve Jobs had focused all his proverbial efforts on minimizing flip-phone defects, the world would have missed out on the smartphone revolution.

The iPhone's competition was not the flip-phone. It was the PDA and the Blackberry and the pocket PC. The iPhone was an evolution of previous similar devices.

I still do not understand why people consider smartphones revolutionary. It is revolutionary that everyone has one on them at all times, but the gadgets themselves aren't all that.

Yea I don't think it's the only principle that should drive product development, but it helps ensure you're always solving real problems for your users.

There is still a lot of room for creativity once you've identified a class of problematic queries too. Especially as a search engine becomes more sophisticated, how you solve clear query failures can be a lot less straightforward, and clever features or machine learning are many times needed.

I will say there are clear exceptions to this inversion rule too. For example, we switched to a Learn-To-Rank system for our core ranking in the past year and we couldn't necessarily point to it clearly being the solution for problematic queries we were seeing, but it proved to unlock a ton of value and drive a lot of relevance improvements and surprising benefits in ways we couldn't necessarily predict for our specific use case and users.

That's why it's important to focus on effectiveness first. At any point in time you should know what you are trying to solve and why. The Inversion Principle is simply a useful tool to helps support that and figure out the how, but is by no means a silver bullet.

There's a huge potential in mining search data, especially if you can group top-of-funnel vs. bottom-of-funnel searches to see where failures are occurring. Segmenting queries like "zm950" against "shoes" or "nike" and seeing where gaps exist against user intent.

When it comes to zero (or near-zero) results, I've had good results using this to identify gaps in the current product offering and what visitors are expecting to be there. Two examples:

1) A seller of custom prescription glasses: top two search queries were "contact lenses" and "sunglasses". They didn't offer the former, they did sell sunglasses (most frames could take a tinted lens as an option) but didn't make it obvious with design, content, or marketing.

2) A seller of cabinet hardware (pulls & knobs): a large proportion of their top 10 search terms seemed to have a door hardware intent. Adding this missing category boosted sales without additional marketing dollars spent (the customers were already there and just bouncing when they realized the site didn't carry what they wanted).

These are all ways to focus on understanding failures instead of trying to optimize successes, which is often finding the local maxima.

This is great to perfect existing features of a product and avoid scope creep of new ones.

One of the ways to apply this inverted thinking is to conduct a "pre-mortem" at the start of a project. By deliberately imagining that something has failed, and speculating about the reasons, you can sometimes uncover useful steps that prevent those imagined failures from actually happening.

I've found this can be quite useful, both for minimizing risk, and also (interestingly) as a source for new product/feature ideas.

It's also a useful way of making people not feel like party-poopers.

Typically, everyone's excited at the start of a project and people are reticent to share their fears (especially if there are bosses around).

A pre-mortem gives them the mental freedom to share their fears as they are asked to imagine they are in a future where the project has turned out to be a disaster).

Conducting a pre-mortem, as you describe it, is almost precisely what STPA (Nancy Leveson) is about. You think of the system's behavior and present design and the things that can go wrong. Then you try to determine what would lead to bad or erroneous outcomes, and build in controls based on that analysis. Sometimes it's things that should be blindingly obvious, but we've demonstrated over the past 60+ years of higher technology use and development that we aren't good at spotting those things. Even simple things like, "The lawn mower should have a dead-man switch" is often forgotten.

I think it depends on the scenario selected. I’ve found pre-mortems annoying, and given any number of risks that could materialise how do you choose the right one for the pre-mortem for maximum value discussion?

Plus I generally dislike the idea and feel like its a trend that should go away.

> how do you choose the right one for the pre-mortem for maximum value discussion?

Isn't that where domain expertise comes in? It sounds pretty sensible and important to me to try to imagine various realistic failure modes and preemptively try to prevent them. To not let the website go down, pre-empting hard drive failure or DDoS makes a lot more sense than worrying about network cables spontaneously disintegrating, or the outbreak of nuclear war.

I always try to aim for the "Most Likely Worst Case Scenario"... not the worst thing that can happen, but the most likely bad thing that can happen.

Then in reality the website is down due to the simplest things that's so common we don't reconsider it, such as user input some special characters that makes the server error.

Edit: I'm not downplaying the importance of prevention

> server error

Seems to me that bugs is then a high risk in that project. And to prevent or reduce the number of failures, the project needs an auto test suite

I use an old inversion technique. Not sure where I read this, and I think Tim Ferris said it:

    The last thing you want to do is the first thing you should do
There is always something mega pertinent on my TODO lists that I really don't want to do, and it calls out my name when I sleep saying: 'You really need to do this' and the feeling of procrastination makes you feel ashamed of having not completed the task. But it gets done thanks to inversion, and I proudly check it off as being done, until the next task I don't want to do comes along (and yes it will come along).

Damn. I should finally add GDPR-compliant privacy policy to my niche side project.

Is the example correct?

> Instead of asking how do we increase the adoption of a product or feature? You could instead consider - what are some of things preventing adoption?

Surely to invert the question you'd want to consider how do I deliberately decrease adoption of the product? It might lead to some of the same answers, like make it slower. But also to different ones, like constantly bad-mouth my own product on social media. (Which would indicate a path to adoption is to rigorously rebut criticism using Google Alerts.)

Edit: I think the difference is if I'm only looking for what about my current product prevents adoption, then I've narrowed my scope to looking at aspects of my current product. Whereas if I blue-sky think about ways to make the product bad, that allows a broader range of solutions for making it good.

Yeah a direct inversion doesn't seem to work. I think you invert the idea but with the premise that you don't want to do it.

So instead of: How do I decrease adoption?

You think: How do I avoid decreasing adoption?

I think this works anyway. Another example:

Goal: Fly to Spain

Question: How do I fly to Spain?

The inverted question should not be "How do I not fly to Spain?" (answer: get put on a flying ban or don't buy a ticket) but "How do I avoid not flying to Spain?" (answer: pick a date and book tickets)

But that isn't really an inversion, more a double negative.

The example given is "how do I keep my pilots alive?" with the inversion "what could kill my pilots?". Your result would be "how do I avoid not keeping my pilots alive?", which is just the original question.

I have read about mathematician Abraham Wald's operational research for the US on WWII aircraft armor placement. Wald challenged the instincts and conventional wisdom of military commanders who thought that more armor should be added to the places on airplanes that had the most bullet holes upon returning from a mission.

Wald instead flipped it and recommended armor be added to the areas with less or no combat damage on returning airplanes because the shot-up areas were the parts of the plane that COULD withstand damage, since the plane had made it back.


> The example given is "how do I keep my pilots alive?" with the inversion "what could kill my pilots?".

Pretty much that, except in any long-standing industry, it's framed as "what does kill pilots?" and "Lets study the last few decades of pilot mortality data and identify causes". Safety standard improve one Air-crash Investigation at a time.

"The Field Guide to Understanding 'Human Error'" by Sidney Dekker is probably where to start with that field.

I imagine a single negation would increase the solution space so much that it wouldn't be useful anymore. A double negation will change the question format, so our (irrational) minds treat it differently, yet keep the solution space the same.

It might be irrational in some cases, but it also might have to do with the double negation of a statement not being practically equivalent to the statement, as in constructive mathematics.

I agree my example was more a double negative. The way I am thinking though would result in something similar to yours.

It seems to me the inversion of "how do I fly to Spain" (goal: "I want to visit Spain") is "what could prevent me from flying to Spain?".

In general, instead of "how do we achieve $X?" the inversion is "what is stopping $X?" or "what would cause $X to fail?".

Don't invert the question, invert the goal.

If you want to be in Spain, why aren't you there right now?

In what situations do the answers to the inverse differ from the original? It seems to me it's just a rewording of the original question with a double negative.

("How do I not not fly to Spain?")

Good point - the 'fly to Spain' example wasn't the best. Running through multiple things in my head.. it seems the most powerful thing is to have a good initial question so the inversion actually helps.

How do I make money? - Get lucky in a Casino.

How do I not lose money? - Don’t gamble.

How do I not not make money? - Take more risks.

A true inversion with a negative works better than the not-not structure, and it is easier to wrap your head around.

I think this is like the question of do you want the inverse or the contrapositive? Most likely the second one.

The inversion principle is a great mental model in my opinion. The best way I can sum it up in the most basic way is instead of thinking "What can I do to [achieve goal]?", think "What is preventing me from [achieving goal]?".

If some of you like this, I suggest delving into the 'mental model' rabbit hole. There's some pretty inspiring stuff on it.

Is the link in the blog post a good place to start? (https://fs.blog/mental-models/#what_are_mental_models) or do you have an alternative suggestion?

Reminds one of PG's "just don't die and you become rich" advice for startup founders.

FWIW, the best founders I've met within YC or outside of it have this paradoxical quality that takes high optimism about the future of their company and combines it with extreme gritty paranoia about the short-term things that could derail or kill you.

That reminds me of the foreword in the High Output Management, written by Ben Horowitz and Andy Grover's words "only the paranoid survive":

“CEOs always act on leading indicators of good news, but only act on lagging indicators of bad news.”

“Why?” I asked him. He answered in the style resonant of his entire book: “In order to build anything great, you have to be an optimist, because by definition you are trying to do something that most people would consider impossible. Optimists most certainly do not listen to leading indicators of bad news.”

But this insight won’t be in any book. When I suggested he write something on the topic, his response was: “Why would I do that? It would be a waste of time to write about how to not follow human nature. It would be like trying to stop the Peter Principle.* CEOs must be optimists and all in all that’s a good thing.”

A similar principle from the ancient boardgame of Go is, "Your opponents best move is your best move." i.e. sometimes it can be hard to see what the most advantageous move is for you. but if you can see your opponent's most advantageous move, then just steal that one.

This is how I summarize my time in photography classes.

- What’s in focus? (What’s out of focus?)

- What’s in light? (What’s in shadow?)

- Where is the light coming from? (Where is the light not coming from?)

- What’s in the foreground? (What’s in the background?)

- Positive space / negative space

Similar things end up happening in audio. You want to set up a microphone to record something, it’s usually better to point the microphone away from the noise that you don’t want, instead of towards the sound that you do want. When you’re EQing, you usually want to remove unwanted frequencies rather than boost wanted frequencies. Etc.

That’s fun. My personal version of this is when I’m stuck on a problem at home or work I’ll lay down on the ground and look up at the ceiling or lay on a couch with my head hanging off to see the room upside down.

Surveying an area I’m familiar with from a weird perspective always sparks new ideas for me because I almost always also see something new in that familiar place because of the positioning.

In doing so, it helps me unblock other thought processes.

Interesting way of describing/thinking about hazard or risk analysis which is applied in many industries through ISO standard frameworks such as ISO 14971 for medical devices (but is also used elsewhere). Risk analysis complements requirements analysis in that risk mitigation plans become requirements of the system (if the risks meet some threshold).

I came here to note the same thing, from an aerospace perspective.

In a formal development following something like ARP4754A even before one works on the requirements that a system has to meet, the high level system functions are considered and a Functional Hazard Assessment is done to look at the criticality of those functions failing. Then one can add requirements and architectural mitigations as the system and Safety Assessment is developed.

The article gets it right, but "man muss immer umkehren," is better translated as "man must always turn upside down", "inside out," "turn back" or "reverse" depending on the context.

In Afrikaans, "omkeer" is derived from the Germanic umkehren and would be used as changing direction (in a military sense) or upside down as in 'leave no stone unturned.'

Strangely, nowadays I would refer to inverting your trousers as "binneste-buite" (inside-out) or "uitkeer" in Afrikaans: roughly 'about face'.

To turn a piece of clothing inside out is "auf Links ziehen", which is hard to translate. I find "inside out" to be quite the intuitive metaphor.

The idea is that clothes have a "right" side (rechts) and a "left" side (links), and you pull it (ziehen) so that the left side is visible, i.e. on the outside.

Someone wrote that the terms left and right come from knitting where the right side is the flat side, and thus worn on the outside. Not sure whether that holds water.

According to the wikipedia page about Jacobi, in the mathematical context the best translation is invert. Also in Italian (my language)it is used the verb 'invertire' in this context.


Native german speaker here: In this context, I would read "umkehren" as "turn back / turn into the direction where you came from"

I agree. I would have never thought about translating it as invert.

I would translate

"Man mus immer umkehren"


"One always has to return"

What is the difference between a bug report and a feature request? Is it simply that a bug report is something the system should already be doing, either because it's an advertised feature or it's something which is universally expected from that kind of software, while a feature request is about something which the system does not do, does not advertise that it does, and is not expected to be there by default? If so, we should be able to "invert" any bug report into a feature request (and vice versa), which could gain some insight by looking at it in a different way.

Another thing we could do is write a feature request — which often over-specifies what should be done in a classic up-front design way — like a bug report, which usually only specifies a goal which we can't yet achieve, rather than how it should be achieved.

Yet another thing which would be interesting is TDD-style tickets. Rather than simply explaining the happy path to a goal they could explain the various things which could prevent someone from reaching that goal: invalid inputs, missing permissions, inaccessible dependencies, missing UI, etc.

The technique is also pretty good for acknowledging one's own personal decisions and being ok with them. For example:

What's preventing me from being richer, more powerful, more famous?

Perhaps you'd give up privacy, autonomy, free time. That might be all it takes to realize that happiness and performance are not always, or even often, the same.

Funny a few years ago I thought that Failure Oriented Design could be a nice starting point. Think about all the failures/errors, the remaining space will then be a safe playground.

Thinking about all possible failures seems daunting though. It reminds me of the Anna Karenina principle:

"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

What does this say about the tractability of enumerating possible failures? :P

It's Staparfi, it's always STA-PAR-FI!

That is:

Standard: Start with standard, commonly applicable piece of advice. Lists of these can be found many places (for example, "to achieve success, avoid failure").

Paradoxical: Reformulate in terminology that's opaque, paradoxical, jargony and truncated (OPJART!)

Fixation: Claim that's always true, that it's best thing since sliced bread. etc. Your audience will recoil but some of them will work and realize there's some good advice in your stream of jargon. And having worked at getting this understanding, they will value it more and be happy to endorse the exaggerated value you're assigning to your jargon and your point, which is, indeed, something that is true moderately often.

STA-PAR-FI! This phrase can launch a thousand consultancies.

It seems to me that a better English equivalent to umkehren would be turn around. That also fits the text of the article better. That is to say look at the problem from the other side, form another angle. Invert is simultaneously too specific (leading to formulaic methods) and too ambiguous (leading to pointless discussions of whether it means considering putting the steering wheel at the back or on the other side when in fact it means do both).

See https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/umkehren

Edit: fixed typo.

Jacobi was a mathematician and his "Umkehrfunktion" is in english "Inverse function".

It also seems the common english translation: https://www.google.com/search?q=invert+always+invert

To be fair though:

While his Wikipedia entry has the sentence:

> He is said to have told his students that when looking for a research topic, one should 'Invert, always invert' ('man muss immer umkehren'), reflecting his belief that inverting known results can open up new fields for research, for example inverting elliptical integrals and focusing on the nature of elliptic and theta functions.[8]


The attributed source for that, a paper from 1916, differs in the translation:


> The great mathematician Jacobi is said to have inculcated upon his students the dictum: Man muss immer umkehren. One must always seek a converse, turn a thought the other end to.

The LEO dictionary is a consistently-good online dictionary for German <-> English:


It seems to have a strong sense around "returning to a previous place / state", not just "turn around". Which is where the mathematical use of "invert" comes from, because an inverted function swaps the domain and range. But also words like "repent" being a possible translation; to repent of your actions and thus (ideally) return to a previous state of innocence.

Murphy's law is a more humorous way of saying the same thing.

"If something can go wrong it will go wrong."

There are earlier references - but Murphy's Law is associated with high g-force testing just after WWII. The team used Murphy's law to anticipate every possible failure and prevent it before the experiment ended in death. There is nothing like death to sharpen your focus.


Has anybody else ever noticed that mazes are easier to solve if you start at the end and work backwards?

I usually solved them that way when I was a kid, but that's only because maze designers set up forks in one direction but they don't bother doing it in the other direction.

Why only invert? For example when designing a car, don't just consider putting the steering wheel in the front or in the back. But also consider left and right.

Great advice! I have to say though, I love the irony of the author mentioning reducing investment losses by asking the question "Am I diversifying enough to prevent long term loss?" when Munger+Buffett have the opposite view of diversification for the savvy investor - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJzu_xItNkY

I have actually saw quite a few examples of Inversion

* Herta Herzog laid the foundation for the basis of modern media psychology, but simply inverting.

What do media do to people --> What people do with media.

This shifts focus from strong media influences to human being an active consumer of media.

* In statistical testing is fundamentally based on the principle of inversion, if the resulting statistic can be used as an evidence to reject the null or favour the alternative.

Related passage from Bell's "Men of Mathematics":

    It (inversion) is one of the most powerful methods of mathematical discovery (or invention) ever devised, and Abel was the first human being to use it consciously as an engine of research. "You must always invert," as Jacobi said when asked the secret of his mathematical discoveries.

Perhaps always invert but after approaching the problem from the front.

I would apply the 80/20 rule from both directions (so in theory perhaps spending up to 40% effort) to get the best chance of success. And really, you can't invert without first knowing enough about the problem you're trying to solve.

This follows the way my brain works too. Dog into the problem -> invert -> learn more about problem -> uninvert -> map problem in much greater detail -> reinvert -> discover truth -> solution

This feels too similar to my default mode of thinking, which is risk aversion, and constantly thinking about what can go wrong, and then steering away from that. Is that because this concept isn't really for me, like it's more helpful for go-getter optimists?

Reminds me of how an AI agent that tries to minimize the worst case scenario is almost always better than one that tries to maximize the best case scenario.

(admittedly that's a bit anecdotal, maybe someone with more knowledge can give better details on that statement)

> an AI agent

And probably life itself.

Good article from Nassim Taleb [0] relating to rationality/irrationality and survival...

"survival comes first, truth, understanding and science later"

which would seem to relate to a the simpler model for AI centered around preventing disaster being more robust than trying to solve some form of maximization while risking ruin.

In some ways it is arguably better to be paranoid/"irrational" about risk than try to be perfectly sufficiently rational

"I have shown that, unless one has an overblown and a very unrealistic representation of some tail risks, one cannot survive –all it takes is a single event for the irreversible exit from among us. Is selective paranoia “irrational” if those individuals and populations who don’t have it end up dying or extinct, respectively?"

[0] https://medium.com/incerto/how-to-be-rational-about-rational...

That just depends on how you what your AI to optimize and what results you value. After 3 attempts, would you rather have the best-case twice and the worst-case once or a medium-case three times?

Well, obviously you don't always want to invert, since inverting twice will just get you back to where you started. In fact, you have to be doing worse than random guessing initially if inverting the problem in general makes it easier to solve.

I have an "Invert"-related question for the HN hive mind — see below for the question, and why it's not off-topic: I'm a pretty-senior lawyer and part-time law professor; I'm working on turning some of my accumulated contract clauses and course materials into a "fair and balanced," annotated, contract framework, in the form of a plain HTML document w/ some CSS styling, to support using shorter contracts in business.

EXAMPLE: Instead of doing a full-blown NDA, parties could agree, in an email exchange, that Party A will keep Party B's confidential information secret in accordance with the [name] Confidential Information Clause — presto, an enforceable NDA (in most jurisdictions).

I'll be posting the whole thing online for free under some kind of Creative Commons license, in part for my students, and in part in the hope that if people start to use it, eventually I won't have to spend so much time reviewing random contract language for clients.

The current corpus includes clauses for confidentiality; consulting services; software warranties and disclaimers; limitations of liability; terms of service; payment terms; referral payments; channel partnerships; consulting services; indemnity ground rules; and other things.

I'm trying to follow (part of) the Unix philosophy: Each clause should do basically one thing, and do it well, with as few dependencies as possible (maximize orthogonality).

The materials also have numerous planning checklists for spotting issues that can come up.

The clauses incorporate typical wish-list items that work for both sides. In a prior life, I was the general counsel for a software company, and customers' lawyers liked that balanced approach very much because it reduced their workload; our sales people likewise liked the fact that the balanced approach helped get us to signature sooner, without screwing around with anatomy-measuring, "art of the deal" game playing.

The clauses are extensively annotated with citations to real-world cases where problems arose — sometimes, big problems — explaining how the clause language seeks to avoid the problems, again in ways that work for both parties.

For improved readability, I'm using Python-like indentation to avoid long, wall-of-words paragraphs of dense legalese. (That's proving very popular with my clients' business people.)

HERE'S THE QUESTION: Apropos of the "Invert" subject of the posted article, should this contract framework be positioned as:

1. a vitamin — "balanced, readable terms to help you get workable contracts to signature sooner,"


2. aspirin - "learn from others' failures by adopting the [name] framework in your contracts."

All input gratefully received.

Huge props for this effort, I'm very excited to use this system. I'd advise you to think about the audience for this work. To my eye, that audience is the small and medium sized business leader, especially those with a technology focus. The problem this solves for them is getting the legal stuff done as quickly and cheaply as possible without sacrificing any important legal protections. They don't really care that the contract is balanced and readable except in as much as that speeds up the negotiation and let's them verify that they are not getting screwed.

Your basic one liner might be something like "Create real, legally valid contracts over email"

Expanding on that you could say "Use our standard library of legal clauses to build your own contracts in a safe and legally defensible way. Each clause is designed to serve a single purpose and offer each party fair, battle-tested legal protections. The library itself is free, open source and licensed under the Creative Commons. It can be used by simply referencing the clause by name in any document, even email. Every clause is annotated with plain English explanations, so it is easy for all parties to understand what your contract says. Go _here_ for a quick tutorial on how to use library, including a primer on the top N most important clauses for business deals"

Later you might want to explain why you made this "I/we made this because we spent thousands of hours reviewing the same boilerplate contract language, fixing the same mistakes and watching the same disagreements play out between the parties. Taking a good idea from software engineering, we set out to create a trusted standard library for building legal contracts that would solve these problems once and for all. The library was created by professional contract lawyers and academics with decades of experience, so every word is backed by mountains of case law and legal precedent. We're confident that the library can be the legal backbone of your next deal."

> To my eye, that audience is the small and medium sized business leader, especially those with a technology focus. The problem this solves for them is getting the legal stuff done as quickly and cheaply as possible without sacrificing any important legal protections. They don't really care that the contract is balanced and readable except in as much as that speeds up the negotiation and let's them verify that they are not getting screwed.

Exactly — thanks!

Also, down the road you might consider making a non-profit to manage improvements and updates to the clauses. You could even apply to YC with said non-profit. I'm sure they'd be interested.

This is an great endeavour and problem you are positioned to uniquely solve.

Think of the user's experience and come up with the key questions your audience will need to ask to get the job done like you outlined above and create an easy to use user flow with modern UI controls and basically reduce, anticipate, and outsource the complexity at all stages. What are the most common workflows you can automate with a wizard of questions? Think completing your taxes with Intuit type of experience that has come a long way to be user centered and anticipate answers to all questions they might have and ask.

> modern UI controls

It'll be an online book, in vanilla HTML with some CSS styling and just a bit of Javascript (to show/hide commentary).

Why not both?

Good question — maybe both would work. Thanks!

I wonder if this is better described as "solution-oriented" problem solving versus "failure-oriented" problem solving.

Inversion seems like a misnomer and is easily conflated with the logical/mathematical meaning.

This seems to line up really nicely with "Jobs-to-be-Done Theory" proposed by Clayton Christensen and Co [1]. This inversion approach seems like a great technique to help move from thinking about products and think about the jobs that need doing.

[1] - Competing Against Luck - https://www.amazon.com/Competing-Against-Luck-Innovation-Cus...

This is only one of the principles featured in TRIZ.


I'd follow up inverting with decomposing.

Solving smaller problems in the service of the bigger one is as powerful as flipping the problem upside down.

This is instinctually how those of us with anxiety disorders and cognitive challenges think. WAVINGEMOJI hi please feel free to ask us how to help when you see us around.

Edit: sorry, didn't mean to volunteer anyone else! Just ask those of us who make ourselves available for it, you know us as the people who are constantly warning doom.

“Instead of asking how do we increase the adoption of a product or feature? You could instead consider - what are some of things preventing adoption?“

  What if I started with “ what are some of things preventing adoption?“ Would I be incorrectly inverting? But you did say always invert.

If you started with "what is preventing adoption?" you would explore the answers to that question first, and then would still gain additional insight from asking "how do I increase adoption?".

It seems like a good model, but probably because it helps you see things from a new angle.

That is, the benefit is not focusing on (not (not A)) instead of A -- with the right choice of A you can flip those, but rather when everyone is thinking about A, see if a double inversion offers new solutions. My 2c

According to positive psychology it's better to do something good rather then avoiding something bad. But it's good to ask yourself why you want to do something, as there might be easier ways to achieve the same thing once you understand what you really want.

In combinatorial optimization, the basic principle is is always: every primal, has a dual. That is, minimazing some expressions, means maximizing the other. Primal-dual would also - I feel - fit better to the principle, as described in this article.

Something tells me OP hasn't read Polya "How to solve it" and is attempting a bad rediscovery of a tiny aspect of the overall body of problem-solving tactics.

My uncle has a similar saying: "The most important consideration in any situation is the alternative". He's a very smart man and an excellent engineer.

This is also how some problems are solved more efficiently in Operations Research: solving the dual of the problem instead of the actual problem.

I think this is useful in zero sum/life and death situation. Otherwise you might go on a path which leads away from your core values and intentions.

Dialectic is now called "invert" ?

I think hackers are pretty natural at this type of thinking. A la “what this application is not supposed to do?”

In business, I believe this translates to always protecting against the downside.

"Imagine the worst possible outcome. Now . . . avoid that." -Baptiste

I'd never thought of Charlie Munger as a pomo, but here we are? Next thing you know the POTUS will be engaging in a supplementary play of meaning which defies semantic reduction?

Pedantry for those who have implicitly asked for it:

Munger spots binary hierarchical oppositions, such as between forwards and backwards, seeking and avoiding, or intelligence and stupidity, and displaces the privileged term, what we take implicitly to be primary, by inviting us to consider the secondary term in its own right, as another endpoint of the same relationship.

(Is this process somewhat like Category Theory's displacement of objects by consideration of the arrows between them? Attacking problems by inverting to generate coproblems?)

simple and actionable. A quick way to snap out of what is currently constraining my thinkign

In other words, minimize regret.

Me: how can I finish this project smoothly

Inversion: what can makes this project not finished smoothly

My answer: if my boss died

Me: ...

So you'll look out for the health and well-being of your boss/colleagues and look for ways to improve the resilience of the organization?

For me it means not everything can be prevented, and sometimes whatever bad can happen, happen. It's out of our control. We just need to handle those in our control and predict the probability of uncontrollable one, and whether we can accept those risks (probability * severity).

Edit: and that's why coronavirus is so devastating to businesses. Primarily because it's probability is so small with high severity and it's out of our control.

* On a side note, I really have thought about it once, that my ex boss's diet is so horrible I'm afraid he will caught a disease. Thankfully it didn't happened in my 4 years of working there.

Think of it like alpha-beta pruning. You look through all the alternatives, and some will yield useful results, others will be useless so you can prune those and concentrate on the useful.

short and helpful reading. thanks for sharing

Great short post! Big fan of Farnam Street and Charlie Munger myself as well

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