No one wants to be dumb, so we all look for ways to be more clever. We try to foster greater innovativeness at our businesses with new programs or processes, we scheme to get in shape by making healthy lifestyle changes, we strive for the good life by trying to accomplish more and be happier. But are we approaching all these goals in the wrong way?
That’s the contention of a recent post on blog Farnam Street, highlighting the wisdom of Warren Buffett’s legendary righthand man, Charlie Munger. The best way to tackle a tough problem, Munger claims, isn’t, as your first impulse likely suggests, to run straight for your goal. Better, he argues, to creep up on it backwards. This is known as inverting the problem (the mathematically inclined among you will recognize the technique), and Farnam Street explains how it works:
Say you want to create more innovation at your organization. Thinking forward, you’d think about all of the things you could do to foster innovation. If you look at the problem backwards, you’d think about all the things you could do to create less innovation. Ideally, you’d avoid those things. Sounds simple right? I bet your organization does some of those ‘stupid’ things today.
Another example, rather than think about what makes a good life, you can think about what prescriptions would ensure misery.
While thinking forward and thinking backwards may leave you at the same endpoint, as the post points out, leaping into making changes often has negative and unexpected consequences. Subtracting stupidity means it is more likely you will inch up on a solution without causing unintended harm.
Admitting that you’re already likely doing less than optimal (perhaps even straight up dumb) things and trying to eliminate them of course takes a degree of intellectual humility. We'd all prefer not to think about our own failings, blind spots, and possible future errors, but facing up to your limitations is one of the best ways to learn. You’ll grow more intellectually if you’re willing to be the stupidest guy in the room, one veteran entrepreneur points out, while Columbia Business School professor Seth Freeman notes that huge percentages of his students flunk an in-exercise that penalizes students for failing to ask 'dumb' questions and admit their ignorance.
"I walk into class in the role of a corporate executive and give each team a complex investment offer. Secret: My character wants to take over their businesses, using charm, jargon and complicated terms. If they understand my offer, or admit to themselves they don't understand it, they’ll walk away. Yet, it’s easy to con a third to a half of them into fatal deals,” he writes.
Do you put enough effort into simply trying to stop doing dumb things?