I’m convinced that at any given moment, somewhere in the world, a version of this conversation is taking place:
Person 1: So, what do you want for dinner?
Person 2: Whatever.
Person 1: How about _____?
Person 2: Eh, not that.
Person 1: Well then what if we ate _____?
Person 2: Actually not that either.
In my house, this usually ends in #hangry back and forth before diving into the pantry for a wholesome dinner of chips and granola bars. But imagine with me for a moment that instead of “What do you want to eat?” we asked, “What doesn’t sound good right now?”
With each person stating their absolute NOs, it would be quite a bit easier to identify something that both could live with. After ruling out, say, Chinese food, Mexican food, and fast food, that new burger joint down the street becomes a clear decision.
This flipping-a-question-on-its-head is a mental tool called inversion, and it’s a great problem solving technique. But it’s not just for the little squabbles—it’s also a powerful method for analyzing the biggest questions in life.
A better way to approach careers
While career indecision affects all kinds of people, college students are in an especially weird place where they’re expected to make a lot of big career decisions without a lot of external input. Likely their only experience with an industry is what they read in textbooks and the good word of their professor.
It’s no wonder, then, that super-seniors are becoming so common. These are the unfortunate folks who have changed their major one or five too many times, trapping themselves in indecision hell for 5+ years as they working through coursework for several different career directions.
But what if instead of putting all this pressure on people to make the right choice, we just told them to avoid making the wrong choice?
As a culture, we tend to believe that everyone has their vocation, the one thing they’re meant to do. But if we set that outdated notion aside, we open the door to considering the problem from several different angles. Flipping a question on its head can avoid a lot of wasted time.
Here’s the thing: It’s a lot easier to avoid bad choices than to always make the perfect choice. And guess what? Often times, the end result is very much the same.
Even if you have a goal of where you want to go, the simple act of asking what you also want to avoid can help you avoid many pitfalls along the way. Specifically, if you can identify what you don’t want in life, then you can identify the steps that would lead to the wrong conclusion.
Don’t want to be a customer service manager? Then what on earth are you doing in a customer service job right now?
Don’t want to be in an emotionally manipulative relationship? Then why are you dating people who keep showing the same damaging behavior patterns?
What do you want to avoid in life?
Perfection is paralyzing. Unable to make the best decision, it’s easy to never choose where to go, instead letting life take you where it pleases. And then, 20 years later, you’re sitting at a desk in a job you hate thinking Oh no, this isn’t where I meant to be.
Inverting the question early on helps you identify the wrong before you accidentally walk down it.
In the words of Charlie Munger, business partner of the famous investor Warren Buffet, “All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.”
Or my favorite version from The Office’s Dwight Schrute:
“Whenever I’m about to do something, I think, ‘Would an idiot do that?’ And if they would, I do not do that thing.”