Anti-Mental Models: How Avoidance Breeds Success

We can’t help it; it’s how we’ve been indoctrinated from childhood. Of course, it’s not necessarily wrong either. I’m talking about our drive to reach toward achievements instead of avoiding negative consequences. Where other chapters of this book are about mental models, we introduce anti-mental models here to represent how you can achieve just as much if you only focus on one thing: avoidance.

Mental Model #19: Avoid Direct Goals. Direct goals are like shooting for the moon, while anti-goals, or inverse goals, are about avoiding crashing into the earth and doing everything to prevent that from happening. This has just as good a chance of achieving the outcome you want through direct goals, but it might get you there quicker and more efficiently. Simply articulate the factors involved in a worst-case scenario, then devote your time to preventing them.

Keep the words flowing by buying me a coffee.

We’ve examined some mental models for how to handle certain situations, improve our reasoning, solve problems, and attack some of the thornier issues in life head-on. Some of them are a set of guidelines on how to think, and others end up prescribing a specific sequence of actions.

These are helpful, but they all have one thing in common: they are all aiming toward some sort of end goal. The mental model sets a goal to strive for, whether it is about seeing regressions to the mean, focusing on important tasks as opposed to urgent tasks, or triangulating your perspectives and opinions into improvement. The closer you get to what you strive toward, the closer you get to achievement.

There’s nothing wrong with this, and we are naturally predisposed to it as it’s the sort of template we are raised on. If you want to do well in school, you shoot for high marks and showing all your work. If you want to be the fastest competitive swimmer, you strive for the fastest times and best technique. Whatever the goal, your intention should be to move closer to it.

But this doesn’t always produce the best results, and furthermore, it doesn’t always represent where our priorities should lie.

Sometimes (actually, you’ll find this to be frequent and widespread), it’s both easier and more representative of your true priorities to aim away from a certain negative threshold/milestone than it is to aim toward a certain positive threshold/milestone.

As a quick illustration, suppose you want to learn to swim better. You could keep in mind each tip on how to improve your technique (long strokes). But you could also think about the things that a terrible swimmer does and avoid those at all costs (avoid short strokes). You would get a similar end result, and possibly a better one because you would focus on removing your weak points.

We can refer to these as anti-mental models, as they still provide a blueprint of guidance, but they are about moving away from something rather than toward it. Just as we have mental models for getting what we want out of life, we also have ways of thinking that can help us avoid the things we don’t want. It can take just as much human resolve and strategy to break away from things as it does to get what we want. In both cases you’re trying to be the best human being you can be.

For example, what if you want to be a better friend? Instead of creating a list of excellent friend attributes, you could start by creating a list of things you’d hate people to do to you and avoid those. This may actually yield even better results.

Do you want to be more productive? Instead of asking yourself how to be more productive, ask yourself what sabotages your productivity and make it your goal to avoid those.

Sometimes, a simple shift in perspective is what we need to be more effective. What resonates with one person may not resonate with the next, even though they have extremely similar sentiments. Either way, it’s all about what moves you into consistent action.

The concept of anti-mental models also points our attention to something that is usually overlooked: dealing with negatives.

If your swimming technique is 99% amazing, that 1% will still keep you back. Achieving a host of positive goals usually doesn’t matter if a glaring negative exists. Often, what matters in life is the lack of any negatives rather than the presence of positives. Ask anyone if they care that they have the most expensive and luxurious shoes when the shoes pinch their toes to the point of bleeding with every step. Our weakest links are usually what hold us back or keep us unfulfilled, and with anti-mental models, you are taking care of them up front.

Consider that money doesn’t buy you happiness, yet removing anxiety surrounding security, housing, food, providing, and hunger will generally make people impervious to misery. Aiming to remove negatives sets a minimum floor of fulfillment and achievement; usually we are aiming to blast through the roof, and this isn’t what will actually make an impact on us.

This chapter looks at some anti-mental models that will provide you with clarity on how avoidance of negatives can breed just as much success as directly pursuing goals.

MM #19: Avoid Direct Goals

Use to find clarity in how to reach your overarching destination.

We’ll pick up right where we began – with how to create anti-mental models where you focus on avoiding something. These are just as effective at driving you toward a goal. We start with a very clear one: avoid direct goals. Like before, to achieve the outcome we want, we want to avoid working toward something and instead work to avoid a negative. Instead of direct goals, we want inverse goals, also known as anti-goals.

Carl Jacobi, a German mathematician, was known for utilizing such an approach to solve difficult math problems. Following a strategy of man muss immer umkehren, or “invert, always invert,” Jacobi would write down math problems in inverse form and find that it was easier for him to arrive at the solution that way: by first finding what wasn’t possible.

Transferring this inverse way of thinking to life at large, Charlie Munger challenges the youth to ponder on the inverse of success instead of simply focusing on how to achieve success.

He poses the question, “What do you want to avoid?” and offers a likely response: sloth and unreliability. These qualities are roadblocks to success, and you get to shine a spotlight on them precisely by asking why people fail instead of why they succeed. By inverting the question of success, you get to discover drivers of failure and are thus able to avoid such behaviors in order to improve. In other words, if you work hard to avoid sloth and unreliability, success should be yours.

So instead of asking what you need to do to be a better manager, try considering what a terrible manager would do. Avoid those actions. If your business model centers on innovation, ask “How could we limit this company’s innovative potentials?” Do the opposite. If you’re looking to improve your productivity, ask “What are the things I do to distract myself?” Generally, instead of asking “How do I solve this problem,” ask “How would I cause this problem?” Then do something else.

Inversion helps you uncover your hidden beliefs and allows you to avoid what you ultimately don’t want. You can find sudden clarity when you realize that success might truly only depend on the absence of something.

It’s much easier to avoid what you don’t want than to get what you do want. The easiest way to use anti-goals or inverse goals just takes two steps. It applies neatly to nearly anything you wish to achieve.

  1. Define failure or causes of unhappiness.
  2. Create methods to avoid those things at all costs.

For instance, do you want to improve the quality of your days?

  1. Define failure or causes of unhappiness. For instance, what defines a poor-quality day? Four factors: poor sleep, bad traffic, poor diet, and an annoying dog.
  2. Create methods to avoid those things at all costs. How can you address each of these contributors to unhappy days? Buy a new bed or find a new sleep ritual. Find ways to make your commute more enjoyable or minimal or shift your work hours around so you can avoid it completely. Pack your lunches beforehand or learn how to cook healthier. Buy the dog some more chew toys, hire a dog walking service, or get him a buddy.

When we reduce this anti-mental model down even further, the most powerful and simple version is to just avoid stupidity. We typically seek to act smart and clever, and again, this is how we are taught to think from childhood.

It’s not wrong, but it does leave room for some improvement. Trying to do smart things can be perilous and ambiguous. It’s an open-ended task. But avoiding stupidity, well, that’s pretty apparent when you see it. Munger, on the topic of stupidity:

It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent. There must be some wisdom in the folk saying, “It’s the strong swimmers who drown.”

I sought good judgment mostly by collecting instances of bad judgment, then pondering ways to avoid such outcomes.

A lot of success in life and business comes from knowing what you want to avoid: early death, a bad marriage, etc„1¤7 Just avoid things like racing trains to the crossing, doing cocaine, etc. Develop good mental habits„1¤7 Avoid evil, particularly if they’re attractive members of the opposite sex.

We want to see what has caused businesses to go bad„1¤7 I’ve often felt there might be more to be gained by studying business failures than business successes. In my business, we try to study where people go astray, and why things don’t work.

Keep it simple. Think of anti-mental models as harnessing one of humanity’s most obvious impulses: avoiding pain and discomfort. It’s why we have phobias and anxieties and can’t help but eat junk food. This is what has been programmed into us and has kept us alive for eons. Use it for good this time!

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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.

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