To Look Ahead, It Pays To Look Backwards
November 2, 2022
The ability to solve problems is a fundamental life skill. For most people, occasionally, problem-solving is a conscious activity, but most of the time, it happens unconsciously and instinctively. Good problem-solvers, however, don’t depend on instinct and chance. Instead, they use heuristics and mental models to guide them in making the right choices.
For those interested to learn about problem-solving in a fun way, there is a quirky yet powerful Ted Talk by Maurice Ashley, a famous American Chess Grandmaster, that I want to refer to.
In this Ted Talk titled Working Backward To Solve Problems, Maurice talks about retrograde analysis as a method to solve game positions in chess by working backward from known outcomes. Retrograde analysis is a more funky reference to the idea of Inversion as a problem-solving approach. I have also written about it in a blog titled Inversion-A Mental Model.
Maurice presents the idea of Retrograde analysis/Inversion through three powerful examples. I’ll list two of them here.
After reading this sentence, you will realize that the the brain doesn’t recognize a second ‘the.’
In case you are wondering what you missed- take a moment to read this sentence backward (right to the left). You’ll figure out what you missed 🙂
Consider this puzzle of the doubling bacterial. There is a specific Bacteria type that doubles every 24 hours. The Bacteria take 60 days to populate the lake fully. On what day was the lake half-full of bacteria?
I have tested this problem with many adults and kids, including my own. Almost everyone jumps to pick up a pen and a piece of paper to figure out the answer. However, Maurice Ashley provides a simpler alternative. Try to solve the problem backward. You will figure out the solution in a jiffy !!
The correct answer is 59 days.
The core point of the Talk is that retrograde thinking/inversion is a real problem-solving tool that we can deploy in our daily lives.
Imagine you have an annual budget or a goal to achieve by the end of the year. Think of the last day and visualize that you failed. Ask yourself why you failed. Your conscious mind is able to list the reasons why you would have failed. Now that you know the reasons that could trip you, develop a plan to deal with those reasons now- You will hit your objective !!
Maurice Ashley captures the idea of Inversion brilliantly with this quote “To look ahead, it pays to look backwards !!”