“Invert, always invert.” - Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi
Charlie Munger popularized Carl Jacobi’s above statement. It is true. Many problems cannot be solved forward. They are best solved when they are addressed backwards. Munger’s preferred inversion is to know where he is going to die and never go there.
Gain foresight from others’ failures. Avoid stupidity. That is sage advice for almost everyone. Yet, avoiding others’ mistakes isn’t the only hindsight to learn from.
“A life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” - Soren Kierkegaard
Another method is to seek out and emulate those who’ve done what you want to do. Understand their accomplishments and moves. Gain foresight from their hindsight.
This is precisely the method used by Tadashi Yanai, Japan’s wealthiest individual.
Tadashi Yanai took over his family’s tailor business in the early 1970s. He failed and failed until he started utilizing this inversion. Today, Yanai’s Uniqlo is the 2nd largest apparel company in the world.
Tadashi Yanai’s father, Hitoshi, opened Ogōri Shōji in Ube, Yamaguchi, Japan in 1949. The firm made suits for Japanese salarymen. The business was incorporated in 1963 with 6 million yen (~$25,000 today) in capital.
Initially, the small tailoring business wasn’t where young Tadashi wanted to work. After university and a year selling men’s clothing at a JUSCO supermarket, Tadashi took over his father’s business in 1972. He felt he could change the course of the business. Actually, he quickly turned the business in the wrong direction. Shortly after he started, “Six of the seven employees quit.”
Tadashi immediately changed his management style. Instead of learning purely from his own mistakes, he started to draw from the books he read as a child. He said:
“I was a bookworm, basically. I liked to read biographies of legendary entrepreneurs and businesspeople, like [Panasonic founder] Konosuke Matasushita and [Honda Motor founder] Soichiro Honda. I also read ‘Managing’ by Harold Geneen again and again.”
These biographies became “quasi-experiences” and today Tadashi oftentimes says, “Wait a minute, this may have something in common with what these people went through.” Talk about pattern recognition in action like Warren Buffett’s mentioned here.
Tadashi soon started to use the lessons in the real world. He sought and continues to seek out the best in the retailing business across the globe. Like Bruce Lee, he absorbed what was useful and rejected what was useless. From the US, he said:
“At that time, I learned that a businessman by the name of Leslie Wexner of The Limited [now L Brands], which operated the Victoria’s Secret chain, achieved 1 trillion yen ($9 billion) in sales in a record short period. He is the merchant I admire the most.”
From the UK, he said:
“I learned a clothing retailer called Next increased annual sales from 2 billion yen to 200 billion yen in eight years. I would visit their outlets every season. When you look at their catalog from the late 1980s, even today you wouldn’t think their designs are dated at all.”
Tadashi added, “I thought, maybe that’s the kind of thing we can do in Japan. I was dreaming of growing our business into a company just like those Western companies.” But Tadashi Yanai operated a men’s clothing store in a Japanese Provincial city with 170,000 people.
“Given the reality at that point, I was thinking it wouldn’t be bad at all if, at the end of my career, I were able to grow a company with maybe 30 stores and annual revenue of 3 billion yen.”
Instead, by internalizing and applying the right turns of intelligent fanatic business leaders of the past, Tadashi Yanai grew the company to 1,900 stores and 2 trillion yen (as of 2018). By 2020, he is aiming to be the largest apparel business in the world.
Business, investing and any other endeavor are full of hard problems. Most paths lead to nowhere. Few are lucky enough to stumble into the right path, at the right time, the first time.
That is why inversion is so powerful:
“It is like reading a book backwards. You know the conclusion first. Then you decide what you must do to get there and implement. It’s a simple principle…” - Tadashi Yanani
Inversion is simple but overlooked by most. The minority that do invert follow Charlie Munger and avoid other’s stupidity. Even fewer identify and properly emulate successful models. Yet, nature, music and other fields show the latter is more effective than the former.
Follow the path of plentiful accomplishment. Be like Tadashi Yanani and seek out those who’ve done what you want to do. Understand their accomplishments and moves. Eventually you’ll gain better foresight for what to do today.
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