In my last post, I wrote about how standards and habits are important, not just goals. But how do you transmute goals into achievable habits and standards to be met?

There are two tools which make up this alchemy of achievement: reverse engineering and inversion.

Reverse engineering lets us derive simple, actionable, low-level goals from our high-level abstract goals (which are in turn more or less accurate representations of our even higher-level abstract desires).

It's the process of looking at our end state and figuring out what must be done and where we must move from to get there by asking the question "what must occur before this can happen?" It's looking at step Z and figuring out what step Y is, rather than trying to guess what step A must be.

But reverse engineering is difficult to do well in a vacuum. It's one thing to say "I want financial independence," and another to figure out what the action to take that leads to it is.

That's where inversion comes in. Inversion is the process of asking questions about how to reach the goal, where the goal, the question, or something about the context is entirely flipped.

Instead of asking "how can I succeed?" inversion suggests that we ask "how can I not fail?"

It's much easier to answer that question than it is to come with a strategy for succeeding.

By way of a practical example, my wife and I were talking about bedtimes and getting up earlier today, because we both agreed that I get my best work done in the mornings, and so I need more of them.

The conversation went like this:


My wife: "How can we get up earlier?"

Me: "I don't know. What's preventing us from getting up earlier?"

Her: "Well... going to bed late, I suppose. We'd get up earlier if it wasn't so hard. And it's hard because we don't get enough sleep."

Me: "Good point. So how can we go to bed earlier? We've been trying for a while and we're still not there. It's not just a matter of trying harder: we've been trying plenty."

Her: "Hmm, not sure. Well... what's preventing us from going to bed earlier?"

Me: "If we ate dinner earlier we wouldn't stay up as late, because we'll get our relaxing time and our dinner time in by earlier in the day."

Her: "So it sounds like we should pick a time to be done with work by every day, so we can focus on dinner and recreation for the rest of the evening."

Me: "You're right. Let's focus on finishing work by 4pm every day so we can work on dinner after that. And instead of trying to stay up as late as we can get away with, let's focus on going to bed as early as we can. That's a total paradigm shift for me – I've never thought like that before."


And just like that, we had created a standard, a habit we could work on, from our goal: by reverse engineering from our desired end state of getting up earlier to the needed actions, using inversion.

By focusing on what could cause us to fail (having a late dinner, focusing on staying up as late as we can rather than going to bed as early as we can), we came up with a series of steps we could take to avoid falling into those traps.

Those steps can now become standards and systems, which are what truly lead to success.

It's a process of transforming something useless, yet concrete, like lead, into something useful and desirable, like gold: the alchemy of achievement.