The Tail Wags the Dog
Inversion, active voice, and addition by subtraction
Inversion is not
Inversion is not thinking forward. It’s thinking backward.
Inversion is not pursuing positive outcomes. It’s avoiding negative inputs.
Inversion is not converging. It’s diverging.
Inversion is an approach to solving problems by flipping the direction.
Let’s say a company wants to increase employee output. Their first approach is to mandate office attendance so they can better monitor labor. An inverted approach could question: How do we decrease employee output? Many ideas surface, such as more meetings, more approvals, hiring due to attrition, long email chains, irrelevant training.
The company now has a list of dangers to employee output. Instead of implementing their initial solution of “getting everyone back in the office,” they could adopt less intrusive and more effective solutions: Cancelling meetings, fostering employee accountability to avoid approval chains, or improving culture to decrease attrition.
When and how to invert:
Problem-solving: How could I make this worse?
Critical thinking: What if I made the opposite decision?
Get creatively unstuck: What if Excel was my artistic medium?
Don’t be caught by the passive voice
Passive voice is objectively wrong in any writing—business, academic, or artistic. Edge cases exist, but the passive voice is often unclear, imprecise, and disempowering. Language represents an underlying philosophy, so shift language to represent philosophy better. We are not objects acted upon by the world; we are subjects that act upon the world.
To avoid passive voice, start with the verb. If the subject follows “by,” the sentence is passive. To make a sentence active, consider three inversion techniques.
Order Inversion: The dog is wagged by the tail → The tail wags the dog
The order inverts, but the meaning and words—subject (tail), verb (wag), and object (dog)—are unchanged.
Word Inversion: Don’t be caught by the passive voice → Avoid passive voice
The words invert—the verb (caught) transforms, and the subject (voice) and object (you, implied) flip—but the order and meaning are unchanged.
Meaning Inversion: The dog is wagged by the tail → The dog wags the tail
The meaning inverts—the dog shifts from object to subject—but the words and their order are unchanged.
Ironically, inversion can reveal how backward a passive sentence is. Invert your sentences, and the dog will wag its tail.
Alligators & kittens
A sad woman in Louisiana loves kittens, as their little meows fill her with joy. So, she adopts a dozen kittens and brings them to her house in the bayou, which is crawling with alligators. These slimy reptiles make her sad and stressed, so the kittens are a welcome relief. But after a few days, the alligators devour all her kittens. The alligators are now bigger and stronger, and the woman is even sadder.
Negative forces consume positive forces. To improve something, removing negatives can yield more than adding positives.
-15% debt interest erodes wealth faster than +7% investment interest grows wealth
An abusive partner is worse than the loneliness of being single
Subtracting a daily tub of ice cream is healthier than adding a serving of broccoli
First, remove alligators (debt, negative people, bad habits).
Then, add kittens (invest, build relationships, start new hobbies).
Inversion can be fun.