“Be unreliable and do not faithfully do what you have engaged to do. Learn everything you possibly can from your own personal experience, minimizing what you learn from the good and bad experience of others. Go down and stay down when you get your first, second or third severe reverse in the battle of life.”
This prescription for guaranteed misery in life is copied from a Harvard School commencement speech by Charles T. Munger. After being asked to speak to a graduating class in 1986, the current Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway was considering the length of the speech. He came to think about a compliment Cicero gave to Demosthenes, when asked which oration of Demosthenes he liked the most. Cicero answered: ”The longest one.”
Munger also thought about a comment of Samuel Johnson on John Milton’s Paradise Lost poem: ”No one ever wished it longer.” He asked himself what other Harvard School commencement speeches he wished had been longer. The answer was one by entertainer and television host Johnny Carson, in which Carson specified his prescription for guaranteed misery in life. Munger repeated and expanded on Carson’s speech, adding some prescriptions of his own.
This means that Munger did not come up with everything himself. Instead, he repeated, made some additions, and expanded on Johnny Carson’s speech. In turn, it is also likely that Carson found inspiration in others.
One could say that this is an approach in which you enrichen yourself and learn what, how, and why things work by learning from others. Swedish author, Peter Bevelin, has found this approach useful in his quest for wisdom. In fact, he has written a book about what he learned, Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, which covers several lifespans of wisdom.
Seeking Wisdom is an intense book in the spirit of Charlie Munger’s own search for wisdom. It is full of takeaways and applicable concepts, among them, Munger’s notion on how you need to learn models from different fields and organize them on what he calls a latticework of mental models. Why do we need to do that? Munger likes to recite the old saying, ”to the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” It is simply not enough to learn one narrow field. To thrive, you need to have a cross-disciplinary thinking.
In his book, Bevelin writes about the necessity of understanding and using the big ideas from all the important disciplines, such as: mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, biology and psychology. Munger’s opinion on the subject: ”The models have to come from multiple disciplines because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department.”
This cross-disciplinary thinking will help you see how things relate to each other in a new way. It will, among other things, boost your ability to find investment opportunities that otherwise would have gone away. Indeed, this model has helped Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett, Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and Munger’s partner, to invest in businesses above par consistently over time; since Munger and Buffett joined forces in 1974, Berkshire Hathaway’s A-stock has yielded a whopping 72,375.00% return, while S&P 500 ”only” returned 1,710.00%.
Cultivating this kind of thinking in order to find opportunities in business and life is important, but it is not the only approach you can rely on. Under some circumstances, the best you can do is to avoid stupid decisions rather than trying to be smart.
Avoiding stupidity comes down to not doing what you should not do. Buffett famously applies the circle of competence concept – knowing what you know and do not know. Tom Watson Sr, founder of IBM, put thisinto practice: ”I am no genius. I am smart in spots, but I stay around around those spots.” Munger takes Buffett’s concept further and applies it to life in general:
”If you play games where other people have the aptitudes and you do not, you are going to lose. And that is as close to certain as any prediction that you can make. You have to figure out where you have got an edge. And you have got to play within your own circle of competence.”
Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physician and author, often expressed that ”the pleasure is finding things out”. Bevelin talks about curiosity in Seeking Wisdom. In it, he quotes Samuel Johnson: ”Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind.”
Being curious and learning more while trying to continuously be less stupid has been helpful for Munger and Buffett. Munger says: ”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.” authors claim to be writing for themselves. Jorge Luis Borges, for example, was one of them. He says: ”I am writing for myself and for my friends and to pass the time.” He was also content when one of his books only sold 37 copies before sales took off after rising to fame in 1961 at the age of 62.There is more than just one reason for writing for oneself. It also helps to clarify your thinking. Why? In order for simple writing, one must think clearly and really understand what the subject is about.
In the world of literature, some authors claim to be writing for themselves. Jorge Luis Borges, for example, was one of them. He says: ”I am writing for myself and for my friends and to pass the time.” He was also content when one of his books only sold 37 copies before sales took off after rising to fame in 1961 at the age of 62.There is more than just one reason for writing for oneself. It also helps to clarify your thinking. Why? In order for simple writing, one must think clearly and really understand what the subject is about.
One approach to understand a subject is the Feynman Technique, Richard Feynman’s famous study method. It is an effective way to learn new things by writing down everything you know about a subject on a blank sheet of paper. By doing this you will identify holes in your understanding, and get a better hold of what you need to practice. Re-learn those parts. Repeat this process until you can explain the subject in a simple way to an outsider, who is unfamiliar with the subject.
The Feynman Technique can also be used to figure out what you do not know. As we have seen in this article, avoiding stupidity is a concept successfully used by Munger, Buffett and Tom Watson Sr. In Seeking Wisdom, you will find more models. It is out in three editions and is considered by many to be the book with the most page-for-page wisdom.