Charlie Munger | Envy and Comparing are dangerous

Denis Bischof
7 min readAug 10, 2023

There are certain behaviors, mindsets, and actions in our life, we should probably avoid in order for a “good” life.

Born in 1924, Charlie Munger is an legendary investor, businessman and former lawyer. In his lifetime he acquired tons of knowledge and wisdom, not just in investing and business, but about “how to live”. At which we will look today.

One of Charlie Mungers rule’s is “Invert, always invert”. Seeing things from a backward perspective. It is, also in this video, not so much looking at what makes a good life to get a good life. It is more looking at what makes a bad life and avoiding that, to get the good life.

ENVY

The first thing, to truly avoid is envy. Envy is the feeling of lacking whatever another person has, may that be looks, possessions, character qualities etc. There are different forms of envy, basically good, which can motivate, and bad, which destroyes so to speak (simplified). We will focus on the bad side of envy.

“The world is not driven by greed: it’s driven by envy.”- Charlie Munger

In one of Charlie’s Shareholder meetings he talked about that everything got so much better the last hundreds years. So, absolutely speaking everyone is much better off compared to people 100s years ago. But envy is relative. We being envy on people around us and blind to the fact, that absolutely looking, we have it pretty good.

Even in the old jewish and christian religious texts, envy is a sin. So it long accompanied humans.

“I think envy is one of the major problems of the human condition, and that’s why it figured so prominently in the laws of Moses. Remember, he said you couldn’t even covet your neighbor’s donkey.”- Charlie Munger

As said before, we compare relatively, most with those we know really good or with whom we have a similar starting point. But what is frightening, when we are envious, we not only feel bad, we make often poor and unreasonable decisions. Consider this Russian proverb, paraphrased by Peter Bevelin:

“There is an old Russian story where a farmer finds a magic lamp. He rubs it, and a genie appears who promises to grant him one wish. The farmer thinks for a moment then says: ‘My neighbor has a cow. I don’t have a cow. I wish my neighbor’s cow dead.’”- Peter Bevelin

Are we not better than that? Instead of taking what we already have or trying to achieve more, in a positive sum game, where “all” people improve, we wish that another has less, so we feel better.

Thinking now of our own behavior. I’m for sure sometimes envy, for me it’s about status. Status is only relative and in the eye of the beholder. It’s just plain stupid and rubs one of happiness. The problem is, I know that and it’s good that I’m aware of that. Just to get rid of it, takes time, at least for me.

“The best way to avoid envy, recognized by Aristotle, is to plainly deserve the success we get.”- Charlie Munger

What can help is focusing on what is within our reach, and what are the next steps. We are not another person. So it doesn’t matter to us at all. Being grateful for what we have, is a big counter measuer to envy.

Another antidote is to admire other people and supporting them. They have also good and bad times. Always remember, nothing is as good or bad as it looks from the outside.

Another possible way to conquer envy, is to consistently spot it in its roots and talk against it. Also, only compare ourselves with ourselves. This is only fair, we have the same disadvantages and advantages.

CARING WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK

Another common mistake to avoid, is caring too much about what other people think of us. Of course, we are social animals and this is part of our lives. Just caring to much just makes us trapped. Warren Buffet has an amazing model for this:

“The big question about how people behave is whether they’ve got an Inner Scorecard or an Outer Scorecard. It helps if you can be satisfied with an Inner Scorecard. (…) I always pose it this way. I say: ‘Would you rather be the world’s greatest lover, but have everyone think you’re the world’s worst lover? Or would you rather be the world’s worst lover but having everyone think you’re the world’s greatest lover?”- Warren Buffet

In our modern life, especially with social media in mind, many live solely from external approval. It is so hard to reduce the want of it. Just it is a losing game, if we didn’t respect or approve of ourselves. When we don’t even do this, why should others?

“The French writer Nicolas Camfort said, ‘Men whose only concern is other people’s opinion of them are like actors who put on a poor performance to win the applause of people of poor taste; some of them would be capable of good acting in front of a good audience. A decent man plays his part to the best of his ability, regardless of the taste of the gallery.’ “- Peter Bevelin

Be in the game for the sake of the game, not for wanting approval from others. By just doing things for external approval, we probably make it worse.

“Don’t live based on the approval from others. Be authentic - be and act in accordance with who you are, what you like and are good at, or one day your mask may fall off.”- Peter Bevelin

It is about authenticity because we are the best at being ourselves. But even this is extremely hard. I’m way better in this now, than I was years ago. But I still struggle. Growing up in a little village, somehow approval from others and respect is for me a big thing. Gradually trying to change this, but this is harder than expected.

VICTIM MINDSET

To feel like a victim, that the world is conspiring against ourselves, is a bad way to live. I know some people who have this mindset and no matter what good happens to them, they’ll not realize or appreciate it and find another negative thing why life is so hard.

“Feeling like a victim is a perfectly disastrous way to go through life. If you just take the attitude that however bad it is in any way, it’s always your fault and you fix it as best as you can — the so called ‘iron prescription’- I think that really works.”- Charlie Munger

What helps here, according to Munger, is basically taking responsibility, (as previously for envy), for our own life. In the end, we are in power of it. Some of us are more fortunate than others, still everyone has the power to take his/her life in full responsibility.

“I don’t like any feelings of being victimized, I think that is a counterproductive way to think. And I am not a victim. I am a survivor.”- Charlie Munger

In addition to taking responsibility, we can be grateful for what we have and look at the pluses and not the minuses.

“There is no reason to look at the minuses in life. It would be crazy. We count our blessings.”- Warren Buffet

BE UNRELIABLE

If we are not reliable, people will not really trust us. And this isn’t helpful at all in personal as in professional life.

“Reliability is essential for progress in life. (…) If you become very reliable and stay that way, it will be very hard to fail in doing anything you want.”- Charlie Munger

There are many opportunities to be reliable. Showing up on time, standing by the words that we said and being reliable in being honest. All of this generates trust, which is essential. Why should we have contact or do business with someone we don’t trust?

“I think track records are very important. If you start early trying to have a perfect one in a some simple thing like honesty, you’re well on your way to success in the world.”- Charlie Munger

Book recommendations:

Highly interesting reads, with a lot of wisdom inside:
- Poor Charlie’s Almanack edited by Peter Kaufman
- Seeking Wisdom by Peter Bevelin
- “All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there” by Peter Bevelin

Book Recommendations + End

Charlie Munger is an extremely interesting man and I can just recommend everyone to check out his talks for example on YouTube or the books. Those books offer a great compilation of Charlie Mungers wisom.

Personally I find the strategy to focus on what to avoid fantastic and it already helped me a lot in life. I hope for you it will do the same.

In the end, a last quote by Charlie Munger:

“The mental process that really has worked for me my whole life, and I use it all the time, is turning everything into reverse. I figure out what I don’t like instead of figuring out what I like in order to get what I like.”- Charlie Munger

Have a nice day!

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you could get some value out of it!
For more, consider following me here on Medium and my Youtube Channel “Invisible Compass”: https://www.youtube.com/@invisiblecompass

Sources:
- Poor Charlie’s Almanack by Peter Kaufman
- Seeking Wisdom by Peter Bevelin
- All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there by Peter Bevelin

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