Charlie Munger: How to Guarantee a Life of Misery
In 1986, Charlie Munger stepped onto stage at Harvard University.
Even 30 years ago, Munger was already famous as the partner of another investing legend — the one and only Warren Buffett.
Today, Munger is worth well over $1 billion. With his trademark down-to-earth wisdom and biting wit, his speeches and writing have gone on to inspire thousands of thinkers in the investing world and beyond.
Munger’s 1986 speech was no exception. What follows are my favorite bits from the legend’s speech, where he gives his seven tips to “guaranteed misery in life.”
1. Take Drugs
“Addiction can happen to any of us.”
“The four closest friends of my youth were highly intelligent, ethical, humorous types, favoured in person and background. Two are long dead, with alcohol a contributing factor, and a third is a living alcoholic — if you call that living.
“I have yet to meet anyone, in over six decades of life, whose life was worsened by overfear and overavoidance of such a deceptive pathway to destruction.”
2. Be Envious
[Envy] was wreaking havoc long before it got a bad press in the laws of Moses.
“If you wish to retain the contribution of envy to misery, I recommend that you never read any of the biographies of that good Christian, Samuel Johnson, because his life demonstrates in an enticing way the possibility and advantage of transcending envy.”
3. Be Resentful
I cannot recommend [resentment] highly enough to you if you desire misery.
“For those of you who want misery, I recommend refraining from practice of the Disraeli compromise, designed for people who find it impossible to quit resentment cold turkey.
“Disraeli, as he rose to become one of the greatest Prime Ministers, learned to give up vengeance as a motivation for action, but he did retain some outlet for resentment by putting the names of people who wronged him on pieces of paper in a drawer. Then, from time to time, he reviewed these names and took pleasure in noting the way the world had taken his enemies down without his assistance.”
4. Be Unreliable
Be unreliable. Do not faithfully do what you have engaged to do.
“If you will only master this one habit you will more than counterbalance the combined effect of all your virtues, howsoever great. I must warn you that if you don’t follow my first prescription it may be hard to end up miserable, even if you start disadvantaged.
“I had a roommate in college who was and is severely dyslexic. But he is perhaps the most reliable man I have ever known. He has had a wonderful life so far, outstanding wife and children, chief executive of a multibillion dollar corporation.
“If you want to avoid a conventional, main-culture, establishment result of this kind, you simply can’t count on your other handicaps to hold you back if you persist in being reliable.”
5. Do Everything Alone
“My [next] prescription for misery is to learn everything you possibly can from your own personal experience, minimizing what you learn vicariously from the good and bad experience of others, living and dead.
“There once was a man who assiduously mastered the work of his best predecessors, despite a poor start and very tough time in analytic geometry. Eventually his own original work attracted wide attention and he said of that work:
“If I have seen a little farther than other men it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants.”
“The bones of that man lie buried now, in Westminster Abbey, under an unusual inscription:
“Here lie the remains of all that was mortal in Sir Isaac Newton.”
6. Go Down and Stay Down
“My [next] prescription for misery is to go down and stay down when you get your first, second, third severe reverse in the battle of life. Because there is so much adversity out there, even for the lucky and wise, this will guarantee that, in due course, you will be permanently mired in misery.
“Ignore at all cost the lesson contained in the accurate epitaph written for himself by Epictetus:
“Here lies Epictetus, a slave, maimed in body, the ultimate in poverty, and favoured by Gods.”
7. Avoid Backwards Thinking
“My final prescription to you for a life of fuzzy thinking and infelicity is to ignore a story they told me when I was very young about a rustic who said:
“I wish I knew where I was going to die, and then I’d never go there.”
“Most people smile (as you did) at the rustic’s ignorance and ignore his basic wisdom. If my experience is any guide, the rustic’s approach is to be avoided at all cost by someone bent on misery.
“The great algebraist, Jacobi […] was known for his constant repetition of one phrase:
“Invert, always invert.”
It is in the nature of things, as Jacobi knew, that many hard problems are best solved only when they are addressed backward.
For instance, when almost everyone else was trying to revise the electromagnetic laws of Maxwell to be consistent with the motion laws of Newton, Einstein discovered special relativity as he made a 180 degree turn and revised Newton’s laws to fit Maxwell’s.
It is my opinion, as a certified biography nut, that Charles Robert Darwin would have ranked near the middle of the Harvard School graduating class of 1986.
Darwin’s result was due in large measure to his working method, which violated all my rules for misery and particularly emphasized a backward twist in that he always gave priority attention to evidence tending to disconfirm whatever cherished and hard-won theory he already had.
In contrast, most people early achieve and later intensify a tendency to process new and disconfirming information so that any original conclusion remains intact.
They become people of whom Philip Wylie observed:
“You couldn’t squeeze a dime between what they already know and what they will never learn.”
The life of Darwin demonstrates how a turtle may outrun the hares, aided by extreme objectivity, which helps the objective person end up like the only player without blindfold in a game of pin-the-donkey.
If you minimize objectivity, you ignore not only a lesson from Darwin but also one from Einstein. Einstein said that his successful theories came from:
“Curiosity, concentration, perseverance and self-criticism.
And by self-criticism he meant the testing and destruction of his own well-loved ideas.”
There you have it — wisdom distilled.
Munger takes his own medicine. Do not tell people what to do. Instead, tell them what NOT to do. Invert, always invert.
I found the full transcript of this speech in Peter Bevelin’s fantastic Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger — a fantastic collection of real world wisdom from greats minds like Feynman, Twain, Montaigne and, of course, Munger himself.