Charlie Munger on The Intelligent Improvement of Yourself

How should we go about intelligently improving ourselves?

Charlie Munger, the irreverent billionaire and business partner of Warren Buffett, offered a deep response at the recent shareholders meeting for the Daily Journal Corporation.

Charlie Munger

The first part of Munger’s answer deals with Mental Models — the big, time-tested, ideas from all the disciplines.

Well, I think you should be intelligent in improving yourself. You’re way better to take on a really big, important idea that comes up all the time than some little tiny idea you may not face.
So I always try to grab the big ideas in every discipline, because why piddle around with the little ones and ignore the big ones. All the big ideas in every discipline are very very very useful.

If we are to understand how the world really works, we need to understand the big ideas and how they work. Most problems we struggle with can be solved by reaching into another discipline … “the idea’s just over the fence.”

But if you’re trained to stay within the fence, you won’t find it. I’ve done that so much of my life, it’s almost embarrassing. It makes me seem arrogant, because I will frequently reach into the other fellow’s discipline and come up with a couple of ideas he misses.

There is a joy to getting ideas from other disciplines and applying them to the problem at hand.

When I was young that caused me terrible problems. People hated me. I probably shouldn’t have been brash as I was, and I probably shouldn’t be as brash as I am now. I haven’t completed my self-improvement process. But it’s so much fun to get the right idea a little outside your own profession. So if you’re capable of doing it, by all means learn to do it. Even if you want to just learn it defensively. I do not observe professional boundaries.

How does this apply in real life? Munger offered an example:

My doctor constantly writes PSA test, prostate-specific antigen. I just cross it out. He says, “What the hell are you doing? Why are you doing this?” And I said, “Well, I don’t want to give you an opportunity to do something dumb.
If I’d gotten unfixable cancer that’s going fast in my prostate, I’d like to know three month in the future, not right now. And if I’ve got one that’s growing slowly, I don’t want to encourage some doctor to do something dumb and intervene with it.”
So I just cross it out. Now most people aren’t crossing out your doctor’s prescriptions. But I think I know better. I don’t know better about the complex treatments and so forth, but I know it’s unwise for me to have a PSA test. So I just cross it out. I’m always doing that kind of thing. I recommend it to you when you get my age. So just cross out the PSA test. Now, the women I can’t help.

Excerpts taken from this transcript of the event.


If you want to work smarter and not harder, subscribe to The Brain Food Newsletter — a weekly dose of insight that will help you become more effective.

You can follow Shane on Twitter and Facebook.