Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charlie Munger. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

How One Life Hack From A Self-Made Billionaire Leads To Exceptional Success

Countless books and articles have been written about Warren Buffett. Surprisingly few have been written about his business partner of over 40 years, Charlie Munger.

Munger has stayed out of the public eye, giving only a small number of public talks, and he’s rarely been covered in the media. At Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholder’s meetings, he lets Buffett answer the questions, often times commenting, “I have nothing to add.”

Recently, I decided to learn more about Munger’s 70-year career, and I’ve been blown away. His model for success, backed by research, is simple and game-changing. It flies in the face of conventional wisdom on career success.

Beyond The 10,000 Hour Rule

A great deal has been written about how deliberate practice over 10,000 hours within a specific area of expertise is the key to success.

While Munger has certainly worked long and hard to become one of the world’s top investors, the signature of his success is different. According to his own account, rather than focusing on investment theory like a laser, he has studied widely and deeply in many fields, including microeconomics, psychology, law, mathematics, biology, and engineering, and applied insights from them to investing.

Bill Gates has said of Munger, “He is truly the broadest thinker I have ever encountered. From business principles to economic principles to the design of student dormitories to the design of a catamaran he has no equal… Our longest correspondence was a detailed discussion on the mating habits of naked mole rats and what the human species might learn from them.” Munger has, in short, been the ultimate expert-generalist.

The Rise Of The Expert-Generalist

The rival argument to the 10,000 hour rule is the expert-generalist approach. Orit Gadiesh, chairman of Bain & Co, who coined the term, describes the expert-generalist as:

“Someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, capabilities, countries, and topics., etc. He or she can then, without necessarily even realizing it, but often by design:

  1. Draw on that palette of diverse knowledge to recognize patterns and connect the dots across multiple areas.
  2. Drill deep to focus and perfect the thinking.”

The concept is commonly represented by this model of the “T-shaped individual”:

While the 10,000 hour rule works well in areas with defined rules that don’t change such as sports, music, and games, the rules of business constantly and fundamentally change. Being an expert-generalist allows individuals to quickly adapt to change. Research shows that they:

  • See the world more accurately and make better predictions of the future because they are not as susceptible to the biases and assumptions prevailing in any given field or community.
  • Have more breakthrough ideas, because they pull insights that already work in one area into ones where they haven’t been tried yet.
  • Build deeper connections with people who are different than them because of understanding of their perspectives.
  • Build more open networks, which allows them to serve as a connector between people in different groups. According to network science research, having an open network is the#1 predictor of career success.

Charlie Munger’s Approach To Being An Expert-Generalist

In connecting the dots across the disciplines, Munger has developed a set of what he calls models, which he uses to assess investment opportunities. In fact, he’s identified over 100 of these models that he uses frequently as of the publication of Poor Charlie’s Almanack. No doubt he continues to develop and perfect them.

What are these models exactly?

The best way to explain is to take the case of one he uses constantly, which he calls Two-Track analysis. It combines insights from psychology, neuroscience and economics about the nature of human behavior. This model instructs that when analyzing any situation in which decision-making by people is involved, which of course covers every business situation, he must consider two tracks:

  • How they would act if they behaved rationally, according to their true best interests.
  • How they would succumb to the pull of a number of irrational psychological biases that seem to be “programmed” into the human brain. Researchers have identified a host of them, and Munger has incorporated twenty-five of them into his Two-Track analysis model.

Another example is classical conditioning developed by Ivan Pavlov in the early 20th century. Pavlov discovered that with the right conditioning, dogs would salivate not just when eating food, but also in anticipation of it when he walked into the laboratory. Munger applies the same logic to business. In his book, he gives the example of how Coca-Cola (one of Berkshire Hathaway’s largest holdings) conditions its customers with the right frequency and type of advertising while using their logo as the trigger.

The following is a summary of his rules on being an expert-generalist in his own words, excerpted and condensed from the various talks he’s given:

Rule #1: Learn Multiple Models

“The first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models — because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models.”

“It’s like the old saying, ‘To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.’ But that’s a perfectly disastrous way to think and a perfectly disastrous way to operate in the world.”

Rule #2: Learn Multiple Models From Multiple Disciplines

“And 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.”

Rule #3: Focus On Big Ideas From The Big Disciplines (20% Of Models Create 80% Of The Results)

“You may say, ‘My God, this is already getting way too tough.’ But, fortunately, it isn’t that tough — because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.”

Rule #4: Use A Checklist To Ensure You’re Factoring in the Right Models

“Use a checklist to be sure you get all of the main models.”

“How can smart people be wrong? Well, the answer is that they don’t…take all the main models from psychology and use them as a checklist in reviewing outcomes in complex systems.”

Rule #5: Create Multiple Checklists And Use The Right One For The Situation

“You need a different checklist and different mental models for different companies. I can never make it easy by saying, ‘Here are three things.’ You have to drive it yourself to ingrain it in your head for the rest of your life.”

The Expert-Generalist Approach In Different Fields

Whether or not you decide to follow Munger’s particular approach, one clear takeaway is the value of gaining a wide breadth of knowledge while also drilling deeply into your area of specialty.

Many of the top scientists, business leaders, inventors and artists throughout time have also achieved their breakthrough successes by being an expert-generalist. Albert Einstein was trained in physics, but to formulate his law of general relativity, he taught himself an area of mathematics far removed from his expertise, Riemannian geometry. James Watson and Francis Crick combined discoveries in X-ray diffraction technology, chemistry, evolutionary theory and computation to solve the puzzle of the double helix. Steve Jobs, of course, drew on insights from his study of calligraphy and a rich understanding of design to create a new breed of computing devices.

Here is an infographic with 25 of the top expert-generalists throughout history:

Copyright Michael Simmons 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Bain & Company chairman, Orit Gadiesh, attests to the value of being a voracious reader across many domains in her own career, saying:

“Being an expert-generalist has helped Bain see things for our clients that others miss, as we provide unique insights from one industry into another. The approach has differentiated Bain from its competitors.”
“I bring into my work everything I do; all of my past consulting projects, all of my readings [100+ books a year]. I read novels. I read about physics, mathematics, history, biographies, art. One reason I work well in Germany is that I’ve read a lot of German literature, German philosophers, German history, etc., even though I’m Israeli. They’re great writers. Likewise, I can work in France because I’ve read their literature. I’ve read Japanese literature, Korean literature, English literature, American literature, Israeli literature, and on and on. I bring all of that somehow into my work. And I think that makes me better at what I do. It also makes life more interesting.”

What’s more, those who can bridge the gaps between silos are becoming more valuable than ever as the amount of knowledge in the world and its fragmentation continue to accelerate.

Being An Expert-Generalist Will Become More And More Valued

The discipline known as scientometrics is the science of science; it studies the evolution of scientific knowledge. Two of the key findings of this field are:

As disciplines emerge and mature, they develop their own cultures and languages. Each has its own terminology along with its own journals and annual conferences. This specialization has already become so extreme that those who are specialists in one subfield of a discipline often know little to nothing about the work going on in other subfields.

Consider the increasing specialization that has led to one important new area of science, epigenetics. Epigenetics is essentially the study of how environmental factors affect how our genes are expressed. When biology emerged as a field of its own out of medicine and natural history in the 19th century, it would have been possible for any biologist to gain a good grasp of the whole field. Today, many geneticists would tell you they don’t have any real understanding of the findings in epigenetics.

Copyright Michael Simmons 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Given this state of affairs, many professionals have determined the best approached is to go into sub, sub, sub specialties, where they can hope to become one of the best if they follow the 10,000 rule. That can indeed be fruitful. But opportunities also abound for those who instead develop an aptitude for building connections across disciplines.

Expert-generalists face far less competition. The more fields you can pull from, the fewer people you’ll find taking the same approach. When it comes to drilling into one domain,the competition is generally fierce. Narrowly specializingalso leaves you vulnerable to the ever-more daunting forces of change. Orit Gadiesh offers insight in this regard:

“As technology, globalization, geopolitical challenges, and competition accelerate the disruption of business, people are confronted with challenges, customs, and issues they have never experienced before. I find that experts — someone with deep knowledge limited to just one area — often lack the flexibility needed to adapt to change and can be easily flustered or, worse, be completely derailed.”

Curiouser and Curiouser

The business world has placed great emphasis on focus, and rightly so. It is a vital ingredient of success. But more emphasis must now be placed on curiosity. Too often, we are so pressed by the day-to-day demands of work that we aren’t making time for exploration, diving into areas entirely outside our range of experience, letting our minds run, and finding inspiration from encountering new ideas with uncertain payoffs.

So, when you find yourself pushing back, the inner voice of work overload screaming that you don’t have time to be reading that book you just picked up about the physics of time travel or the novel someone recommended by the Nigerian Nobel Prize winner, remember this: Bill Gates recalls that the longest correspondence he’s had with Charlie Munger wasn’t about an investment, it was about the mating habits.

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As a resource for this article, I put together a 27-page report you can download at no cost. It summarizes the psychological biases that Munger has identified throughout his 70-year career. I put it together because I didn’t see another summary anywhere else that was easy to comprehend or apply.

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