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The Wisdom of Charlie Munger

I do not know if you are familiar with the name Charlie Munger. He is 94 years old and is the vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. Warren Buffet refers to him as “my partner.” I might add that Buffet believes Munger is one of the wisest, most knowledgeable people he knows.

I recently had the opportunity to read the commencement address Munger gave at Harvard back in 1986, and then the commencement address he delivered at the University of Southern California’s (USC) School of Law in 2007.

Both addresses were quite humorous, and full of sound wisdom. I thought I might share several of his ideas that might be of value to you. It would be particularly valuable for younger people who have their entire lives in front of them.

In the Harvard address, the theme was “Prescriptions for Misery.” He told these students that to be guaranteed a miserable life as an adult, just follow this prescription.

The heart of this talk was, if you want to be miserable in life, be unreliable. It is the best way to sabotage your life, your relationships, and your career.

Munger says if you master this one habit, being unreliable, it will override all your other virtues, however great they may be. He says it is the best way to be distrusted and excluded. He says if you can master this habit, you even will be surpassed by those who are mediocre.

To master this habit, don’t be on time, don’t meet deadlines, fail to honor your commitments, and by all means, do not do what you say you are going to do.

Munger closes this thought by saying it is hard to be miserable if you are responsible, even if you have certain disadvantages in your life. He then references his roommate in college who was severely dyslexic. However, Munger said “he is perhaps the most reliable person I have ever known. He has had a wonderful life so far, outstanding wife and children, chief executive of a multibillion dollar corporation.”

So if you are trying to figure out how to be miserable in life, be irresponsible.

In his address at USC, he says, “the acquisition of wisdom is a moral duty.” He goes on to say there is a corollary to this idea which Munger believes is vital. He calls it being “hooked on lifetime learning.”

He tells these soon-to-be attorneys that without lifetime learning you will not do very well in life. You will not get very far based on what you currently know.

He then references Berkshire Hathaway which he believes is the “best regarded company in the world, with the best investment record in the history of civilization.” And of course the anchor and leader of this company is Warren Buffet. He says that Buffet spends half of his waking time reading and a big chunk of the rest of his time talking to knowledgeable people all over the world. He says Warren Buffet is “a continuous learning machine.”

Munger believes this requirement applies to all walks of life. He says:

I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent. But they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were that morning. And boy, does that habit help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.

Finally, in the USC address, he shares a humorous story:

I frequently tell the apocryphal story about how Max Planck, after he won the Nobel Prize, went around Germany giving the same standard lecture on the new quantum mechanics. Over time, his chauffeur memorized the lecture and said, “Would you mind, Professor Planck, because it’s so boring to stay in routine, if I gave the lecture in Munich and you just sat in front wearing my chauffeur’s hat? Planck said, “Why not?” And the chauffeur got up and gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics. After which a physics professor stood up and asked a perfectly ghastly question. The speaker said, “Well, I’m surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I am going to ask my chauffeur to reply.”

He shares this story to point out there are two types of knowledge. One is Planck knowledge, or what you would call real knowledge. These are people who have paid their dues and have real aptitude.

Too many modern people he says have chauffeur knowledge. That is more simple-minded knowledge. They try to appear to be knowledgeable to impress. He then gets a laugh when he tells these graduates that most of our politicians have chauffeur knowledge masquerading as real knowledge.

If we are to truly succeed in life, Munger believes that you have to have the discipline and the will to develop real knowledge and understanding in the strategic areas of life.


Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.

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