in Personal Development

Charlie Munger’s 2007 USC Speech

Every year, tens of thousands of people fly in from all parts of the world to attend Berkshire Hathaway’s annual conference to listen to two of the greatest minds today: Charlie Munger and Warren Buffet. So when Munger speaks, you should listen.

In 2007, Munger gave a commencement speech at the University of Southern California School of Law. He shared some words of wisdom and imparted advice on what it takes to succeed.

A key theme was the importance of continual learning and self-education.

Wisdom acquisition is a moral duty. It’s not just something you do to advance in life. It means you’re hooked to life-time learning.

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 when they got up and boy does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.

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He goes on to reference Warren Buffet and Berkshire Hathaway as a testament to the importance of being a “learning machine.”

If you watched Warren Buffett with a time clock, I would say half of all the time he spends is just sitting on his ass and reading. And a big chunk of the rest of the time is spent talking on the phone or personally with people he trusts.

The skill that got Berkshire through one decade would not have sufficed to get it through the next. Without Warren Buffet being a learning machine, a continuous learning machine, the record would be absolutely impossible. The same is true in lower walks of life.

How, exactly, do you begin on the path of self-education? Munger suggests to learn all the big ideas in all the big disciplines to create a mental latticework in your head. It’s not enough to memorize them so you can prattle them off on a test, but to learn them in such a way that you automatically use them for the rest of your life.

When I talk about this multi-disciplinary approach, I’m really following a very key idea from Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero is famous for saying, “A man who doesn’t know what happened before he’s born goes through life like a child.” If you generalize Cicero, as I think one should, there’s all these other things you should know, in addition to history. And these things are all those big ideas in all the other disciplines.

I went through life constantly practicing (because if you don’t practice it, you lose it) the multi-disciplinary approach and I can’t tell you what that’s done for me. It’s made life more fun, it’s made me more constructive, its made me more helpful to others, its made me enormously rich.

If you do this, I solemnly promise you that one day as you walk down the street and look to your right and left, you’ll think, “My heavenly days, I’m now one of the most competent people in my whole age cohort.”

Success doesn’t come easily though. You must have an intense interest in the subject to truly excel at it, a familiar phrase to Steve Jobs’ “find what you love to do.”

Another thing that I found is that an intense interest in the subject is indispensable if you’re really going to excel in it. I could force myself to be fairly good in a lot of things but I couldn’t be really good at anything where I didn’t have an intense interest. So to some extent, you’re going to have to follow me. If at all feasible, drift into something where you have an intense interest.

The most important ingredient of all, however, may be assiduity.

Another thing you have to do, of course, is to have a lot of assiduity. I like that word because it means: sit down on your ass until you do it. Two partners that I chose for one little phase in my life had the following rule when they created a design, build, construction team. They sat down and said, two-man partnership, divide everything equally, here’s the rule: if ever we’re behind in commitments to other people, we will both work 14 hours a day until we’re caught up. Needless to say, that firm didn’t fail. The people died very rich. It’s such a simple idea.

Along the road to success, Munger stresses the importance of keeping an open mind, to avoid espousing extreme ideologies, especially when young.

When you shout the orthodox ideology out, what you’re doing is pounding it in, pounding it in, and you’re gradually ruining your mind. So you want to be very, very careful of this ideology. It’s a big danger.

I have what I call an iron prescription that helps me keep sane when I naturally drift toward preferring one ideology over another and that is: I say that I’m not entitled to have an opinion on this subject unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people who support it.

He goes on to say that self-pity and the self-serving bias must be removed from your way of thought. Doing so will provide you an advantage over those who wallow in self defeat.

Self-pity gets fairly close to paranoia, and paranoia is one of the very hardest things to reverse. You do not want to drift into self-pity. It’s a ridiculous way to behave and when you avoid it, you get a great advantage over everybody else or almost everybody else because self-pity is a standard condition, and yet you can train yourself out of it.

Of course the self-serving bias is something you want to get out of yourself. Thinking that what’s good for you is good for the wider civilization and rationalizing all these ridiculous conclusions based on this subconscious tendency to serve one’s self is a terribly inaccurate way to think.

And while life can ultimately be unfair, it’s how you react that will determine your standing. In fact, anticipating trouble can actually be of great benefit.

Life will have terrible blows in it, horrible blows, unfair blows. And some people recover and others don’t. And there I think the attitude of Epectitus is the best. He said that every missed chance in life was an opportunity to behave well, every missed chance in life was an opportunity to learn something, and that your duty was not to be submerged in self-pity, but to utilize the terrible blow in constructive fashion.

You can say, who wants to go through life anticipating trouble? Well I did. All my life I’ve gone through life anticipating trouble. And here I am, going along in my 84th year and like Epectitus, I’ve had a favored life. It didn’t make me unhappy to anticipate trouble all the time and be ready to perform adequately if trouble came. It didn’t hurt me at all. In fact it helped me.

He finishes by saying that our society is not at the highest form a civilization can reach. The highest form is rather a seamless web of deserved trust, where totally reliable people correctly trust one another. This is what a perfect society should look like, and what we should strive for in our own lives as well.

[Still curious? Charlie Munger’s USC speech can be viewed here.]