Munger: One of the Most Respected Business Thinkers in History
Berkshire Hathaway’s Vice-Chairman Charlie Munger (b. 1924) is a distinguished beacon of rationality, wisdom, and multi-disciplinary thinking. As Warren Buffett’s indispensable right-hand man, Munger has been a prominent behind-the-scenes intellectual who has created billions of shareholder wealth.
The story of Charlie Munger’s life is an archetypal American Dream: a hardworking, principled young man overcomes life’s trials and tribulations, and builds a billion-dollar fortune through industry, diligence, candor, and an obsession with self-improvement. Munger is also a prominent philanthropist. He preferred to donate his money now rather than give it as a bequest with the intention of appreciating the results of his giving. After donating $110 million to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Munger said, “I’m soon going to be departed from all of my money, why not give more of it away while I get the fun of giving it?”
“Horrible Blows, Unfair Blows” on the Road to Success
Munger’s sharp mind, irreverent, outspoken outlook, and commonsense-thinking are legendary. For fans who flock to Omaha to witness him and Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting, the 92-year old Munger remains a cult figure.
At age 17, Munger attended the University of Michigan but dropped out to enlist in the military during World War II. After the war, he entered Harvard Law School without an undergraduate degree and graduated in 1948 with a J.D. magna cum laude. He started practicing law in Los Angeles, but gave up his practice at the urging of Warren Buffett to concentrate on managing investments and developing real estate. He never took a course in business, economics, or finance but became a billionaire. He ascribes most of his “worldly wisdom” to his zeal for self-improvement (identical to his idol Benjamin Franklin) and plenteous reading. He once said, “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time—none, zero. … My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”
Even if Munger remains an inspiration for a life well lived, his life has not been entirely perfect. Consider some of the struggles he coped with on his pathway to success.
- At age 29, in 1954, Munger got divorced from his wife after eight years of marriage. Munger lost everything to his wife including his home in South Pasadena. According to Janet Lowe’s insightful biography Damn Right, Munger moved into “dreadful bachelor digs” at Pasadena’s University Club and drove an “awful” yellow Pontiac with a shoddy repaint job. That car made him “look as if he had not two pennies to say hello to each other.” When daughter Molly Munger probed, “Daddy, this car is just awful, a mess. Why do you drive it?” The impoverished Munger replied, “To discourage gold diggers.”
- The financial pressure came at a testing time. A short time after the divorce, Munger’s 9-year old son Teddy was diagnosed with leukemia. At that time, cancer survival rates were insignificant and Munger had to pay for everything out-of-pocket because there was no health insurance. According to his friend Rick Guerin, Munger would visit the hospital when his son “was in bed and slowly dying, hold him for a while, then go out walking the streets of Pasadena crying.” Teddy died a year later in 1955.
- Many years later, Munger had a horrific cataract surgery in his left eye that rendered him blind with pain so severe that he eventually had that eye removed. Recently, when doctors notified Munger that he had developed a condition that was causing his remaining eye to fill up with blood, he stood the risk of losing his vision in his other eye too. Being the obsessive reader that he is, the prospect of losing eyesight entirely made Munger comment, “Losing the ability to see would seem to be a prison sentence.” Undeterred, Munger was ready to brace himself for what life had to offer. He told a friend, “It’s time for me to learn braille” and started taking lessons. As luck would have it, the worrisome eye condition has since receded.
Charlie Munger on Confronting Adversity and Building Resilience
- Adversity, hardship, and misfortune can cause people to conceive themselves as a victim of circumstances. Munger once remarked, “Whenever you think that some situation or some person is ruining your life, it’s actually you who are ruining your life. It’s such a simple idea. Feeling like a victim is a perfectly disastrous way to go through life. If you just take the attitude that however bad it is in anyway, it’s always your fault and you just fix it as best you can … I think that really works.”
- People who choose to react as victims surrender themselves to feelings of being betrayed or taken advantage of. The resulting anger, repulsion, fear, guilt, and inadequacy are futile. Munger once said, “Generally speaking, envy, resentment, revenge, and self-pity are disastrous modes of thought; self-pity gets pretty close to paranoia, and paranoia is one of the very hardest things to reverse; you do not want to drift into self-pity.”
- Feeling victimized and the ensuing negative thinking patterns are hard to break, but the recovery process encompasses disremembering and forgiving the past, regulating the flawed perspective of the routine ups and downs of life, and taking control and gaining power. In his 2007 commencement speech at University of Southern California’s Law School, Munger said, “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 Epictetus 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. That is a very good idea.”
- In a 2011 interview, CNN journalist Poppy Harlow asked if Munger felt betrayed by David Sokol, Buffett’s then heir-apparent who violated company standards during Berkshire Hathaway’s purchase of Lubrizol and was let go. Munger conceded that Sokol’s conduct left him sad, but not let down. “It’s not my nature … when you get little surprises as a result of human nature … to spend much time feeling betrayed. I always want to put my head down and adjust. I don’t allow myself to spend much time ever with any feelings of betrayal. If some flickering idea like that came to me, I’d get rid of it quickly. I don’t like any feeling of being victimized. I think that’s a counterproductive way to think as a human being. I am not a victim. I am a survivor.”
Playing a Victim is by No Means Beneficial or Adaptive
Even in the face of some of the worst misfortunes that could strike you, suffering the resentments and attempting to endure pain are far superior choices than getting absorbed in feeling victimized and powerless.
Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl described how his fellow captives in Nazi concentration camps survived by enduring their sufferings and refusing to give in to feeling victimized. Even when stripped of all their rights and possessions, they exercised their enduring freedom to choose their attitudes and harnessed this freedom to sustain their spirits.
In his inspiring Man’s Search for Meaning (which is one of Munger’s many recommended books,) Frankl wrote, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. … Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Idea for Impact: Come what may, you’re not a victim. It is up to you to determine your response.
- Don’t operate life on the assumption that the world ought to be fair, just, and objective. You are neither entitled nor unentitled to good treatment.
- Recognize that you cannot control, influence, or affect in any way the inequities, injustices, discriminations, and biases that populate the world. You have power over only your life and the choice of your attitudes.
- Never feel sorry for yourself or engage in self-pity. Don’t dwell on a “poor-me stance” and consider yourself unfortunate. Don’t become loath to taking responsibility for your actions and the consequences. Stop playing the victim by recognizing and challenging those negative voices in your head. As the Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, “Put from you the belief that ‘I have been wronged’, and with it will go the feeling. Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”
- When life knocks you over, allow yourself a modest amount of grieving. Then, gather yourself back together, get up, dust yourself down, renegotiate your hopes and dreams, align yourself with reality, put yourself back in the saddle, and get on with life. The ability to rebound quickly from failures and disappointments is one of the key differentiators between successful and unsuccessful people.
- What’s important in life is not what happens to you but how you react to what happens.