The Late, Great Charlie Munger
"If you have to walk through the streets, crying for a few hours a day as part of the soldiering through — go ahead and cry away. But you can’t quit. You can cry, but you can’t quit."
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In Charlie Munger’s final interview with CNBC, filmed just two weeks before his death, he marveled at the “peculiar example of [my] own life. It’s interesting that a man who started out to be a lawyer ended up with an identity that’s more like a guru’s than a lawyer’s.”
Maybe Charlie was surprised by how much his wit and wisdom resonated with the public, but those closest to him saw that potential from the very start. One of the first times that Warren Buffett ever mentioned Munger — back in his 1964 partnership letter — he referred to him as “a noted West Coast philosopher”.
And, even as Munger eventually stepped into the spotlight alongside Buffett and helped to build Berkshire Hathaway into the capitalistic exemplar that it is today, he never stopped philosophizing.
It may sound trite to say that Munger was about more than just money. But, as he himself was wont to say, “If it’s trite, it’s right.” And who am I to argue with that?
More than the wealth he amassed in life, Munger’s legacy will be the many lessons he imparted on rationality and uncommon sense. Yet underneath his staggering business success and strict adherence to a latticework of mental models, two key aspects of the Munger story occasionally still get overshadowed.
Today, I’d like to take a closer look at the humility and resiliency of the late, great Charlie Munger.
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Charlie Munger once admitted, “In my whole life, nobody has ever accused me of being humble. Although humility is a trait I much admire, I don’t think I quite got my full share.”
Well, if it’s true that no one ever accused Munger of being humble, let me be the first: Charlie Munger lived a life of deep humility.
That might sound like a strange thing to say about a man who never once bit his tongue or minced words when confronted with a tough question or controversial topic. To put it mildly, Munger did not suffer fools gladly. His brusque manner and penchant for bracing truths could often be mistaken for arrogance.
But, to me, that’s a massive misread of Munger the man. His humble nature might not be obvious on the surface, but rather blossomed in the space between his own prodigious abilities and the scant public credit that he took for his accomplishments.
“Charlie has the best 30-second mind in the world,” Buffett said. “He goes from A to Z in one move. He sees the essence of everything before you even finish the sentence.”
Blessed with such a mind, it would be easy to grow overconfident and aloof. But, in listening to Munger, he preferred humility to self-aggrandizement — crediting any success to an honest acknowledgement for how much he did not know.
In other words, Munger understood — and appreciated — his own limits.
“We happen to do a few things right,” Munger told Wesco shareholders in 1991. “We also fail to do a lot of other things which would have been right. But so what? We find it very hard to be right with a lot of confidence on more than a few things.”
“A lot of institutions get into terrible trouble trying to be omniscient. They think if they create 27 departments and require each to be omniscient in its field, that it makes the whole collective enterprise omniscient across all 27 fields. We regard that as madness. We hope to have important pieces of foresight relatively infrequently.”
Perhaps the most enduring image of Charlie Munger is of him seated next to Warren Buffett on stage at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, cracking up the audience (and Buffett) with his trademark answer, “I have nothing to add.”
The thing is, though, Munger obviously had lots to add. Anyone who watched him hold court at Daily Journal or Wesco shareholders meetings knew that — as he expounded intelligently on just about every subject under the sun. But, with Berkshire, he willingly ceded the spotlight to Buffett.
“A lot of dominant personalities, like me, can never play the subservient role — even to Warren — who is more able and dedicated than I am,” Munger told Forbes in 1996. Over the years, he relished playing devil’s advocate to Buffett’s investment ideas while still leaving the final decision up to the Berkshire CEO.
Munger deferred, he admitted, due to an “objectivity about where you rank in the scheme of things”. Hardly the words of an egomaniac.
Buffett, for his part, never tired of heaping praise on Munger. “Charlie shoved me in the direction of not just buying bargains, as Ben Graham had taught me,” he said. “This was the real impact he had on me. It took a powerful force to move me on from Graham’s limiting views. It was the power of Charlie’s mind. He expanded my horizons.”
Munger, though, sought little credit for his partner’s dramatic transformation from a cigar butt investor into a champion of franchises and brand names. A lesser man might feel entitled to a bigger slice of the limelight — but Charlie remained content, until the very end, to make his mark from the shadows.
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As Charlie Munger told CNBC’s Becky Quick earlier this month, “The iron rule of life is that everybody struggles.”
Munger knew that better than most.
An early divorce wreaked financial havoc on the young lawyer — shortly before true tragedy struck. Nine-year-old Teddy Munger, his son, was diagnosed with leukemia and passed away in 1955. “I cried all the time when my first child died,” Charlie remembered, “but I knew I couldn’t change [his] fate. In those days, the fatality [rate] with childhood leukemia was 100%.”
But, despite facing unimaginable loss and heartbreak, Munger never allowed himself to grow bitter. “Envy, resentment, revenge, and self-pity are disastrous modes of thought,” he said. “Self-pity gets close to paranoia … Every mischance in life is an opportunity to behave well and learn. [You shouldn’t] be immersed in self-pity, but to utilize the blow constructively.”
Even after he later lost an eye to a botched cataract surgery, Munger resisted the urge to wallow in misfortune and, instead, chose to be proactive. He prepared for the worst by learning Braille, before his condition improved enough to save his eyesight.
How did Charlie Munger manage to keep moving forward, putting one foot in front of the other, after life had thrown such terrible obstacles in his path?
He credits the “soldier on” system.
“If you soldier through, you can get through almost anything,” Munger said. “It’s your only option. You can’t bring back the dead. You can’t cure the dying child. You can’t do all kinds of things. You have to soldier through it.”
“If you have to walk through the streets, crying for a few hours a day as part of the soldiering through — go ahead and cry away. But you can’t quit. You can cry, but you can’t quit.”