Are you searching for a useful piece of wisdom from someone who has achieved greatness? If that wisdom is easy to apply to your life, you should try to make it work for you. If it pays off, you'll climb a bit higher in life; if not, analyze what went wrong and it could help you in the future.
This comes to mind in considering the wit and wisdom of Charlie Munger, the 95 year old Warren Buffett sidekick with a net worth of about $1.8 billion. I look at Munger -- who majored in math in college before dropping out, studied physics and meteorology at Caltech and earned a JD Magna Cum Laude from Harvard Law School -- as someone whose success is tempered.
That's because he has worked for so long with Buffett -- whose net worth of $89.9 billion is 50 times more than Munger's. Yet I am confident that Munger has made the most of his skills.
Why Is Munger So Happy?
Munger strikes me as someone who knows his strengths and weaknesses and has found a business partner whose strengths complement his. Most importantly, I'd guess that Munger is pleased with how his career has turned out.
Munger reinforces my belief, about which I wrote more than four years ago, that success is controlling how you spend your time.
He enjoys investing. And since he began working with Buffett 41 years ago, as Vice Chairnan of Berkshire Hathaway, he has accumulated a considerable amount of wisdom. In this Wall Street Journal interview, Munger's most important and useful insight was embedded in his comment that he considers himself to be "good at destroying his best loved ideas."
Munger is almost blind and loves to read -- sometimes doing that until 3 AM. His favorite activity is to figure out "what works, what doesn't and why." And what's motivating that all-consuming curiosity is that "Warren and I feel it's our moral duty to be as rational as we can possibly be," according to the Journal.
Why Does Munger Believe That Emotion Is the Enemy of Rational Decision-Making?
Munger does this well because he's acutely conscious of how emotions can lead to bad decisions. As he told the Journal, "Part of the reason I've been a little more successful than most people is I'm good at destroying my own best-loved ideas...I'm pleased when I can destroy an idea that I've worked very hard on over a long period of time. And most people aren't. I know how much power and wealth is in it, so I like it. Plus that's enlightenment. Power, wealth and enlightenment."
In an October 2003 speech, Munger gave an example of where he did this. Not long before the speech, Munger publicly recommended a stock, yet a few weeks later, based on new information, he concluded that it was no longer a good idea. He said that most people in that situation would not want to admit that they were wrong. What's more, the stock had gone down since he recommended it, but rather than wait for the stock to go back up before selling, he took his loss -- thus refusing to "cling to failed ideas."
The desire not to admit you are wrong is very common -- and it's one of many biases explored in the ground-breaking book, Thinking Fast and Slow, by 2002 Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahnehman. I teach an elective course at Babson College called Strategic Decision Making -- which in part delves into these biases that inhibit rational decision-making.
The most powerful of these, I think, is confirmation bias -- about which I wrote in 2007 -- which is the tendency of people to cling to information that reinforces what they already believe and ignore anything that contradicts it. As I argued in my article, leaders must map out their decisions in order to become conscious of these biases and their negative consequences.
What You Should Do To Benefit From Munger's Insight
Munger identifies such biases and strips them out of his decisions -- thus achieving better results. Since most people are likely to fall victim to confirmation and other biases, Munger's ability to resist its tug and to keep coming up with better ideas.
To do that, examine a critical decision you made and whether you achieved the expected results. If not, ask someone independent of the decision to investigate why the results fell short and how your decision-making process may have contributed to that failure. If you can accept the results of this analysis, you'll begin to understand why Munger's insight is so powerful.