Charles Munger USC commencement speech – 2007

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Jan 20, 2010
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In 2007, Charles Thomas Munger (aka: Charlie Munger ) had the honor of doing a commencement speech at the University of Southern California (USC). Munger is the Chairman of the Board, President and Chief Executive Officer of Wesco Financial Corporation (ticker: WSC). Wesco is a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Inc (ticker: BRK-A,BRK-B). Munger also acts as vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

This article provides a brief overview of the 5 videos. To fully appreciate Munger, it is highly recommended that the reader view each video in its entirety. Munger is a quiet person who does not appear publicly very often. This 30 or so minutes of him speaking truly gives an inside glimpse of how he thinks and is a gem. For those that have not listened to Munger before, it is safe to assume that this speech will not disappoint you.

Video 1

The video begins with an introduction of Charlie Munger. Who is the key note speaker for the day. He gives a brief history of Munger and throws in a couple of Munger's popular quotes. For example, If it's wisdom you are after, you are going to spend a lot of time on your ass and reading. Poor Charlies Almanac is also mentioned as a book worth reading.

Munger steps in and begins speaking at the 4 minute mark of the first video. He mentions that he has some notes scratched on a piece of paper and begins his speech. His goal is to provide some ideas and attitudes that have worked for him.

Munger says, What are the core ideas that have helped me? The safest way to get what you want is to try and deserve what you want. It's sounds rather simple.

He also tells a story that emphasizes the fact that ones character and not the size of ones wallet is what one will be remembered for.

Video 2

In part 2, he talks about wisdom acquisition and how it is a moral duty. It is not simply a way to advance professionally in life. The corollary is that without lifetime learning, you will not do well. You will advance in life as you acquire wisdom over your life.

Using Berkshire Hathaway as an example, he states that what was used to succeed in the past 10 years is not what will work in the next 10 years. He says that Warren Buffett is a continuous learning machine and this is why Berkshire is so successful. The key is going to bed a little wiser than when you woke up that day.

Half of Buffett's time is spent on his bottom reading. The other half is talking in the phone with people who he admires.

There is also a story of a medical school academic from when Munger worked as a hospital board chairman. He told of how one of the doctors was an expert in bone tumors. And he wanted to pass his knowledge onto others. He decided to write a textbook that is useful to other people. He said that this book probably won't sell 2000 copies but it will be at every major cancer center in the world. This man spent every day of his life for a year writing this book that is one of the best on bone cancer. These are the kind of personal values one should strive for as a person.

Also know that if you know the big ideas of a topic that you know about 95% of what you need to know. But it is hard to know a lot when knowledge is built up over time. For example, it can be hard to correct a subject matter expert when an error is made because that person might take offense. Munger says he has yet to solve this problem, but it does help to not be arrogant with your knowledge.

Video 3

Munger quotes a famous lawyer named Marcus Tullius Cicero. The quote is A man who doesn't know what happens before he is born goes through life living like a child. The key is to generalize Cicero and to truly understand what this means. Take a lot of these ideas and create a mental lattice work.

From wikipedia:

Marcus Tullius Cicero (January 3, 106 BC December 7, 43 BC) was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and Roman constitutionalist.

Tell me where I will die so I don't go that way.

He also talks about inversion. What will really fail in life? Such a simple answer. Avoid sloth and unreliability. This inversion means that sometimes you think about what you should do to be successful when it is sometimes better to think about what should be avoided. Invert, always invert!

Avoid extremely intense ideologies. It cabbages up ones mind. When you are telling people about your ideology, you are not necessarily swaying people but you are cabbaging up your mind. Just reinforcing ideologies that don't need such feverish reinforcement.

You are not entitled opinion unless you can state the arguments against your opinion better than your opponents can. This is Munger's Iron prescription. Only when you know this much should you speak. Not everyone can do this though. Munger admits that this is to tough for most people. But it is important to know both sides in order to be wise.

Envy, resentment, revenge and self pity are disastrous modes of thought. Do not drift into self pity because paranoia is not far away. Self pity does not improve anything. Train yourself to recognize it and correct it.

Video 4

Munger discusses self serving bias. A self-serving bias occurs when people attribute their successes to internal or personal factors but attribute their failures to situational factors beyond their control. Read more about self serving bias here.

Do not work under someone whom you do not admire or do not like. Find those you admire and maneuver to get work under those people. Doing this will make your outcome in life much more satisfactory.

Munger talks about objectivity maintenance routines. Checklist routines prevent a lot of errors. A mental checklist in particular is needed.

Learn to think for yourself. Being able to rattle off the ideas of others is not sufficient.

Video 5

Have a lot of assiduity. Sit on your ass until you do it.

When things don't go your way, do not have self pity. Instead, learn from it. This adds onto the idea of getting wiser.

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