“All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there.”
— Charlie Munger
In 1986, philanthropist, investor, and vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, Charlie Munger, delivered a commencement speech to the graduating class of Harvard University.
The invitation from Headmaster Christopher Berrisford read:
“My colleagues at the school enthusiastically support this invitation. We all hope you will accept.”
Munger admitted the overture puffed him up with a bit of self-importance. “While not having significant public-speaking experience, I do hold a black belt in chutzpah,” he confessed.
Thankfully for the graduating class, and Charlie’s son Philip, who’d also be earning his degree that day, Munger accepted.
In preparing for his speech, Charlie carefully considered which of the twenty Harvard School graduation speeches he’d heard over the years he wished had been longer.
Just a few years before, “The King of Late Night,” Johnny Carson, had delivered a unique, if not, memorable speech — not an insignificant feat as far as graduation speeches go.
So how did he do it?
Carson avoided the reliable platitudes and cliches of most commencement speeches by flipping the conventional model on its head. Instead of telling impressionable students to “reach for the stars” and “follow their passion,” he confessed to not knowing a thing about how to lead a happy life.
Instead, he shared from personal experience the formula for insuring a miserable one.
- Ingesting chemicals in order to alter mood or perception
Munger, a proponent of inversion, and no stranger to offering advice on what not to do, decided to expand on Carson’s speech by adding his own prescriptions.
His list, like most things he does, is thoughtful, poignant, and well-worth applying to your life sooner rather than later.
And though my net worth is a far cry from Charlie’s, my shelf not adorned with glossy Emmys like Carson’s, I’ve added a few of my own, however inferior.
But first, Mr. Munger’s…
“Gain a modest reputation for being unreliable and you will never be asked to do a thing.” — Paul Theroux
According to Munger, being unreliable is one of best ways to cultivate distrust and exclusion among your peers.
“Do not faithfully do what you have engaged to do. If you will only master this one habit, you will more than counterbalance the combined effect of all your virtues, howsoever great.”
It seems being dependable has become as fickle as the seasons. Plans are dashed at a moment’s notice, we prevaricate rather than commit, and all without a second thought.
When did this harmful culture become so prevalent?
As Munger says, “reliability is essential for progress in life.”
When we do what we say we show a reverence for another’s Being, while strengthening the credibility of our own.
To insure misery and exclusion be as unreliable as possible.
Don’t Learn from the Mistakes of Others
“Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish.” — Euripides
Several years back on the island of Oahu, three visitors were killed in two months when they got too close to a lookout known as Halona Blowhole.
On especially windy days when the tide is high, waves come rolling into the rock formation where it catapults sea spray through the cave and towards the heavens like a geyser.
It’s a site to behold.
As a result, people come from all over the world to take in the beautiful scenery and catch glimpses of humpbacks leaving the North Pacific if the time of year is right.
But Halona is also one of the most dangerous ocean currents in the world. It’s commonly referred to as the Molokai Express because of its power to carry the incautious all the way to Molokai.
But despite warning signs and fences, people are drawn to the blowhole like Odysseus to the sirens.
Injuries and deaths have piled up because people climb over locked gates and disregard the warnings of placards and people.
As Benjamin Franklin once said, “They that won’t be counseled, can’t be helped.” This all leads to a powerful prescription for leading a life of misery:
Do not learn from the mistakes of others.
By limiting your learning experience to personal ones and renouncing the missteps of others, you are destined for a life of second-rate achievement and conventionality.
I recommend as a memory clue to finding the way to real trouble from heedless unoriginal error the modern saying: “If at first you don’t succeed, well, so much for hang gliding.”
But there’s a second component to avoiding wisdom that will insure mediocrity — to not learn from the best work done before yours.
Just as the structure of good storytelling hasn’t budged since Homer’s Odyssey written 2,500 years ago, neither have the main tenets of success, whatever that means to you.
Rather than re-inventing the wheel, we can look at the accomplishments of those we admire as a blueprint. By structuring a plan, we can then decide where to improvise like a skilled jazz musician.
Spend All Your Time in Echo Chambers
“In case of dissension, never dare to judge till you’ve heard the other side.” — Euripides
Mathematician, astronomer, theologian, and physicist Isaac Newton once said, “Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.” It seems we’ve forgotten the former and double-downed on the latter. Instead of daring to illuminate our ignorance, we hibernate in caves where the dins of what we already know, or think we do, offers phony comfort.
But refusing to listen — REALLY listen to another’s point of view, stunts your growth. And over time, the carnage builds, stifling creativity, potential, and community. It’s a high cost to pay over fear of being wrong, or not accepting that two opposing views can be equally right.
Dare to hear more, think more, understand more so you can ultimately BE more.
Do Not Curate Your Social Circle
“Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” — Albert Camus
Once upon a time, a group of frogs were hopping contently through the woods when two of them plunged into a deep muddy pit. All of the others frogs gathered around the hole to see what could be done to help their companions.
But when they discovered just how deep the pit was, they looked on in dismay, telling the trapped frogs it was hopeless. The two would be wise to prepare for their death.
Unwilling to accept their fate, the frogs began to jump with all their might.
Meanwhile, the frogs around the hole pelted them with hopeless words, telling them if they’d been more careful the entire situation could have been avoided.
“You should have been more responsible!” they screamed. “Why did you veer from the path and not obey our frog rules?!”
“You’re as good as dead!” another screamed.
But the two frogs continued to jump, clinging desperately to some shred of hope.
After several hours of relentless hopping, the two frogs grew weary. Finally, one of the frogs took heed to the calls of his companions.
Disheartened, he quietly surrendered to his fate, laid his haggard body down and died as the others looked on in grief.
The other frog continued to jump with every ounce of his being despite the fact his body was racked with pain.
Again, his fellow frogs screamed at him to just accept his fate.
“It’s no use!” they cried. “Can’t you see what’s happened?!”
But still, the exhausted frog jumped harder and harder.
Then, inexplicably, he sprang so high he cleared the pit. Amazed, the other frogs celebrated his freedom before asking, “Why did you continue jumping even though we told you it was impossible?!”
Reading each of their lips, the puzzled frog explained that he was deaf and that when he saw their gestures he thought they were cheering him on.
What he had misinterpreted as encouragement had awaken something within and inspired him to try against all odds.
Encouraging words to another (or ourselves) can lift a spirit, but negative ones can create spiritual chasms and deep wounds.
The choice of who you surround yourself with is up to you.
And if you don’t believe me, there’s data that supports the notion our lives will reflect the people we spend the most time with.
The people around you affect how much you sleep, the food you eat, and even how much money you save.
Researchers have found that undesirable behaviors and outcomes like smoking, obesity, loneliness, depression, divorce, and drug use tend to grow in social clusters.
If your friends smoke, you’re more likely to as well. The more of your friends who are overweight or divorced, the higher the odds you’ll get there too.
This dynamic has been dubbed “social contagion,” and has shown both detriments and benefits.
How we curate our social circles also has a profound influence on the quality of our ideas, writing, creativity, and the confidence we need to implement them.
Our mind, body, and spirit reflect light best when not blocked by naysayers.
Choose your brain trust wisely and actively search for people who make you want to be better.
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