How to Guarantee a Life of Misery

(2023-12-03 13:09:32) 下一個

[This was copied from https://jamesclear.com]




Charlie Munger is vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. This speech was

originally delivered to the Harvard School on June 13, 1986.


Speech Transcript


Now that Headmaster Berrisford has selected one of the oldest and

longest-serving trustees to make a commencement speech, it behooves the speaker

to address two questions in every mind:


1) Why was such a selection made? and,


2) How long is the speech going to last?


I will answer the first question from long experience alongside Berrisford. He

is seeking enhanced reputation for our school in the manner of the man who

proudly displays his horse which can count to seven. The man knows that counting

to seven is not much of a mathematical feat but he expects approval because

doing so is creditable, considering that the performer is a horse.


The second question, regarding length of speech, I am not going to answer in

advance. It would deprive your upturned faces of lively curiosity and obvious

keen anticipation, which I prefer to retain, regardless of source.


But I will tell you how my consideration of speech length created the subject

matter of the speech itself. I was puffed up when invited to speak. While not

having significant public-speaking experience, I do hold a black belt in

chutzpah, and, I immediately considered Demosthenes and Cicero as role models

and anticipated trying to earn a compliment like Cicero gave when asked which

was his favourite among the orations of Demosthenes. Cicero replied: ‘The

longest one.”


However, fortunately for this audience, I also thought of Samuel Johnson’s

famous comment when he addressed Milton’s poem, Paradise Lost, and correctly

said: “No one ever wished it longer.” And that made me consider which of all the

twenty Harvard School graduation speeches I had heard that I wished longer.

There was only one such speech, that given by Johnny Carson, specifying Carson’s

prescriptions for guaranteed misery in life. I therefore decided to repeat

Carson’s speech but in expanded form with some added prescriptions of my own.



After all, I am much older than Carson was when he spoke and have failed and

been miserable more often and in more ways than was possible for a charming

humorist speaking at younger age. I am plainly well-qualified to expand on

Carson’s theme.


What Carson said was that he couldn’t tell the graduating class how to be happy,

but he could tell them from personal experience how to guarantee misery.

Carson’s prescriptions for sure misery included:


1) Ingesting chemicals in an effort to alter mood or perception;


2) Envy; and


3) Resentment.


I can still recall Carson’s absolute conviction as he told how he had tried

these things on occasion after occasion and had become miserable every time. It

is easy to understand Carson’s first prescription for misery -ingesting

chemicals. I add my voice. The four closest friends of my youth were highly

intelligent, ethical, humorous types, favoured in person and background. Two are

long dead, with alcohol a contributing factor, and a third is a living alcoholic

-if you call that living. While susceptibility varies, addiction can happen to

any of us, through a subtle process where the bonds of degradation are too light

to be felt until they are too strong to be broken. And I have yet to meet

anyone, in over six decades of life, whose life was worsened by overfear and

overavoidance of such a deceptive pathway to destruction.


Envy, of course, joins chemicals in winning some sort of quantity price for

causing misery. It was wreaking havoc long before it got a bad press in the laws

of Moses. If you wish to retain the contribution of envy to misery, I recommend

that you never read any of the biographies of that good Christian, Samuel

Johnson, because his life demonstrates in an enticing way the possibility and

advantage of transcending envy.


Resentment has always worked for me exactly as it worked for Carson. I cannot

recommend it highly enough to you if you desire misery. Johnson spoke well when

he said that life is hard enough to swallow without squeezing in the bitter rind

of resentment.


For those of you who want misery, I also recommend refraining from practice of

the Disraeli compromise, designed for people who find it impossible to quit

resentment cold turkey. Disraeli, as he rose to become one of the greatest Prime

Ministers, learned to give up vengeance as a motivation for action, but he did

retain some outlet for resentment by putting the names of people who wronged him

on pieces of paper in a drawer. Then, from time to time, he reviewed these names

and took pleasure in noting the way the world had taken his enemies down without

his assistance.


Well, so much for Carson’s three prescriptions. Here are four more prescriptions

from Munger:


First, be unreliable. 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. If you like being distrusted and

excluded from the best human contribution and company, this prescription is for

you. Master this one habit and you can always play the role of the hare in the

fable, except that instead of being outrun by one fine turtle you will be outrun

by hordes and hordes of mediocre turtles and even by some mediocre turtles on



I must warn you that if you don’t follow my first prescription it may be hard to

end up miserable, even if you start disadvantaged. I had a roommate in college

who was and is severely dyslexic. But he is perhaps the most reliable man I have

ever known. He has had a wonderful life so far, outstanding wife and children,

chief executive of a multibillion dollar corporation.


If you want to avoid a conventional, main-culture, establishment result of this

kind, you simply can t count on your other handicaps to hold you back if you

persist in being reliable.


I cannot here pass by a reference to a life described as “wonderful so far,”

without reinforcing the “so far” aspects of the human condition by repeating the

remark of Croesus, once the richest king in the world. Later, in ignominious

captivity, as he prepared to be burned alive, he said: “Well now do I remember

the words of the historian Solon: “No man’s life should be accounted a happy one

until it is over.”


My second prescription for misery is to learn everything you possibly can from

your own personal experience, minimizing what you learn vicariously from the

good and bad experience of others, living and dead. This prescription is a

sure-shot producer of misery and second-rate achievement.


You can see the results of not learning from others’ mistakes by simply looking

about you. How little originality there is in the common disasters of mankind

-drunk driving deaths, reckless driving maimings, incurable venereal diseases,

conversion of bright college students into brainwashed zombies as members of

destructive cults, business failures through repetition of obvious mistakes made

by predecessors, various forms of crowd folly, and so on. 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



The other aspect of avoiding vicarious wisdom is the rule for not learning from

the best work done before yours. The prescription is to become as non-educated

as you reasonable can.


Perhaps you will better see the type of non-miserable result you can thus avoid

if I render a short historical account. There once was a man who assiduously

mastered the work of his best predecessors, despite a poor start and very tough

time in analytic geometry. Eventually his own original work attracted wide

attention and he said of that work:


“If I have seen a little farther than other men it is because I stood on the

shoulders of giants.”


The bones of that man lie buried now, in Westminster Abbey, under an unusual



“Here lie the remains of all that was mortal in Sir Isaac Newton.”


My third prescription for misery is to go down and stay down when you get your

first, second, third severe reverse in the battle of life. Because there is so

much adversity out there, even for the lucky and wise, this will guarantee that,

in due course, you will be permanently mired in misery. Ignore at all cost the

lesson contained in the accurate epitaph written for himself by Epictetus: “Here

lies Epictetus, a slave, maimed in body, the ultimate in poverty, and favoured

by Gods.”


My final prescription to you for a life of fuzzy thinking and infelicity is to

ignore a story they told me when I was very young about a rustic who said: “I

wish I knew where I was going to die, and then I’d never go there.” Most people

smile (as you did) at the rustic’s ignorance and ignore his basic wisdom. If my

experience is any guide, the rustic’s approach is to be avoided at all cost by

someone bent on misery. To help fail you should discount as mere quirk, with no

useful message, the method of the rustic, which is the same one used in Carson’s



What Carson did was to approach the study of how to create X by turning the

question backward, that is, by studying how to create non-X. The great

algebraist, Jacobi, had exactly the same approach as Carson and was known for

his constant repetition of one phrase: “Invert, always invert.” It is in the

nature of things, as Jacobi knew, that many hard problems are best solved only

when they are addressed backward. For instance, when almost everyone else was

trying to revise the electromagnetic laws of Maxwell to be consistent with the

motion laws of Newton, Einstein discovered special relativity as he made a 180

degree turn and revised Newton’s laws to fit Maxwell’s. It is my opinion, as a

certified biography nut, that Charles Robert Darwin would have ranked near the

middle of the Harvard School graduating class of 1986. Yet he is now famous in

the history of science. This is precisely the type of example you should learn

nothing from if bent on minimizing your results from your own endowment.

Darwin’s result was due in large measure to his working method, which violated

all my rules for misery and particularly emphasized a backward twist in that he

always gave priority attention to evidence tending to disconfirm whatever

cherished and hard-won theory he already had. In contrast, most people early

achieve and later intensify a tendency to process new and disconfirming

information so that any original conclusion remains intact. They become people

of whom Philip Wylie observed: ” You couldn’t squeeze a dime between what they

already know and what they will never learn.”


The life of Darwin demonstrates how a turtle may outrun the hares, aided by

extreme objectivity, which helps the objective person end up like the only

player without blindfold in a game of pin-the-donkey. If you minimize

objectivity, you ignore not only a lesson from Darwin but also one from

Einstein. Einstein said that his successful theories came from: “Curiosity,

concentration, perseverance and self-criticism. And by self-criticism he meant

the testing and destruction of his own well-loved ideas.


Finally, minimizing objectivity will help you lessen the compromises and burdens

of owning worldly goods, because objectivity does not work only for great

physicists and biologists. It also adds power to the work of a plumbing

contractor in Bemidji. Therefore, if you interpret being true to yourself as

requiring that you retain every notion of your youth you will be safely

underway, not only toward maximizing ignorance, but also toward whatever misery

can be obtained through unpleasant experiences in business.


It is fitting now that a backward sort of speech end with a backward sort of

toast, inspired by Elihu Root’s repeated accounts of how the dog went to Dover,

“leg over leg.” To the class of 1986:


Gentlemen, may each of you rise high by spending each day of a long life aiming


[ 打印 ]
閱讀 ()評論 (0)