Billionaire investor Charlie Munger once received a question from a college student in the audience of a seminar he was giving.
The student bravely walked up to the microphone and asked a question we’d probably all like to ask one of the richest people in the world. He said, “Mr. Munger, what is the key to your success?”
Rather than lecture the student about the value of hard work and tireless study, Munger leaned back in his chair and calmly responded with an answer much simpler than that.
He replied, “It’s remarkable how much long-term advantage you can get by just consistently not being stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”
The audience was surely shocked by the simplicity of that answer. But it holds true. Rarely are the winners in life the smartest people in the room. Often, it’s those who either a) were brave enough to soldier on despite every obstacle thrown at them, or b) had the least amount of fuck-ups.
One of the most essential qualities to success is learning how to consistently put yourself in a good position.
The position you find yourself in today is the accumulation of the small choices that you’ve been making for years. Those small choices that compound over time perpetually leave you in favorable circumstances.
I like to think of the pathway to success as a long, winding series of slippery stones traversing a river of vicious rapids. It’s so dark and foggy out that you can only see the next stone in front of you. You can’t see the other side but you know the stones will lead you to safety. You can only see as far as your headlamp, but you can make the whole trip that way.
You could, of course, sprint your way across the river – jumping, skipping, and splashing across the treacherous path to get there as fast as possible and avoid the forces of nature. On the other hand, you could engineer a bridge. You could take months and months to carefully chop down trees, saw them, nail them into place and hopefully measure it properly to get you to the other side.
But the safest (and most boring) option is just to slowly prod your way across; taking the next, most necessary step with as much focus and care as you can muster. Stone by stone until eventually, you’re on the other side.
Matthew McConaughey describes a similar philosophy to his success in his memoir, Greenlights,
Any success takes one in a row
Do one thing well, then another.
Once, then once more
Over and over until the end
Then it’s tomorrow again
Every good habit starts with putting one foot in front of the other. Every day you start back at zero. It takes discipline to continue the streak; to wake up early and not hit snooze; to take care of your baby and put them back to sleep; to work a job you don’t like to get to the one you do. But you do it anyway. You fight the internal battle going on in your head each and every morning. You conquer the voice saying “no” once more today. Do it again the next day. And the next. Each day is just as hard as the last, but you do it once more. Then it’s one in a row again.
Carl Jung, one of the pioneers of modern psychology, had a doctrine of simply doing “The next best thing.” Jung wrote, “If you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.”
You’d be surprised to hear how many celebrities, business professionals, athletes, inventors, and pioneers of industry say, “You know, I never thought I was the most talented [singer, writer, basketball player, etc].” But they kept at it – one day at a time, one decision at a time – learning and accumulating knowledge along the way. Joe Rogan calls it “Building a mountain with layers of paint.” Small disciplines repeated with consistency every day eventually lead to great achievements gained slowly over time.