We’ve all seen commencement speeches extolling the same old hackneyed advice: Follow your dreams! Be the change you wish to see in the world! Remain curious!
It’s often logical advice that sounds hollow coming from some billionaire tech entrepreneur or a famous Hollywood actor. Easy for you to say.
Charlie Munger, the Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, decided to flip the conventional “life advice” speech on its head. In 1986, Munger delivered a masterful keynote speech to the Harvard School titled “How to Guarantee a Life of Misery.” Rather than rant on the individual characteristics and attributes that made him such a success, he wanted to distribute more practical advice: What are the surefire paths that will guarantee misery?
So often, we’re told what we should be doing in order to be happy. The right internships, the right haircut, and the right extracurriculars that check the right boxes on the resumé. Conversely, knowing what to avoid is just as, if not more important, than knowing what to do.
Trying to tell someone how to be happy is a fool’s errand, but you can tell someone how to become miserable. If you just avoid those paths to misery, you’ll have increased your chances of a happy life. And that’s why Munger’s speech was so brilliant.
“If you want to guarantee a life of misery,” Munger said, “First, be unreliable.”
Flipped in a positive way, what Munger is saying is that if you want to be successful, you must be dependable.
SEVEN PATHS TO GUARANTEE A LIFE OF MISERY
1. Addiction (ingesting chemicals to alter mood or perception)
The main reasons someone becomes an addict of any kind are either to elicit a feeling (euphoria, energy, sociability, etc.) or to drown a feeling (loneliness, anxiety, sorrow). A study showed that of the three most common traits of the world’s most successful people, one of them was impulse control. That means they didn’t rely on substances to help enhance their performance. They had control over their feelings and could direct their focus to the task that needed to be done.
I have yet to meet someone whose life was worsened by avoidance of such a deceptive pathway to destruction.
Whether we like it or not, we all experience envy or jealousy at one point or another. You want what she has, and you hate her for having it. We often get so hung up on what we can’t have that we don’t think for a second about whether we even really want it.
It’s a symptom of a lack of appreciation for our uniqueness and self-worth. Each of us has something to give that no one else has.
Joy Behar has a wonderful quote on this, “Jealousy is such a waste of time because you’re jealous of them, and they go about their lives and have a wonderful time, so what’s the point?” You will never find a hater who is doing better than you. Confident creators focus on their craft, not in worrying about what others are doing.
Resentment, as the saying goes, is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. It’s a victim mentality. It’s saying woe is me and blaming others for your own circumstances. What good does it serve? Every day you have a choice to make: you can choose either to be a victim of the world or an adventurer in search of treasure. It’s all a question of how you view your life.
4. Be Unreliable
Reliability is the precondition for trust. It means you keep your promises and won’t make excuses if you don’t. If your partner or spouse is consistently unreliable, trust erodes, and the relationship will likely fall apart quicker than it started. Confucious once said, “A man who lacks reliability is utterly useless.”
Consistency doesn’t guarantee success, but inconsistency guarantees failure. There’s a great TikTok clip of actor Seth Rogen where he says,
If you don’t quit, you might make it. And if you quit, you definitely won’t… The only common denominator is that.
You can do something every day and still fail, but doing something every day will vastly improve your odds of success. Thomas Edison famously went through thousands of iterations to make his dream a reality. He failed over 10,000 times trying to invent a commercially viable electric bulb. At one point, when asked by a reporter whether he felt like a failure after so many failed attempts. He said, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”
Edison had a huge impact on society, holding 1,093 patents to his name at the time of his death. His work in several fields created the basis for many of the technologies that we enjoy today and take for granted. However, like anyone else, he suffered through failure numerous times, but where others quit, he persisted.
Most of us develop our sense of who we are by what we do. As entrepreneur Alex Hormozi says “You don’t become confident by shouting affirmations in the mirror, but by having a stack of undeniable proof that you are who you say you are. Outwork your self-doubt.”
5. Learn Only from Your Personal Experience
Munger says that common disasters of mankind are usually due to repeating obvious mistakes made by predecessors.
Reading and consuming the words and thoughts of the world’s greatest thinkers has afforded me a larger worldview than I ever could have imagined. By learning from other people’s mistakes and shortcomings, I can iterate those lessons into my own life without having to go through the same trials and tribulations. Sure, I’m going to encounter my own failures and fuck-ups, but studying other’s failures has made me more aware of the pitfalls of any endeavor, and like Munger’s message, I know what thoughts, actions, or character traits to avoid.
6. Let Life Knock You Down
In their 1997 smash hit Tubthumping, Chumbawamba sang the lyrics, “I get knocked down, but I get up again because you’re never gonna keep me down.”
If you want to guarantee a life of misery, don’t listen to Chambawumba.
But if you want to be happy and successful, you’d get up again and again. Life never stops swinging for your head. Sometimes you get lucky and dodge a big right hook, but inevitably they’re going to land at least one big blow to the side of your head. It’s your choice. Do you lay down and give up while the ref counts to 10, or do you rise from the dead like Tyson Fury and shock the world with your response?
7. Don’t Think Backward
Approach the study of happiness by studying how not to be happy, in other words:
Approach “How to be X?”
By asking “How not to be X?”
Had I heard this speech as I was graduating college, I’m not 100% sure I would have followed Munger’s advice to a tee, but it certainly would have done more good than the commencement speech my graduating class received. This guidance is potent and lasting.
Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett are notorious for their efforts to avoid dumb mistakes and eliminate risk. “It’s remarkable how much long-term advantage you can get by just consistently not being stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent,” Munger once said. The list above is the definitive guide on not being stupid.