Charlie Munger on how to guarantee a miserable life

Inversion is a mental model that helps us analyze situations and make better decisions. Instead of aiming directly at your goal, you use inversion to think deeply about what you want to avoid from multiple angles. It means approaching a situation from the opposite end of the natural starting point, to identify and remove obstacles to success.

Charlie Munger is one strong proponent of inversion:

It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.

In June 13, 1986, Munger delivered the graduation speech at the Harvard School in Los Angeles1 (now Harvard-Westlake). Munger elaborated about how to achieve a remarkable life. Only that instead of approaching the matter directly, he used inversion and his witty sense of humor to deliver his advice in the for of prescriptions for guaranteed misery2.

Munger first three prescriptions follow the prescriptions from another talk by comedian Johnny Carson. Munger said he selected Carson’s speech as a model because it was the only speech he had heard someone wished it had lasted longer.

After recalling Carson’s three prescriptions for sure misery–ingesting chemicals in an effort to alter mood or preception, envy, and resentment–Munger added four prescriptions of his own:

  • Be unreliable, so you are excluded from the best human contribution and company.

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, how so ever 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 will always play the role of the hare in the fable, except that instead of being outrun by one fine turtles, you will be outurn by hordes and hordes of mediocre turtles and even some mediocre turtles on crutches.

  • Try to learn all by yourself. Don’t try to stand on the shoulder of giants.

My second prescription for misery is to learn everything you possibly can from your own experiences 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.

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 reasonably can.

  • Don’t try again if you fail. Disregard grit, perseverance, and resilience. Believe in shortcuts and overnight success.

My third prescription to you for misery is to go down and stay down when you get your first, second, or 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 favored by the gods.”

  • Never invert. Don’t try to identify or avoid obstacles.

    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 speech.

    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.

* * *

These are some obstacles to living a remarkable life. What are you going to do about it?

  1. You can find this talk and other valuable material about Charlie Munger in the exceptional book Poor Charlie’s Almanack, edited by Peter D. Kaufman. ↩︎

  2. Quoted text are from that speech unless otherwise noted. ↩︎

Charlie Munger inversion mental models

Join my free newsletter and receive updates directly to your inbox.