Charlie Munger on avoiding too much top-down theorization about ethics; better to engage with life practically
Question: Question in regards to someone early in their career trying to figure out which of several paths to pursue. Two thoughts that seem helpful for this purpose are: (1) figuring out which work you have the possibility to become the best at, and (2) ascertaining which line of work would most help society. Do you think these ideas are the right ones to focus on, and if so, how would you go about answering them?
Munger: Well, in terms of picking what to do, I want to report to all of you, that in my whole life I’ve never succeeded much in something that I wasn’t interested in. So I don’t think you’re going to succeed if what you’re doing all day doesn’t interest you. You’ve got to find something you’re interested in because it’s just too much to expect of human nature that you’re going to be good at something that you really dislike doing. And so that’s one big issue.
And, of course, you have to play in a game where you’ve got some unusual talents. If you’re 5’1”, you don’t want to play basketball against some guy whose 8’3”. It’s just too hard. So you gotta figure out a game where you have an advantage and it has to be something that you’re deeply interested in.
Now, you get into the ethical side of life.
Well, of course, you want to be ethical. On the other hand, you can’t be just dreaming how you think the world should be run and that it’s too dirty for you to get near it.
You can get so consumed by some ideological notion particularly in a left-wing university. It’s like you think you’re handling ethics, [but] what you’re doing is not working. And maybe smoking a little pot to boot. This is not the Munger system.
My hero is Maimonides (sidenote: Wikipedia: “Moses ben Maimon (1138–1204), commonly known as Maimonides, was a medieval Sephardic Jewish philosopher who became one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages.”) . And all that philosophy and all that writing, he did after working 10 or 12 hours a day as a practicing physician all his life. He believed in the engaged life. And so I recommend the engaged life.
[If] you spend all your life thinking about some politician who wants it this way or that way — [or if] you’re sure [that] you know what’s right — you’re on the wrong track. You want to do something every day where you’re coping with the reality. You want to be more like Maimonides and less like Bernie Sanders.