Charlie Munger on why “full-time” multidisciplinary thinking is not for everyone; but learning the big ideas is
Charlie Munger has the ability to draw from multiple disciplines and break down complex, messy, real-life questions down to their essence. Being a sharp generalist seems to be his superpower.
But whenener he’s asked for advice about his special advantages, Munger does not encourage people to copy him and go full-time into generalist mode. What he does advise is that everyone devote a small percentage of their time (say, 10%) to figuring out the basic big ideas (sidenote: I believe Munger makes this recommendation with the intention to help everyone avoid the “standard inanities”.) .
Questioner: As an 18-year-old interested in many disciplines, I was wondering how you can thrive as a polymath in a world that celebrates specialization?
Munger: Well, that’s a good question. I don’t think operating over many disciplines as I do is a good idea for most people. I think it’s fun, that’s why I’ve done it. I’m better at it than most people would be. And I don’t think I’m good at being the very best for handling differential equations. So it’s in a wonderful path for me, but I think the correct path for everybody else is to specialize, get very good at something that society rewards, and get very efficient at doing it.
But even if you do [specialize], I think you should spend 10 or 20% of your time into trying to know all the big ideas in all the other disciplines. Otherwise — I use the same phrase over and over again — otherwise you’re like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. It’s just not going to work very well. You have to know the big ideas in all the disciplines to be safe if you have a life lived outside a cave.
But no, I think you don’t want to neglect your business as a dentist to think great thoughts about Proust.
Questioner: My perception is that the [oil and gas] industry itself has continuously gotten more complex and technical, and as the economy expands and you have more division of labor and specialization, it seems to me that it can be very hard for investors unless there’s more specialization.
Munger: Of course.
Questioner: Do you think that capital allocators are going to need to become more specialized going forward?
Munger: Well, you, petroleum people, of course, have to get more specialized because the oil is harder to get and you have to learn new tricks to get it. And so you’re totally right. Generally, specialization is just the way to go for those people. It’s just I have an example of something different. It’s awkward for me because I don’t want to encourage people to do it the way I did, [and] because I don’t think it will work for most people.
I [do] think the basic ideas of being rational and disciplined and deferring gratification, those will work [for everyone]. But if you want to get rich the way I did, by learning a little bit about a hell of a lot, I don’t recommend it to others.
Now I’ve get a story there that I tell. A young man comes to see Mozart, and says, “I want to compose symphonies.” And Mozart says, “You’re too young to compose symphonies.” He’s 20 years old and the man says, “But you were composing symphonies when you were 10 years old.” And Mozart says, “Yeah, but I wasn’t running around asking other people how to do it.”
I don’t think I’m a good example to the young. I don’t want to encourage people to follow my particular path. If you’re a proctologist, I do not want a proctologist who knows Schopenhauer, or astrophysics. I want a man who’s specialized. That’s the way the market is. And you should never forget that. On the other hand, I don’t think you’d have much of a life if all you did was proctology.