Charlie Munger on not trying to be a prodigy, just trying to avoid the inanities, including the inanities of the prodigies

Charlie Munger has said in different occasions that everyone — from Roger Federer to a plumber in Bemidji (sidenote: Bemidji is a small city in Minnesota with a population of 15k people.) — can benefit from avoiding “standard stupidies.”

In a 2019 interview with the Wall Street Journal (a), he explained that as follows:

Question: But why isn’t Berkshire easier to emulate?

Munger: We’re talking about very simple ideas of just figuring out the standard stupidities and avoiding them. And I actually collect them!

Some people collect stamps. I collect insanities and absurdities. And then I avoid them, and it’s amazing how well it works, because I’ve gone by [the examples of] all these people that are more talented than I am.

If I had set out to invent more quantum mechanics, I would’ve been an also-ran. I just set out to avoid the standard stupidities, and I’ve done a lot better than many people who mastered quantum mechanics.

And it’s a way for mediocre people to get ahead and it’s, it’s not much of a secret either. Just avoid all the standard stupidities. There are so many of them, and so many brilliant people do it.

Being a prodigy is hard. I’m not trying to be a prodigy, I’m just trying to avoid the inanities, including the inanities of the prodigies!

That enables a man of moderate abilities and moderate work habits to get so much more than his logical deserts. Think of the talent it takes to make a lot of money.

Yet on the same topic, here’s an exchange between Charlie Munger and Edmund Kitch (a) that took place in 1996 and is quoted in The Buffett Essays Symposium: A 20th Anniversary Annotated Transcript by Lawrence Cunningham:

Edmund Kitch: As a member of the teaching profession, I would like to say a kind word for the trivial. My experience in the classroom has been that students often report that some of the most important things they learn are what seems to me are trivial, but are quite news to them. I remember that when I learned in class that a stock split was not really an important or beneficial event for shareholders, it was quite a revelation to me. I think it’s an utterly trivial proposition. But if you haven’t heard of it, it’s actually very useful to have someone tell you.

Munger: I would accept that, and I would argue that what Berkshire has done has mostly been using trivial knowledge. And it’s the fact that we concentrate so much on trivial knowledge that enables us to —

Kitch: Then would you advise our students that if they focus on the trivial points we’re making, that in the end they may end up with several million dollars?

Munger: Yes. I think the answer is that if you absorb the important basic knowledge — which at least for the best students is very easy to assimilate — and you absorb all the big basic points across a broad range of disciplines, one day you’ll walk down the street and you’ll find that you’re one of the very most competent members of your generation, and that many people who were quicker mentally and worked harder are in your dust. So, yes, by all means teach the big important points. And the fact that they’re nearly obvious, if they’re important enough, you probably should even repeat them.

In fact, Munger was already giving the same sort of advice way back then. Munger wrote in his 1989 letter to Wesco Financial’s shareholders that:

Wesco continues to try more to profit from always remembering the obvious than from grasping the esoteric. 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. There must be some wisdom in the folk saying, “It’s the strong swimmers who drown.”


Category  Life Wisdom
Tags  Charlie Munger · Career