Charlie Munger on prodigies and inanities

In his 1994 speech at the University of Southern California titled “The Art of Stock Picking” (pdf), Charlie Munger said the following on the topic of world-class achievement:

If you want to be the best tennis player in the world, you may start out trying and soon find out that it’s hopeless — that other people blow right by you.

However, if you want to become the best plumbing contractor in Bemidji [a small city in Minnesota with a population of 15k people], that is probably doable by two-thirds of you. It takes a will. It takes the intelligence. But after a while, you’d gradually know all about the plumbing business in Bemidji and master the art.

That is an attainable objective, given enough discipline. And people who could never win a chess tournament or stand in center court in a respectable tennis tournament can rise quite high in life by slowly developing a circle of competence — which results partly from what they were born with and partly from what they slowly develop through work.

So some edges can be acquired. And the game of life to some extent for most of us is trying to be something like a good plumbing contractor in Bemidji. Very few of us are chosen to win the world’s chess tournaments.

Being the “best in the world” is the kind of game played by Warren Buffett, Henry Singleton, and Homer Joe Stewart.

For more context on these people, see entries: Charlie Munger on finding one’s special advantages and Charlie Munger explains Warren Buffett’s success.

Almost by definition, most people won’t be playing those games of outliers.

On the other hand, Munger says that everyone — from Roger Federer to a plumber in Bemidji — 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.

In Towards Greatness
Tagged with Charlie Munger · Career