Charlie Munger's advice for enduring terrible hardship
“I basically believe in the soldier on system. Lots of hardship will come and you gotta handle it well by soldiering through. And lots of – a few rare opportunities will come. You got to learn how to recognize them when they come and not that make too minor of a trip to the pie counter when the opportunity is available. And those are the simple lessons.”
Over the course of this year, I was pleasantly surprised to see Charlie Munger agree to several interviews. He clearly felt a need to communicate something important as he approached his 100th birthday. Perhaps he was compelled to share his wisdom due to an acknowledgement of the limits of time as he drew near to a milestone or maybe his health had taken a turn for the worse. Regardless of the reason, I am thankful that Charlie Munger shared so much of his wisdom with us prior to his death last week.
In his final interview with Becky Quick two weeks before his death, Mr. Munger spoke candidly about many aspects of his life that he typically preferred to keep private. In particular, he spoke about his son, Teddy, who died in 1955 at the age of nine from leukemia. At the time, leukemia was a certain death sentence and there was nothing a parent could do but watch his child slowly die.
As a boy, Charlie Munger was an avid reader of biographies and he particularly looked up to Benjamin Franklin. Most Americans know about Franklin’s major achievements over a long lifetime but few know about a painful loss he suffered as a young man.
In 1736, Benjamin Franklin’s four year old son died of smallpox, an event that Franklin forever regretted since he could have given his son an early version of a smallpox inoculation. I suspect that Franklin’s ability to move on after the death of his son provided comfort and inspiration. The loss of a child was a common experience throughout most of human history. Having an understanding of this reality of the human experience does not eliminate personal pain but can help deal with it.
Charlie Munger advised us to “soldier on” when we encounter the inevitable reverses in life. He soldiered on for nearly seven decades after the loss of his son. I am sure that no other loss in his life compared to what he experienced in 1955.
Wealth can solve many problems, but in 1955 no amount of money could have saved Teddy Munger’s life. At the time, Charlie Munger was nearly broke after a divorce and still had other children to provide for. But even if he had been a billionaire in 1955, money would have been completely powerless to save his son.
When you have suffered massive personal loss, especially ones that money cannot solve, financial losses are put in a proper perspective. Charlie Munger always wanted to be rich, but after providing for his family, his purpose was independence:
“Like Warren, I had a considerable passion to get rich, not because I wanted Ferraris — I wanted the independence. I desperately wanted it.”
— Charlie Munger
Money could not bring back Charlie Munger’s son but it could provide him with the independence needed to pursue his goals in life.
But what were his goals?
Why soldier on?
Two weeks ago, I read Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning for the third time.1 When I read the book for the second time a few years ago, my main purpose was to better understand Frankl’s experience in concentration camps during World War II. As I read it again recently, my attention turned more toward Frankl’s ideas on how human beings find meaning in life even under the most extreme conditions.
Viktor Frankl knew the meaning of loss. He witnessed the deaths of countless friends in the concentration camps. When he was finally liberated at the end of the war, he returned to Vienna to discover that his family had not survived. However, Frankl “soldiered on” for decades, serving his patients in his role as a psychologist and neurologist, as well as gaining prominence as a public intellectual and philosopher. He died in 1997 at the age of 92, more than fifty years after his liberation.2
How do you carry on when you’ve suffered awful personal turmoil? It is hardly something that can be taken for granted. It is very common for people in terrible situations to descend into depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and other self-destructive behaviors including suicide.
Why soldier on?
Ultimately, Frankl believed that human beings cannot live, much less thrive, without understanding their meaning and purpose in life. The premise of logotherapy, Frankl’s psychological framework, was that man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life. Furthermore, man can find meaning even in the most awful situations when most people succumb to hopelessness and fall into nihilism.
Victor Frankl believed that we can discover the meaning in life in three ways:
By creating a work or doing a deed.
By experiencing something or encountering someone.
By the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.
If a human being has a reason to become happy, he or she will achieve happiness. And the reason to become happy is the achievement of one’s purpose in life.
Did Charlie Munger find meaning in life by becoming a billionaire?
Is that why he chose to soldier on? There is little doubt that Mr. Munger aspired to become wealthy and many eyebrows were raised when he made the following statement in his final interview with Becky Quick:
CHARLIE MUNGER: … But I’m not all that pleased. I could have done a lot better if I had been a little smarter, a little quicker.
BECKY QUICK: What are you talking about? Like, you’ve had success in everything you’ve done in life. What would you like to do differently.
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, no, but I might have had multiple trillions instead of multiple billions.
BECKY QUICK: Do you sit around thinking about this? What would you have done differently?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Yes, I do think about it. I think about it. Yes, I think about it, about what I nearly missed by being just not quite smart enough or hardworking enough.
Could it really be that Charlie Munger was disappointed, in his last weeks of life, because he failed to amass enough wealth? Did he really believe that his life would have been better if he had multiple trillions instead of multiple billions?
For those who have been exposed to Mr. Munger’s thinking for the first time over the past week, I can understand the confusion. But I believe that there is a deeper meaning in these comments that has not been widely understood.
In my opinion, Charlie Munger’s purpose in life, after he had provided all that his family could possibly ever need, was to serve as an example for others. He said on many occasions that it is a moral duty to be rational and to serve as an exemplar. So, when I heard those comments, I immediately sensed that Mr. Munger was frustrated that he did not always act as rationally as he could have. Had he acted more rationally, he believes that more wealth would have ensued, and that this wealth would have been some sort of proof that rationality and worldly wisdom was worth pursuing.
I cannot read minds, nor would I be presumptuous enough to declare that this is what Charlie Munger meant, because he did not explicitly say so. But the idea that a man worth several billion dollars, even after giving away a great deal of money during his lifetime, could be frustrated by not having more spending power seems absurd. This is especially true in the context of paying close attention to everything he has said for nearly a quarter century as well as researching his life.
I believe that Charlie Munger found meaning in life not through the spending power of his wealth but by “creating a work or doing a deed”, in Viktor Frankl’s framework. His primary work was his role in the development of Berkshire Hathaway, but he also contributed mightily to the cause of rationality and worldly wisdom.
No one can know what goes through the mind of another human being in his final days and hours, but I doubt Charlie Munger was disappointed about not being richer. He said on many occasions that he had defeated envy. If he had any disappointment, it might have been related to not doing even more to promote rationality. One would hope that this was not really the case because few have done more for that cause.
I’ll conclude with these additional comments from Charlie Munger on soldiering on:
BECKY QUICK: I try and think back of what the toughest moments might’ve been and how you got through some of those. And, I mean--
CHARLIE MUNGER: Well, we all know how to get through them. The great philosophers of realism are also the great philosophers of what I call soldiering through. If you soldier through, you can get through almost anything. And it’s your only option. You can’t bring back the dead, you can’t cure the dying child. You can’t do all kinds of things. You have to soldier through it. You just somehow you soldier through. If you have to walk through the streets, crying for a few hours a day as part of the soldiering, go ahead and cry away. But you have to – you can’t quit. You can cry all right, but you can’t quit.
BECKY QUICK: You’ve had time in your life when you’ve done that?
CHARLIE MUNGER: Sure. I cried all the time when my first child died. But I knew I couldn’t change the fate. In those days, the fatality with childhood leukemia was 100%.
BECKY QUICK: That was your son, Teddy.
CHARLIE MUNGER: That’s gone away. Now the cure rate is way up in the 90s. And it’s an amazing development. Think of how much pleasure it’s given me to watch the cure rate for leukemia. What mankind did, what mankind and civilization did was soldier through those tough years that took away my cousin, Tommy, from meningitis, and then took away my son Teddy from leukemia. Imagine a cure. Imagine pretty well fixing that disease for families who came into life later. It’s a huge achievement. You can see why I like civilization. To me, civilization is what man has done with the last two centuries. And it’s been a good thing to watch.
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My primary purpose for revisiting Man’s Search for Meaning was to evaluate whether it would be appropriate reading for some of the younger people in my family. There is a young adult edition of the book which contains all of Frankl’s description of his experience in the concentration camps and an abridged version of his logotherapy framework.