10 Essential Rules Charlie Taught Me About Leaving Your Mark
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This week, as a follow up to Eat a Bit of Candy, I’m diving deeper into the man, the myth, the legend: Charlie Munger.
Alright, let’s dive in.
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Charlie changed my life.
I felt I knew him, even though I didn't.
I discovered Seeking Wisdom when I was 25, and it was all I needed to be a lifelong Munger follower.
I devoured every book, interview, and speech that featured him. I left no stone unturned when it came to studying the works of this great thinker, spending countless hours capturing his quotes and ideas into my notes database. In a weird way, I guess I hoped that writing his thoughts would improve my own. That they’d embed so deep in my subconscious that it'd make me a little like Charlie.
And in some ways, it worked.
I learned to sit with my thoughts long enough to realize how bad they can be.
I learned to keep things simple, even when pushed to overcomplicate.
I learned that simple communication of complex ideas is an art.
I learned the intricacies of finance, investing, and mental models.
Though I learned a lot, something else stuck with me as I got older. What stuck with me wasn't the reflections and insights, but Munger's inevitable legacy.
As I've grown older, I've started thinking more about legacy. I've seen how great leaders, thinkers, artists, and creators reshape the world, and leave their mark. Even after death, their legacy lives on.
My fixation on legacy emanates from the dialogue it creates with the past, present, and future versions of me. Thinking about your legacy can be narcissistic, or it can be motivating. When I think about it, it's not through the lens of self-indulgence or flattery. Instead, it's to remind myself that everything I do will be part of my legacy, for good or bad. In that way, it is up to me to decide what to do with my time.
Do I choose to create in a way that cements a legacy I can be proud of?
Munger's work was an early inspiration for Path Nine, which became my humble attempt to create and solidify a legacy of my design and thinking. Munger's unwavering character, intelligence, honesty, humility, and professional success fueled my imagination and motivated me not just to work but also to think better.
The Depths of a Great Thinker
Great thinkers are rare.
Charlie Munger was the black swan of modern thinkers.
As I wrote in Eat a Bit of Candy,
Munger saw life with a lot of clarity. He's a thousand-yard stare in human form; focused, precise, resolute.
Munger was the right-hand advisor to the infamous and equally brilliant Warren Buffett. Where Buffett was best known for his financial success and avuncular attitude, Munger was known for his worldly wisdom and insight. No matter your experience or background, it's easy to derive value from the insights he shared across his 99 years of calculated, thoughtful, and intellectual rigor.
He was a man who somehow existed inside and outside of time's bounds. His wisdom wasn't some cheap tweet or cursory snippet pulled together for a soundbite. His thoughts were deep, nuanced, and colorful. His advice wasn't meant to be advice but to communicate a more profound truth. Munger's currency of choice wasn't advice; it was wisdom.
Unfortunately, we lost this great thinker in 2023.
Munger's legacy became more apparent and essential after his passing, as the invaluable wellspring of insights in his brilliant mind ceased to flow. No longer was it possible to get just one more quote or idea. That was it, the end.
Upon passing, countless writers, thinkers, influencers, business leaders, tech bros, and finance execs posted their thoughts, noting Munger's impact on their lives. And before the dust settled on the digital obituary, the listicles and roundups came flying in. If you're so inclined, here are a few:
Most of the memoriam posts about Munger focus on some of his most influential insights and quotes, partly because it's the easiest way to pump out an article that gets clicks (we all love an easy win, especially if it requires minimal thought and work, for that matter). Yet, reading each article made me feel more disconnected from the richness of his thinking. A series of quotes can be interesting, but it robs us of the depth we long for and associate with great thinkers. Ironically, most of what was written and shared was antithetical to Munger's belief that everyone isn't just handed cheap, easy wins. Munger said:
I believe in the discipline of mastering the best that other people have ever figured out.
What makes the life—and legacy—of Munger so uniquely interesting? Our ability to relive not just his ideas, but the ideas he co-authored by mastering the best of what other people already figured out.
Through his legacy, we can continue to learn and grow, as I did when I was 25, devouring every word and idea he shared with the world. Ideas that expand on the knowledge he harnessed through other great minds over decades of continuous learning and ideation. We can leverage his legacy to impact ours.
He wasn't overly concerned with being well-known despite his massive success.
He focused on mastering the best of what other people already figured out.
And his pursuit of mastering the best rings loud in my ears.
So, instead of regurgitating Munger's thoughts, I decided to go deep and summarize his thinking into a précis, or a summary of the anthology of Munger.
Developing Munger’s Laws
This piece is my attempt to curate and synthesize 99 years of next-level thinking to serve as a pairing-down of a seminal body of work. It's not meant to be a comprehensive breakdown of Munger's work—there are books for that, after all (Poor Charlie's Almanac, etc.)—but rather a dilation of the lens with which we view and embody his work.
In the process of endlessly digesting Seeking Wisdom and Poor Charlie's Almanack, watching "The Psychology of Human Misjudgment", and devouring every article I could find on Munger, I stumbled upon natural groupings that define this anthology. These are what I call "Munger’s Laws."
Laws that uphold his wisdom.
Laws that remind us of his character, intellect, and generosity.
Laws that, above all else, cement his legacy.
Law 1: Avoid Stupidity
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.
We recognized early on that very smart people do very dumb things, and we wanted to know why and who, so that we could avoid them.
In life, our primary law should be geared toward avoiding stupidity. It’s an evolutionary concept that goes back to the earliest days of every living being. In this Darwinian view, we must evade what could take us out of the game to survive. As Munger once said,
All I want to know is where I'm going to die, so I'll never go there.
At work, most of what we aim to do is to look smart, when in reality, we’d be better off if we tried to avoid stupidity. If you look at some of the most successful people, they’re rarely the smartest or even the most qualified, at least in a traditional sense. During his commencement speech at USC Law School in 2007, Munger stated:
I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up, and boy, does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.
Dropouts like Thomas Edison, Mark Twain, and Steve Jobs all found success via non-traditional paths by simply putting their head down and focusing on getting a little better each day. Reflecting early and often is one of the best ways to avoid stupidity.
Law 2: Master Compound Interest
Everything starts small. But compound interest turns small things into massive things; it just takes time. Compound interest is a powerful concept that can bring immense benefits to our lives. It helps us earn not only on the initial amount invested, but also on the accumulated interest. Munger knew this like the back of his hand, and he saw how it impacted everything around him, from investing to the growth of every living organism—he saw it everywhere.
Understanding both the power of compound interest and the difficulty of getting it is the heart and soul of understanding a lot of things.
But, as he points out, our ability to comprehend the power of compound interest holds us back from making better decisions. Whether in finance or other areas of life, we can leverage this power law to achieve more significant growth and success. We can continuously learn and combine our skills to accelerate our progress and achieve remarkable results. Just remember what Charlie said,
I think that a life properly lived is just learn, learn, learn all the time.
Law 3: Allocate Time to Think
We pride ourselves on our ability to do. We use phrases like “bias for action” and “be proactive” to describe and encourage people to dive headfirst into something, putting thinking aside. As someone who studied architecture and spent the early days of my consulting career thinking, I’ve always found this to be counterintuitive and, at times, counterproductive. You can’t just start building a house and figure it out as you go. You need plans, details, drawings, annotations, and coordination—all things that require thinking.
Neither Warren nor I is smart enough to make the decisions with no time to think.
In his article “In Defense of Strategy,” Packy McCormick does a fantastic job articulating the value of strategy and thinking. The art of clear thinking doesn’t come from the unpracticed; it comes from those obsessed with exploring the depths of their mind, expanding boundaries, pushing limits, testing ideas, and, most importantly, creating space. Only once we have opened up space and time for thinking can we roam the land without restriction.
If you want to be a good thinker, you must develop a mind that can jump the jurisdictional boundaries.
Law 4: Stay Grounded
When starting my first company, one phone call left a lasting impact on me. I met with a fellow founder who had just sold their software company to a mid-sized tech firm in Seattle. What struck me was not the shared insights or advice but the arrogance I felt dripping off every curt or cryptic reply. Though I was still a young entrepreneur, I swore that no amount of money would ever change me, or my ability to be kind and helpful. And it goes to precisely what Munger would say,
Remember that reputation and integrity are your most valuable assets and can be lost in a heartbeat.
Success shouldn’t change you. Find a way to stay grounded.
Law 5: Create Systems for Success
Munger is both a complex and an uncomplicated thinker. Like Buffett, he embraced both the simplicity of checklists, and also the complexity of a latticework of mental models.
No wise pilot, no matter how great his talent and experience, fails to use his checklist.
It's so easy to get so busy you no longer have time to think. The price of not thinking clearly is relatively high, albeit sometimes delayed. But when it comes to designing a life and a career, it’s important to remember that we need systems to help keep us accountable. Or, as the infamous James Clear puts it, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
I think about this a lot. Every day, I look at what I’ve accomplished and try to find one optimization—one way to turn a manual process into something scalable, repeatable, and easy to follow. I don’t do this to simplify work, but to maximize space for creativity and deep thinking. It’s my way of looking for patterns that keep me on track and push me toward a more successful version of myself.
You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience—both vicarious and direct—on this latticework of models.
Law 6: Passion Amplifies Aptitude
Every week, I read a post on Reddit or Blind asking, "What is the highest-paying job in tech?" Inevitably, these questions are commonplace on platforms that promote financial success as the critical metric for a well-crafted life and career. We should expect no less from a society that cares little about the creative, alternative forms of success that often create the most fulfilling lives and careers. But we certainly shouldn't embrace it.
The problem with these questions is that they rarely lead to a successful career. Say you decide to be a doctor because it pays the highest salary; what happens when your passion dies out or you lose the motivation to keep moving?
What happens when lifestyle creep catches up to you, and you get stuck in a system you hate?
What happens if it causes everything else in life to fall apart, and your family leaves you?
You’ll do better if you have passion for something in which you have aptitude. If Warren had gone into ballet, no one would have heard of him.
The realities of a life and career well-crafted are that they require the delicate intertwining of passion and aptitude; your interests need to meet your skills. It doesn’t need to be a 50/50 split but involves integration. The sooner you realize that moving interests and skills closer together in the Venn diagram of life, the sooner you’ll find yourself in a place that few can replicate, but many will attempt to emulate.
Law 7: Choose Your Challenges
Starting a new business, building a new career, or doing something people don’t understand well or that doesn’t fit into a nice, neat box are all high-risk, high-reward paths in life. But they’re filled with triggers for self-doubt, imposter syndrome, and frustration. All paths are challenging. The question is: what kind of challenge should you choose?
Whenever you think something or some person is ruining your life, it's you. A victimization mentality is so debilitating.
At some point, we have to chin up and move forward. Life gets hard fast. As I look back on the adversity I’ve faced in starting, growing, and building companies, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the challenges and frustrations faced along the journey. Yet, each has made me better, and therefore made me stronger. For every mistake I made, I found two new ways to improve on that in the future. No matter how bad things seem, there is always a way, and a victimization mentality isn’t a solution.
Law 8: Avoid Mediocrity
Most creative people are cursed with a distinct kind of pain: the pain of optionality.
Being creative often leads to multiple ideas, at times in rapid succession. It’s easy to get excited and distracted all at the same time. There are many things to pursue, and the creative brain sees opportunity everywhere. But without limitation, we risk sending ourselves into a death spiral of projects and ideas that never exceed 10% completion. As Ned Rorem once said, “It isn’t evil that is ruining the earth, but mediocrity. The crime is not that Nero played while Rome burned, but that he played badly.”
And Munger reminds us of the same pains and pitfalls of mediocrity, saying:
It takes character to sit there with all that cash and do nothing. I didn't get to where I am by going after mediocre opportunities.
In Thriving with Limitation, I shared the creative limitation that artist Pierre Soulages, "The painter of black and light," was known for creating some of the most fascinating, minimalist, abstract art in the 20th century. He often felt overwhelmed by choice — materials, colors, subjects, it was all too much. In 1979, he made the radically divergent choice to reduce his palette to one hue: black. We can learn a lot from Soulages. Whether you’re thinking about starting something, building something, or continuing something, constraints are a way to keep you grounded—they allow for and breed creativity.
Law 9: Learn to Rise
Those who keep learning, will keep rising in life.
The first step to rising is realizing we can evolve—we're capable of change and maturation. Munger saw mistakes as the leavening agent in human maturation, providing the necessary conditions to encourage and facilitate intellectual expansion.
I like people admitting they were complete stupid horses’ asses. I know I’ll perform better if I rub my nose in my mistakes. This is a wonderful trick to learn.
We must first face ourselves, before we can face the world.
Forgetting your mistakes is a terrible error if you’re trying to improve your cognition. Reality doesn’t remind you. Why not celebrate stupidities in both categories?
Mistakes are part of growth. Remember them. Learn from them. Reflect and move on.
Law 10: Keep Life Simple, and Minimal
One of the greatest ways to avoid trouble is to keep it simple. When you make it vastly complicated—and only a few high priests in each department can pretend to understand it—what you’re going to find all too often is that those high priests don’t really understand it at all…. The system often goes out of control.
We have a passion for keeping things simple.
We have three baskets: in, out, and too tough… We have to have a special insight, or we’ll put it in the too tough basket.
Simplicity is something I just recently started to understand. When studying architecture in college, I remember a long and detailed discussion with a professor about the differences between simplicity and minimalism, and their relative importance in architecture. To the best of my recollection, the assertion was:
Simplicity = bad.
Minimalism = good.
And from that point forward, I only referred to anything in architecture as minimal, never simple. But as I recall, the point was slightly more nuanced and focused on minimalism as a stripping down of elements. Conversely, simplicity resulted from an underdeveloped idea requiring more analysis and study, leading to a less considerate design.
Architecture lessons aside, when it comes to decision-making, simplicity is my north star. My gut usually knows the answer, and my brain tries to convince my gut that it knows nothing. Of course, I’m always an advocate for Second-Order Thinking and in-depth critique, but sometimes, they can stand in the way of what would ultimately be a straightforward decision.
If something is too hard, we move on to something else. What could be simpler than that?
Learning to Leave Your Mark
For all his profound wisdom, Munger was nothing more than a man.
He sweat, bled, cried, laughed—and ate a bit of candy.
His wisdom lifted me and kept me planted firmly on the ground.
His fingerprints are all over my work and my life.
He left a mark.
Though imperfect, Munger’s laws provide foundational principles that can be passed down from generation to generation. These laws are a great place to start if we wish to think, work, and live better in the next 99 years. He was incredibly thoughtful, successful, and yet entirely grounded—and that’s exactly how I want to be remembered.
"Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise, instead, seek what they sought." —Matsuo Bashō
That’s how he beat the market, outlasted the competition, and built a legacy.
Had he not been a billionaire, he’d still be successful.
Because the man, his morality, and his modus operandi surpassed the heights of his fortune.
His legacy lives on.
And, just in case you missed it…
Here’s a few related posts I’ve written that people enjoyed:
Until Next Time!
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Thanks for reading, and see you soon,
— Kevin K. (@kkirkpatrick)