Without a doubt, Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett are a match made in heaven. After working together for more than 40 years, the two legendary investors still hold plenty of respect and admiration for one another.
As vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, Munger says there’s one quality of Buffett’s that he holds in especially high esteem: His ability to be a lifelong “learning machine.”
“If you take Warren Buffett and watched him with a time clock, I would say half of all the time he spends is sitting on his ass and reading,” Munger said in his 2007 commencement speech at the University of Southern California.
Lifelong learning is essential to long-term success
“Without lifelong learning, you’re not going to do very well. You’re not going to get very far in life based on what you already know,” says Munger.
“If you take Berkshire Hathaway, which is certainly one of the best-regarded corporations in the world and may have the best long-term investment record in the entire history of civilization, the skill that got Berkshire through one decade would not have sufficed to get it through the next decade with the achievements made,” he says. “Without Warren Buffett being a learning machine — a continuous learning machine, the record would have been absolutely impossible.”
But Munger is also a learning machine.
In an interview with author Alice Schroeder for his biography, “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life,” Buffett told a story about Munger’s early days as a lawyer. At the time, “he was probably getting about $20 an hour. He thought to himself, ‘Who’s my most valuable client?’ And he decided it was himself. So he decided to sell himself an hour each day.”
Munger made this a daily routine, Buffett explains. “He did it early in the morning, working on these construction projects and real estate deals. Everybody should do this — be the client, then work for other people, too, and sell yourself an hour a day.”
How to be a learning machine
As the cliche goes, success is about the journey and not the destination. So what does a learning machine look like?
1. Read, read, read
Munger’s observation lines up with what Buffett himself has said about himself — that he often reads up to 500 pages a day.
In the book ” Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed,” Buffett told author Michael Eisner: “Look, my job is essentially just corralling more and more and more facts and information, and occasionally seeing whether that leads to some action. And Charlie — his children call him a book with legs.”
2. Exercise your brain
There are a variety of ways to work your mental muscles. (Netflix, unfortunately, isn’t one of them.)
Buffett plays bridge — and it keeps him, at 88, as sharp as ever. “I play a lot,” he said in a 2017 interview with The Washington Post. “At least four sessions a week, about two hours a session.”
Munger practices “multidisciplinary thinking,” which essentially means constantly learning new perspectives of the world — and then putting them into practice.
In his speech, he argues that you can’t make smart decisions with just isolated facts. The knowledge you gather from “learning all the big ideas and all the big disciplines” will help you attack problems from different angles.
“I went through life constantly practicing this model of disciplinary approach,” he says. “I can’t tell you what that’s done for me. It’s made life more fun. It’s made me more constructive. It’s made me more helpful to others. It’s made me enormously rich.”
3. Pass on your wisdom
It’s impossible to achieve a legendary status by keeping valuable knowledge all to yourself.
According to a 2009 study published in The Journal of Science Education and Technology, teaching can also increase the motivation to learn, meaning that people who push themselves to learn with the intention to teach others have stronger communication, increased confidence and higher leadership skills. Researchers call this the “protégé effect.”
As Munger says, “the sacrifice, wisdom and value transfer that comes from one generation to the next can never be underrated.”
Knowledge is power, but you must learn to wield it
It would be downright silly to pretend that knowledge alone will turn you into a billionaire. There are many other factors at play, but the most important one is to take action.
Munger’s advice? Just keep pushing yourself, and never stop.
“I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines,” he says. “They go to bed every night a little wiser than when they got up. And boy does that help — particularly when you have a long run ahead of you.”
Tom Popomaronis is a commerce expert and proud Baltimore native. Currently, he is the Senior Director of Product Innovation at the Hawkins Group. His work has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company and The Washington Post. In 2014, he was named a”40 Under 40″ by the Baltimore Business Journal.
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