Great Books Distilled: Books by History's Greatest Innovators, Founders, and Investors

The page is a reading list sharing the best books written by history's greatest innovators, founders, and investors. You’ll find more than 100 good books to read, organized by category. This is a reading list for people who don’t have time for unimportant books — which should be everyone. I only list the best books I've read and recommend. So you can be sure that each will be worth your time.

Great Books by Category

These are the best books to read, listed by category. Along with a few collections of rare and hard-to-find speeches, lectures, talks, interviews, letters, and memos that are a great way to go deeper.

All Book Summaries

For the best books that I read, I go through the painstaking effort to put together and publish my personal notes including highlights, excerpts, and takeaways. You get the best 5% of the ideas in these books in a form that takes 20 minutes at most to read.

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Daniel Scrivner

Damn Right! Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger

“Whenever you think that some situation or some person is ruining your life, it’s actually you who are ruining your life. It’s such a simple idea. Feeling like a victim is a perfectly disastrous way to go through life. If you just take the attitude that however bad it is in anyway, it’s always your fault and you just fix it as best you can — the so-called iron prescription — I think that really works.” — Charlie Munger

Book Summary

This is my book summary of Damn Right! by Janet Lowe.My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary also includes key lessons and important passages from the book.


The Book in Three Sentences

In 2000, Janet Lowe published "Damn Right!" the only book about Charlie Munger that can be called a traditional biography. It tells the story of his early life, formative years, how he met Warren Buffett, and how Charlie and Warren built Berkshire Hathaway. What follows are highlights in a few areas that I thought were notable and would be of special interest to readers.


An Excerpt on Practical Thought

A practical thought about practical thought from Damn Right: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger:

It is 1884 in Atlanta. You are brought, along with twenty others like you, before a rich and eccentric Atlanta citizen named Glotz. Both you and Glotz share two characteristics: first, you routinely use in problem solving the five helpful notions, and, second, you know all the elementary ideas in all the basic college courses, as taught in 1996. However, all discoverers and all examples demonstrating these elementary ideas come from dates transposed back before 1884. Neither you nor Glotz knows anything about anything that has happened after 1884.

Glotz offers to invest $2 million, yet take only half the equity, for a Glotz charitable foundation, in a new corporation organized to go into the non-alcoholic beverage business and remain in that business only, forever. Glotz wants to use a name that has somehow charmed him: Coca-Cola.

The other half of the new corporation’s equity will go to the man who most plausibly demonstrates that his business plan will cause Glotz’s foundation to be worth a trillion dollars 150 years later, in the money of that later time, 2034, despite paying out a large part of its earnings each year as a dividend. This will make the whole new corporation worth $2 trillion, even after paying out many billions of dollars in dividends.

You have fifteen minutes to make your pitch. What do you say to Glotz?

And here is my solution, my pitch to Glotz, using only the helpful notions and what every bright college sophomore should know.

Well Glotz, the big “no-brainer” decisions that, to simplify our problem, should be made first are as follows: first, we are never going to create something worth $2 trillion by selling some generic beverage. Therefore we must make your name, “Coca-Cola,” into a strong, legally protected trademark. Second, we can get to $2 trillion only by starting in Atlanta, then succeeding in the rest of the United States, then rapidly succeeding with our new beverage all over the world. This will require developing a product having universal appeal because it harnesses powerful elemental forces. And the right place to find such powerful elemental forces is in the subject matter of elementary academic courses.

We will next use numerical fluency to ascertain what our target implies. We can guess reasonably that by 2034 there will be about eight billion beverage consumers around the world. On average, each of these consumers will be much more prosperous in real terms than the average consumer of 1884. Each consumer is composed mostly of water and must ingest about 64 ounces of water per day. This is eight eight-ounce servings. Thus, if our new beverage, and other imitative beverages in our new market, can flavor and otherwise improve only 25 percent of ingested water worldwide, and we can occupy half of the new world market, we can sell 2.92 trillion eight-ounce servings in 2034. And if we can then net four cents per serving, we will earn $117 billion. This will be enough, if our business is still growing at a good rate, to make it easily worth two trillion dollars.

A big question, of course, is whether four cents per serving is a reasonable profit target for 2034. And the answer is yes, if we can create a beverage with strong universal appeal. One hundred fifty years is a long time. The dollar, like the roman drachma, will almost surely suffer monetary depreciation. Concurrently, real purchasing power of the average beverage consumer in the world will go way up. His proclivity to inexpensively improve his experience while ingesting water will go up considerably faster. Meanwhile, as technology improves, the cost of our simple product, in units of constant purchasing power, will go down. All four factors will work together in favor of our four-cents-per-serving profit target. Worldwide beverage-purchasing power in dollars will probably multiply by a factor of at least forty over 150 years. Thinking in reverse, this makes our profit-per-serving target, under 1884 conditions, a mere one fortieth of four cents or one tenth of a cent per serving. This is an easy-to-exceed target as we start out if our new product has universal appeal.

That decided, we must next solve the problem of invention to create universal appeal. There are two intertwined challenges of large scale: first, over 150 years we must cause a new-beverage market to assimilate about one fourth of the world’s water ingestion. Second, we must so operate that half the new market is ours, while all our competitors combined are left to share the remaining half. These results are lollapalooza results. Accordingly, we must attack our problem by causing every favorable factor we can think of to work for us. Plainly, only a powerful combination of many factors is likely to cause the lollapalooza consequences we desire. Fortunately, the solution to these intertwined problems turns out to be fairly easy, if one has stayed awake in all the freshman courses.

Let us start by exploring the consequences of our simplifying “no-brainer” decision that we must rely on a strong trademark. This conclusion automatically leads to an understanding of the essence of our business in proper elementary academic terms. We can see from the introductory course in psychology that, in essence, we are going into the business of creating and maintaining conditioned reflexes. The “Coca-Cola” trade name and trade dress will act as the stimuli, and the purchase and ingestion of our beverage will be the desired responses.

And how does one create and maintain conditioned reflexes? Well, the psychology text gives two answers: by operant conditioning, and (2) by classical conditioning, often called Pavlovian conditioning to honor the great Russian scientist. And, since we want a lollapalooza result, we must use both conditioning techniques – and all we can invent to enhance effects from each technique.

The operant-conditioning part of our problem is easy to solve. We need only (1) maximize rewards of our beverage’s ingestion, and (2) minimize possibilities that desired reflexes, once created by us, will be extinguished through operant conditioning by proprietors of competing products.

For operant conditioning rewards, there are only a few categories we will find practical: Food value in calories or other inputs; Flavor, texture, and aroma acting as stimuli to consumption under neural preprogramming of a man through Darwinian natural selection; Stimulus, as by sugar or caffeine; Cooling effect when man is too hot or warming effect when man is too cool.

Wanting a lollapalooza result, we will naturally include rewards in all the categories.

To start out, it is easy to decide to design our beverage for consumption cold. There is much less opportunity, without ingesting beverage, to counteract excessive heat, compared with excessive cold. Moreover, with excessive heat, much liquid must be consumed, and the reverse is not true. It is also easy to decide to include both sugar and caffeine. After all, tea, coffee, and lemonade are already widely consumed. And it is also clear that we must be fanatic about determining, through trial and error, flavor and other characteristics that will maximize human pleasure while taking in the sugared water and caffeine we will provide. And, to counteract possibilities that desired operant-conditioned reflexes, once created by us will be extinguished by operant conditioning employing competing products, there is also an obvious answer: we will make it a permanent obsession in our company that our beverage, as fast as practicable, will at all times be available everywhere throughout the world. After all, a competing product, if it is never tried, can’t act as a reward creating a conflicting habit. Every spouse knows that.

We must next consider the Pavlovian conditioning we must also use. In Pavlovian conditioning powerful effects come from mere association. The neural system of Pavlov’s dog causes it to salivate at the bell it can’t eat. And the brain of man yearns for the type of beverage held by the pretty woman he can’t have. And so, Glotz, we must use every sort of decent, honorable Pavlovian conditioning we can think of. For as long as we are in business, our beverage and its promotion must be associated in consumer minds with all other thing consumers like or admire.

Such extensive Pavlovian conditioning will cost a lot of money, particularly for advertising. We will spend big money as far ahead as we can imagine. But the money will be effectively spent. As we expand fast in our new-beverage market, our competitors will face gross disadvantages of scale in buying advertising to create the Pavlovian conditioning they need. And this outcome, along with other volume-creates-power effects, should help us gain and hold at least 50 percent of the new market everywhere. Indeed, provided buyers are scattered, our higher volumes will give us very extreme cost advantages in distribution.

Moreover, Pavlovian effects from mere association will help us choose the flavor, texture, and color of our new beverage. Considering Pavlovian effects, we will have wisely chosen the exotic and expensive-sounding name “Coca-Cola,” instead of a pedestrian name like “Glotz’s sugared, caffeinated water.” For similar Pavlovian reasons, it will be wise to have our beverage look pretty much like wine, instead of sugared water. And so we will artificially color our beverage if it comes out clear. And we will carbonate our water, making our product seem like champagne, or some other expensive beverage, while also making its flavor better and imitation harder to arrange for competing products. And, because we are going to attach so many expensive psychological effects to our flavor, that flavor should be different from any other standard flavor so that we maximize difficulties for competitors and give no accidental same-flavor benefit to any existing product.

What else, from the psychology textbook, can help our new business? Well, there is that powerful “monkey-see, monkey-do” aspect of human nature that psychologists often call “social proof.” Social proof, imitative consumption triggered by mere sight of consumption, will not only help induce trial of our beverage. It will also bolster perceived rewards from consumption. We will always take this powerful social-proof factor into account as we design advertising and sales promotion and as we forego present profit to enhance present and future consumption. More than with most other products, increased selling power will come from each increase in sales.

We can now see, Glotz, that by combining (1) much Pavlovian conditioning, (2) powerful social-proof effects, and (3) wonderful-tasting, energy-giving, stimulating and desirably-cold beverage that causes much operant conditioning, we are going to get sales that speed up for a long time by reason of the huge mixture of factors we have chosen. Therefore, we are going to start something like an autocatalytic reaction in chemistry, precisely the sort of multi-factor-triggered lollapalooza effect we need.

The logistics and the distribution strategy of our business will be simple. There are only two practical ways to sell our beverage: (1) as a syrup to fountains and restaurants, and (2) as a complete carbonated-water product in containers. Wanting lollapalooza results, we will naturally do it both ways. And, wanting huge Pavlovian and social-proof effects we will always spend on advertising and sales promotion, per serving, over 40 percent of the fountain price for syrup needed to make the serving.

A few syrup-making plants can serve the world. However, to avoid needless shipping of mere space and water, we will need many bottling plants scattered over the world. We will maximize profits if (like early General Electric with light bulbs) we always set the first-sale price, either (1) for fountain syrup, or (2) for any container of our complete product. The best way to arrange this desirable profit-maximizing control is to make any independent bottler we need a subcontractor, not a vendee of syrup, and certainly not a vendee of syrup under a perpetual franchise specifying a syrup price frozen forever at its starting level.

Being unable to get a patent or copyright on our super important flavor, we will work obsessively to keep our formula secret. We will make a big hoopla over our secrecy, which will enhance Pavlovian effects. Eventually food-chemical engineering will advance so that our flavor can be copied with near exactitude. But, by that time, we will be so far ahead, with such strong trademarks and complete, “always available” worldwide distribution, that good flavor copying won’t bar us from our objective. Moreover, the advances in food chemistry that help competitors will almost surely be accompanied by technological advances that will help us, including refrigeration, better transportation, and, for dieters, ability to insert a sugar taste without inserting sugar’s calories. Also, there will be related beverage opportunities we will seize.

This brings us to a final reality check for our business plan. We will, once more, think in reverse like Jacobi. What must we avoid because we don’t want it? Four answers seem clear:

First, we must avoid the protective, cloying, stop-consumption effects of aftertaste that are a standard part of physiology, developed through Darwinian evolution to enhance the replication of man’s genes by forcing a generally helpful moderation on the gene carrier. To serve our ends, on hot days a consumer must be able to drink container after container of our product with almost no impediment from aftertaste. We will find a wonderful no-aftertaste flavor by trial and error and will thereby solve this problem.

Second, we must avoid ever losing even half of our powerful trademarked name. It will cost us mightily, for instance, if our sloppiness should ever allow sale of any other kind of “cola,” for instance, a “peppy cola.” If there is ever a “peppy cola,” we will be the proprietor of the brand.

Third, with so much success coming, we must avoid bad effects from envy, given a prominent place in the Ten Commandments because envy is so much a part of human nature. The best way to avoid envy, recognized by Aristotle, is to plainly deserve the success we get. We will be fanatic about product quality, quality of product presentation, and reasonableness of prices, considering the harmless pleasure it will provide.

Fourth, after our trademarked flavor dominates our new market, we must avoid making any huge and sudden change in our flavor. Even if a new flavor performs better in blind taste tests, changing to that new flavor would be a foolish thing to do. This follows because, under such conditions, our old flavor will be so entrenched in consumer preference by psychological effects that a big flavor change would do us little good. And it would do immense harm by triggering in consumers the standard deprival super-reaction syndrome that makes “take-aways” so hard to get in any type of negotiation and helps make most gamblers so irrational. Moreover, such a large flavor change would allow a competitor, by copying our old flavor, to take advantage of both (1) the hostile consumer super-reaction to deprival and (2) the huge love of our original flavor created by our previous work.

Well, that is my solution to my own problem of turning $2 million into $2 trillion, even after paying out billions of dollars in dividends. I think it would have won with Glotz in 1884 and should convince you more than you expected at the outset. After all, the correct strategies are clear after being related to elementary academic ideas brought into play by the helpful notions.

How consistent is my solution with the history of the real Coca-Cola company? Well, as late as 1896, twelve years after the fictional Glotz was to start vigorously with $2 million, the real Coca-Cola company had a net worth under $150 thousand and earnings of about zero. And thereafter the real Coca-Cola company did lose half its trademark and did grant perpetual bottling franchises at fixed syrup prices. And some of the bottlers were not very effective and couldn’t easily be changed. And the real Coca-Cola company, with this system, did lose much pricing control that would have improved results, had it been retained. Yet, even so, the real Coca-Cola company followed so much of the plan given to Glotz that it is now worth about $125 billion and will have to increase its value at only 8 percent per year until 2034 to reach a value of $2 trillion. And it can hit an annual physical volume target of 2.92 trillion servings if servings grow until 2034 at only 6 percent per year, a result consistent with much past experience and leaving plenty of plain-water ingestion for Coca-Cola to replace after 2034. So I would guess that the fictional Glotz, starting earlier and stronger and avoiding the worst errors, would have easily hit his $2 trillion target. And he would have done it well before 2034.

This brings me, at last, to the main purpose of my talk. Large educational implications exist, if my answer to Glotz’s problem is roughly right and you make one more assumption I believe true – that most Ph.D. educators, even psychology professors and business school deans, would not have given the same simple answer I did. And, if I am right in these two ways, this would indicate that our civilization now keeps in place a great many educators who can’t satisfactorily explain Coca-Cola, even in retrospect, and even after watching it closely all their lives. This is not a satisfactory state of affairs.

Moreover – and this result is even more extreme – the brilliant and effect executives who, surrounded by business school and law school graduates, have run the Coca-Cola company with glorious success in recent years, also did not understand elementary psychology well enough to predict and avoid the “New Coke” fiasco, which dangerously threatened their company. That people so talented, surrounded by professional advisers from the best universities, should thus demonstrate a huge gap in their education is also not a satisfactory state of affairs.

Such extreme ignorance, in both the high reaches of academia and the high reaches of business, is a lollapalooza effect of a negative sort, demonstrating grave defects in academia. Because the bad effect is a lollapalooza, we should expect to find intertwined, multiple academic causes. I suspect at least two such causes.

First, academic psychology, while it is admirable and useful as a list of ingenious and important experiments, lacks intradisciplinary synthesis. In particular, not enough attention is given to lollapalooza effects coming from combinations of psychological tendencies. This creates a situation reminding one of a rustic teacher who tries to simplify school work by rounding pi to an even three. And it violates Einstein’s injunction that “everything should be made as simple as possible – but no more simple.” In general, psychology is laid out and misunderstood as electromagnetism would now be misunderstood if physics had produced many brilliant experimenters like Michael Faraday and no grand synthesizer like James Clerk Maxwell.

And, second, there is a truly horrible lack of synthesis blending psychology and other academic subjects. But only an interdisciplinary approach will correctly deal with reality – in academia as with the Coca-Cola company.

In short, academic psychology departments are immensely more important and useful than other academic departments think. And, at the same time, the psychology departments are immensely worse than more of their inhabitants think. It is, of course, normal for self-appraisal to be more positive than external appraisal. Indeed, a problem of this sort may have given you your speaker today. But the size of this psychology-department gap is preposterously large. In fact, the gap is so enormous that one very eminent university (Chicago) simply abolished its psychology department, perhaps with an undisclosed hope of later creating a better vision.

In such a state of affairs, many years ago and with much that was plainly wrong already present, the “New Coke” fiasco occurred, wherein Coke’s executives came to the brink of destroying the most valuable trademark in the world. The academically correct reaction to this immense and well-publicized fiasco would have been the sort of reaction Boeing would display if three of its new airplanes crashed in a single week. After all, product integrity is involved in each case, and the plain educational failure was immense.

But almost no such responsible, Boeing-like reaction has come from academia. Instead academia, by and large, continues in its balkanized way to tolerate psychology professors who mis-teach psychology, non-psychology professors who fail to consider psychological effects obviously crucial in their subject matter, and professional schools that carefully preserve psychological ignorance coming in with each entering class and are proud of their inadequacies.

Quotes from Charlie Munger in Damn Right!

But it is Charlie's philosophy that a first-rate man should be willing to take at least some difficult jobs with a high chance of failure. And just as he decries making money "with lily white hands," he believes that giving time, talent, and risking his reputation is just as important as contributing money.

Marshall recalled that one evening he needed to talk to Charlie about a business situation, so he went over to the Mungers' June Street home. Marshall had five children of his own so he knew what a busy household was like, but even he was surprised that Charlie could concentrate under the circumstances. Charlie was sitting in a big chair, and "One kid was climbing on his shoulder, another was pulling his arm. Another was yelling. It was bedlam, but he didn't send them out or correct them. It didn't bother him a bit.

Eventually, Charlie and Rick became fifty-fifty owners of a controlling block of stock in the company, with its management owning the rest. After some time passed, a situation arose where Guerin needed to cash out of the investment. "I still was very poor. We had an informal understanding that one would take the other out if either needed to get out. I went to Charlie and said I need to use that money elsewhere. He said fine, figure out what you want." Guerin looked over the accounting statements and thought about it. "I told him it was worth $200,000. Charlie said 'No, you're wrong about that.' I said to myself, Oh darn,' because I needed $200,000. He said, 'It's worth $300,000.' And he pulled out a check and wrote it. I would have been delighted with $200,000. I would have been the happiest man on earth. It was an opportunity for him to show me how stupid I was," Guerin said with a chuckle. "Charlie has a saying, 'Think about it a little more and you will agree with me because you're smart and I'm right.

Munger contends that by selling quality merchandise very close to cost, the stores built such a loyal customer base that it qualifies as a franchise. "If you get hooked on going to Costco with your family, you'll go for the rest of your life," he said.

Buffett was asked why he hadn't bought more Costco shares, considering that Munger owns shares and is on the board of directors. "Yeah, you hit on a good one here," Buffett replied. "We should've owned more Costco, and probably if Charlie had been sitting in Omaha, we would've owned more Costco. Charlie was constantly telling me about this terrific method of distribution, and after 10 years or so I started catching on to what he was saying, and we bought a little of Costco at Berkshire. "We actually negotiated to buy more. I made the most common mistake that I make . . . We started buying it, and the price went up, and instead of following it up and continuing to buy more. . . . If Costco had stayed at $15 a share or so, where we were buying it, we would've bought a lot more. But instead it went to 15⅛ and who could pay 15⅛ when they'd been paying $15—it wasn't quite that bad. But I have made that mistake a lot of times, and it's very irritating."

Munger replied: People are always saying to Berkshire, 'Gee, why don't you write a lot more volume in relation to capital? Everyone else is doing it. The rating agencies say that you can write twice as much in annual volume as you have capital.' And they look at our $10 billion in insurance capital and say, 'That's $20 billion a year. What are you doing writing only $1 billion?' But then . . . somebody else comes in and asks, 'Why did everybody get killed last year but you?' Maybe the questions are related.

To finish first you have to first finish.

“What Charlie finds interesting when thinking back about all this progress is how few big business decisions were involved in creating billions of dollars out of less than $40 million, fewer than one every three years. "1 think the record shows the advantage of a peculiar mind-set-not seeking action for its own sake, but instead combining extreme patience with extreme decisiveness.

“A few major opportunities clearly recognizable as such, will usually come to one who continuously searches and waits, with a curious mind, loving diagnosis involving multiple variables. And then all that is required is a willingness to bet heavily when the odds are extremely favorable, using resources available as a result of prudence and patience in the past."

“I thought of my favorite business analogy—the mouse who says let me out of the trap, I've decided I don't want the cheese.' There are a million business traps. You can get sloppy, you can get alcoholic, you can get megalomania, you can not understand your own limitations. There are a million ways to gum it up.”

When he met Buffett, Munger had already formed strong opinions about the chasms between good businesses and bad. He served as a director of an International Harvester dealership in Bakersfield and saw how difficult it was to fix up an intrinsically mediocre business; as an Angeleno, he observed the splendid prosperity of the Los Angeles Times; in his head he did not carry a creed about "bargains" that had to be unlearned. So in conversations with Buffett over the years he preached the virtues of good businesses. By 1972, Blue Chip Stamps, a Berkshire affiliate that has since been merged into the parent, was paying three times book value to buy See's Candies, and the good-business era was launched.

The hiring rules are strictly followed, no matter who the applicant. Not long after she graduated from Harvard, Molly Munger applied at Munger, Tolles for an associate's position. She interviewed with Carla Hills, but Hills did not offer her a job, allegedly because Molly had not made the Harvard Law Review. Apparently in Hills estimation, that meant Molly's credentials weren't quite up to Munger, Tolles's standards.

“I don't remember when Berkshire started growing to a point at which he was in a different league," said Emilie. "I think my parents were really private. They didn't want publicity. My dad was a creature of habit so everything was exactly the same. We never had a feeling we were growing up in some rich household.”

Let me put it this way: as long as the odds are in our favor and we're not risking the whole company on one throw of the dice or anything close to it, we don't mind volatility in results. What we want are the favorable odds. We figure the volatility over time will take care of itself at Berkshire.

“The opulence at the head office is often inversely related to the financial substance of the firm.” — Charlie Munger, paraphrasing Parkinson

“A partner ideally is capable of working alone," explained Munger. "You can be a dominant partner, subordinate partner, or an always collaborative equal partner. I've done all three.”

“Smart, hard-working people aren't exempted from professional disasters of overconfidence. Often, they just go aground in the more difficult voyages they choose, relying on their self-appraisals that they have superior talents and methods.”

When dealing only with his own money, investment losses never bothered Munger much. To him it was like a losing night in a regular poker game where you knew you were one of the best players—you'd make up the difference later. But he now found that reported, temporary quotational losses in the Wheeler, Munger limited partnership accounts gave him tremendous pain. And so, by the end of 1974, he had resolved, like Buffett, to stop managing money for others in a limited partnership format. He would liquidate Wheeler, Munger after its asset value made a substantial recovery. And he would liquidate soon enough so that he would not take any general partner's override when the main investment positions were distributed. In 1975, Wheeler, Munger did make an impressive recovery with a gain of 73.2 percent, and Munger and Marshall liquidated the partnership early in 1976.

“If thou faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small.” — The Bible, Proverbs

The Buffalo Evening News was established in 1880, and for years was operated by a single family, the Butlers. After Kate Robinson Butler died in 1974, the establishment-oriented Republican-leaning newspaper was put up for sale by her estate. It wasn't until the first Saturday after New Year's Day, 1977, that Buffett and Munger arrived in Weston, Connecticut, to talk to Vincent Manno, a newspaper broker who was handling the deal. Buffett first offered $30 million for the paper, but his price was refused. He then raised the bid to $32 million. The offer was high, considering that the Evening News had earned only $1.7 million pretax in 1976. However, the offer again was rejected. Buffett and Munger excused themselves to confer. They returned with a price written on a sheet of yellow legal paper. The amount, $32.5 million, was accepted. It was a daring move, since the acquisition price represented nearly 25 percent of the net worth of Berkshire Hathaway at that time.

A SHAREHOLDER ONCE ASKED BUFFETT how he spent his days. Warren said he mostly read and talked on the telephone. "That's what I do. Charlie, what do you do?" "That [question] reminds me very much of a friend of mine in World War II in a group that had nothing to do," replied Munger. "A general once went up to my friend's boss, we'll call him Captain Glotz. He said, 'Captain Glotz, what do you do?' His boss said, 'Not a damn thing.' The General got madder and madder and turned to my friend and said, 'What do you do?'" My friend said, 'I help Captain Glotz.' That's the best way to describe what I do at Berkshire.

The difference between a good business and a bad business is that good businesses throw up one easy decision after another. The bad businesses throw up painful decisions time after time.

A few major opportunities clearly recognizable as such, will usually come to one who continuously searches and waits, with a curious mind, loving diagnosis involving multiple variables. And then all that is required is a willingness to bet heavily when the odds are extremely favorable, using resources available as a result of prudence and patience in the past.

Employees producing mediocre returns for owners should expect their pay to reflect this shortfall.

The investment game always involves considering both quality and price, and the trick is to get more quality than you pay for in price. It's just that simple.

Back in 1993, he said, "An orangutan could figure out that the stock is selling miles above the value of the company if it were liquidated. I keep telling people this, but they keep buying the stock.”

The price dip didn't disturb Munger's equanimity. "I'm 76 years of age," he said. "I've been through a number of down periods. If you live a long time, you're going to be out of investment fashion some of the time.”

“The game of investing is one of making better predictions about the future than other people. How are you going to do that? One way is to limit your tries to areas of competence. If you try to predict the future of everything, you attempt too much. You're going to fail through lack of specialization.” — Charlie Munger

Frequently, you'll look at a business having fabulous results. And the question is, How long can this continue?' Well, there's only one way I know to answer that. And that's to think about why the results are occurring now—and then to figure out the forces that could cause those results to stop occurring.


Charlie Munger’s Early Years

“I met the towering intellectuals in books, not in the classroom, which is natural. I can’t remember when I first read Ben Franklin. I had Thomas Jefferson over my bed at seven or eight. My family was into all that stuff, getting ahead through discipline, knowledge, and self-control.”2

Charlie Munger has long had a reputation as an autodidact, learning complicated subjects such as physics, biology, and psychology by reading widely on a subject and combining book knowledge with worldly wisdom accumulated during a long lifetime. However, readers of Damn Right! might be surprised to learn that this habit began in early childhood. Young Charlie had a reputation for being a star student, but he could be challenging for teachers to deal with due to his fierce independence.

Some of his curiosity must be innate, but the environment cultivated by Mr. Munger’s parents no doubt set him on the right path. A traditional midwestern upbringing during the Great Depression is a big part of Charlie Munger’s life experience. His family did not experience poverty, but poverty was visible everywhere. His desire to arrange financial affairs so as to never “go back to go” has depression-era roots.

Mr. Munger enrolled in college in the fall of 1941 shortly before the Pearl Harbor attack upended American life. He remained in college through 1942 and then enlisted in the military where he scored highly on aptitude tests and was sent to Cal Tech to study meteorology before being assigned to a weather station in Alaska. After the war, a family friend helped Mr. Munger gain admittance to Harvard Law School even though he did not have a college degree. Graduating in 1948, Mr. Munger joined a law firm in the Los Angeles area and seemed to be set for a traditional career in law.

One of Charlie Munger’s goals was to have a large family and he married very young at the age of 21. By 1953, he had three children and was going through a divorce. At this point, he had almost no money, lived in “dreadful bachelor digs”, and drove a beat up yellow Pontiac with a cheap paint job. The next year, Mr. Munger’s son, Teddy, was diagnosed with leukemia, a disease that had no treatment at the time. In 1955, Teddy died at the age of nine leaving Mr. Munger devastated by his loss.

“At age 76, Charlie Munger looks back on those years and notes that time takes some of the pain out of losing a child. If it didn’t, he says, he doesn’t know how the human race could continue. Munger believes that by coping as best he could with the tragedy of Teddy’s death, he was doing the only rational thing. ‘You should never, when facing some unbelievable tragedy, let one tragedy increase to two or three through your failure of will.’”

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 smallpox inoculation. Franklin has been Charlie Munger’s lifelong hero and I suspect that Franklin’s determination to move on after the death of his son provided inspiration. Unlike Franklin’s experience, there was nothing Mr. Munger could have done to help his son survive leukemia given the medical technology of the 1950s.

In time, Charlie Munger bounced back from tragedy, remarried, and ended up raising six children and two stepchildren. He regards all eight as simply his children without making any distinctions. Janet Lowe’s access to the Munger family provided much insight into Charlie Munger’s personality from the perspective of his wife, children, grandchildren, and friends. Although not known for extravagance, the Munger family has long enjoyed reuniting for summer vacations at a family compound at Star Island which is situated in a lake in northern Minnesota.


How Charlie Munger Met Warren Buffett

“Like Warren, I had a considerable passion to get rich. Not because I wanted Ferraris — I wanted the independence. I desperately wanted it. I thought it was undignified to have to send invoices to other people. I don’t know where I got that notion from, but I had it.”

In 1959, Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett were introduced by mutual friends at a dinner party. The seven year age difference between the two men left them growing up in different social circles despite Charlie Munger working at the Buffett family grocery store during the 1930s. The Omaha connection and shared background no doubt had a role in the two hitting it off immediately and talking for hours at the dinner party. This began a longstanding partnership that has lasted over six decades.

The broad contours of this part of the story are quite well known. By 1959, Mr. Munger was back on his feet but had significant expenses given his large and growing family. Although he was well established in law, this was well before elite lawyers earned four figure hourly rates. As a professional working for clients, Mr. Munger’s income was correlated with his personal expenditure of time and he sought sources of income and wealth that could compound more rapidly. There might be nothing wrong with “sending invoices” for legal work, but Mr. Munger found it distasteful.

When Mr. Munger heard about the Buffett investment partnerships, he set up a partnership of his own. In addition, he went into real estate development in the Los Angeles area with Otis Booth, an endeavor that required personal attention but proved to be highly remunerative. After completing five projects, Mr. Munger had $1.4 million as a result of real estate activities by the late 1960s. The combination of real estate activities and his investment partnership allowed Mr. Munger to give up the practice of law in 1965 after starting a firm that still bears his name today.

Would Charlie Munger have embarked on a career in business and investing if he had not been introduced to Warren Buffett in 1959? Or would he have remained in the legal profession, perhaps with a few real estate side projects? Would Warren Buffett have spent his life searching for “cigar-butt” stocks, never expanding into better business if he had not been introduced to Charlie Munger? These questions are difficult to answer. I suspect that both men would be very rich today, but not nearly as rich as they became due to combining their intellects and efforts over six decades.


The Story of See’s Candies

The story of See’s Candies is legendary not just because it was a “lollapalooza” investment but because it is thought of as a turning point in the history of Berkshire Hathaway. Although Charlie Munger often minimizes his role in leading Warren Buffett away from “cigar butt” investing and toward commitments to high quality companies, the truth is that Mr. Munger’s role is simply undeniable.

In 1972, the Buffett and Munger duo acquired See’s Candies for $25 million, the largest purchase the two had ever collaborated on and the most expensive relative to book value. Both men acknowledge that if the price tag had been even $100,000 higher, they would have walked away from the deal!

It’s a good thing that they did not walk away. In 1999, Mr. Buffett noted that See’s Candies had earned a cumulative $857 million pre-tax since its 1972 acquisition while requiring very little incremental capital investment. In 2011, See's had sales of $376 million and $83 million of pre-tax profit.

In the decade after meeting Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger became a participant in a series of meetings with disciples of Benjamin Graham. While Mr. Munger saw a great deal of merit in Graham’s value-oriented approach, he recognized that there are situations where it makes sense to pay a significant premium to book value when a business has proven superior economics. That was certainly true of See’s Candies at the time and proved to be even more true as time went on.

For more, I highly encourage you to order Damn Right! and read the entire book yourself.

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About the author

Daniel Scrivner is an award-winner designer turned founder and investor. He's led design work at Apple and Square. He is an early investor in Notion, Public.com, and Good Eggs. He's also the founder of Ligature: The Design VC and Outlier Academy. Daniel has interviewed the world’s leading founders and investors including Scott Belsky, Luke Gromen, Kevin Kelly, Gokul Rajaram, and Brian Scudamore.

Last updated
Dec 10, 2023

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