Lessons from Charlie Munger on Divorce and the Death of 9 Year Old Son

After live tweeting the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholder meeting on April 30th, I found myself constantly tweeting quotes not from Warren Buffett, but from his partner, Charlie Munger.

To provide some insight into Charlie Munger, I’ll share three of my favorite quotes from the 6 hours of live Q&A. (If you still want to watch the event, it is available as full replay until the end of this month via THIS LINK)

On his number one regret in life: “I didn’t wise up fast enough…there’s a blessing in that…now that I’m 92, there’s still a lot of ignorance left to remove.”

On making money: “You don’t need to have a high IQ to be rich. You only need to avoid real stupid mistakes.”

On having a sense of humor: “If you see the world accurately, it’s bound to be humorous because it’s ridiculous.”

My first three visits to Omaha to see the annual meeting in person were solely because I wanted to see Charlie Munger. I had read a few books on Warren, but I didn’t know much about Charlie Munger until I read The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life.

At over 800 pages, the book is a tremendously deep dive into the world of Warren Buffett.

Naturally, it covers all aspects of investing, philosophy, philanthropy, and as Alice Schroeder puts it, “The business of life,” and of course, Charlie Munger.

While I believe the book fails to cover some topics (such as how important Warren’s first wife Suzie was during their 52 year marriage), the amount of knowledge contained in these pages is invaluable.

The most rewarding aspect of the book for me was introducing Charlie Munger on a new level. I had known of him simply as Warren’s partner, but I didn’t realize how critical he was to Warren’s life.

I want to quote part of the book for you today to represent a lot about how remarkable this man is.

I hope these quotes demonstrate the struggles he went through and how he persevered through what I would consider as one of the most terrible situations imaginable.

By 1953, [at age of 29]…Munger found himself divorcing at a time when divorce was a disgrace…Then, within a year of the separation, [his son] Teddy, now eight years old, was diagnosed with leukemia. Munger and his ex-wife scoured the medical community but quickly discovered the disease was incurable. They sat in the leukemia ward with the other parents and grandparents in different stages of watching their children waste away.

Charlie would visit, hold him in his arms, then walk the streets of Pasadena, crying for his son.

He found the combination of his failed marriage and his son’s terminal illness almost unbearable.

By the time Teddy died in 1955 at age nine, Charlie had lost between ten and fifteen pounds. “I can’t imagine any experience in life worse than losing a child inch by inch,” he later said.

Years later, during a commencement speech at Stanford, Charlie would summarize what he had learned during this phase of his life: 

Generally speaking, envy, resentment, revenge, and self-pity are disastrous modes of thought. Self-pity gets pretty close to paranoia…Every time you find your drifting into self-pity, I don’t care what the cause, your child could be dying from cancer, self-pity is not going to improve the situation. It’s a ridiculous way to behave.

Life will have terrible blows, horrible blows, unfair blows, it doesn’t matter. Some people recover and others don’t. There I think the attitude of Epictetus is the best. He thought that every mischance in life was an opportunity to behave well. Every mischance in life was an opportunity to learn something and that your duty was not to be emerged in self-pity, but to utilize the terrible blow in a constructive fashion. That is a very good idea.

The power of that speech is made more memorable to me because Charlie never mentioned the fact that his own son died of cancer.

As Alice Schroeder put it, “When things went wrong, Munger would set out toward new goals rather let himself dwell on the negative. That could come across as pragmatic, or even callous, but he viewed it as keeping the horizon in sight.”

Understanding the mindset of a billionaire can be insightful not just in terms of building wealth or developing a work ethic or committing to lifelong learning, but also in terms of approaching life with the right attitude.

Adopting Charlie Munger’s approach has helped me during the most difficult times I’ve experienced in my own life.

Since 2011, every few months I still re-read a set of my favorite quotes from that same commencement speech.

If you want to view Munger’s Stanford commencement address, check out the link here.

My favorite quote from Charlie Munger still remains as, “The safest way to try and get what you want is to try and deserve what you want.”

Charlie Munger’s #1 reading suggestion was and still is, “Read anything by Ben Franklin.” If you’re familiar with my own story of learning about personal finance, you might now be connecting the dots.

The very first book I read on the topic of personal finance was a biography of Warren Buffett, who introduced me to Charlie Munger, who recommended learning from Benjamin Franklin, who demonstrated in his life that retiring at 42 was possible.

What did you take away from the Berkshire Annual meeting this year? Is it necessary to go through pain and suffering to learn the lessons taught by Munger? Does building wealth, or life in general, require such a strong sense of fortitude?


23 comments… add one
  • Apathy Ends May 10, 2016, 7:21 am

    Those 2 were killing me at the annual meeting, I think my favorite part (which you captured in a tweet) was Charlie talking about higher education and how most of the increase in tuition costs is going to paying salaries.

    • Distilled Dollar May 10, 2016, 8:37 pm

      Yep! I loved at one part when Buffett asked Munger if he wanted to chime in on the high pay in faculties and he responded with something close to, “I have made enough enemies already.” Haha!

  • The Green Swan May 10, 2016, 7:46 am

    Buffett, Munger, and Franklin have proven to be three good role models when it comes to personal finance!

    • Distilled Dollar May 10, 2016, 8:40 pm

      My first three role models so naturally I’d have to agree. It is nice to see those three span different lifestyles (even between Munger’s yachts and Buffett’s frugality), but despite the differences, they all come back to the same core principles on business, investing, and life in general.

  • FinanceSuperhero May 10, 2016, 9:04 am

    “Every mischance in life was an opportunity to learn something and that your duty was not to be emerged in self-pity, but to utilize the terrible blow in a constructive fashion.”

    I am admittedly not as familiar with Munger as I ought to be, but this was all I needed to read to become an instant fan. When I experience hardship, I adopt this approach by allowing myself to experience self-pity for a maximum of 24 hours. Then I use it as motivation to move on and reach new heights.

    • Distilled Dollar May 10, 2016, 8:42 pm

      I like that approach you’ve chosen. I always feel it is far healthier to accept the emotional turmoil than to fight against it…but only for a short period of time. Then its time to get back up and move forward. I find it helpful to look back on that past turmoil as motivation, but I always remind myself to never stare.

    • Pamela Sep 7, 2016, 7:04 am

      It took me a while to get to this point but I follow the same approach. 24 hours is long enough for me to come to terms with my failure or loss and process my emotions but not too long to dwell on them. Its true though self pity does nothing for no one.

  • Stefan @Mllnnlbudget May 10, 2016, 9:04 am

    Interesting to see how all of your dots connected. I think we can all agree that Charlie is often an unsung hero as Buffett gets all of the praise. Love learning from these two and will be checking out his commencement speech.

    • Distilled Dollar May 10, 2016, 8:44 pm

      Munger is the real reason I started attending the Berkshire meetings! He has so much insight packed into such short stories and sentences, it is incredible. His ability to communicate is a remarkable skill to witness.

  • Financial Slacker May 10, 2016, 2:42 pm

    Matt –

    It seems that everyone wants to focus on Buffett and Munger’s strategies for getting rich. But they’re missing the point.

    Buffett and Munger are wealthy not because they employed some “strategy” that can be taught in a weekend seminar, but because of how they have lived their lives. They have worked hard educating themselves and researching and learning. And they have spent time planning and analyzing and executing. They have lived their lives with a purpose. And that sense of purpose permeates everything they do and say.

    Thank you for continuing to bring these great minds back to us.

    • Distilled Dollar May 10, 2016, 8:47 pm

      Exactly! Often, billionaires only get noticed after they’ve spent decades toiling in the mud. There are a lot of young tech billionaires today, so I would say they might be an exception to this idea.

      Buffett himself made his first billion only around the age of 50. All that time before, even when he was as young as 6, he was developing ways to make money through business ventures or by owning pieces and eventually whole businesses.

      If you’re wondering how he made money at the age of 6…he used to buy a six pack of Coca Cola, walk to neighbors houses, and sell each bottle for a nickel…netting a nice profit of 5 cents per 6 pack.

  • Graham - Reverse the Crush May 10, 2016, 3:52 pm

    Great post Matt!
    My take on the annual meeting is that both, Warren and Munger, seem to be getting more transparent and remiscent with age. They are reflecting back on life and providing a lot of great insight. I haven’t had a chance to read the entire meeting, but thats what I gather from what I’m hearing and how they have been over the last 1-2 years. Also love those quotes by Munger, especially on seeing the world humorously.
    Really good read, thanks!

    • Distilled Dollar May 10, 2016, 8:57 pm

      I absolutely agree! I think Charlie has been following Warren’s lead to some degree and Warren has been increasingly more open about everything ever since his first wife passed away in 2004. There has been a noticeable change in the last year or so (especially with Warren writing his manifesto of sorts in the 2015 BRK letter and having Munger write a short piece in there as well).

      Buffett was asked what have all the biographies on his life missed so far and his instant response was the impact his first wife had on his life. I think after he lost her, he needed a new outlet and he started to talk more to the media. That transition allowed for the next books written on Buffett to contain a lot more of the human element, other than solely focusing on the business aspects of his life.

  • Tawcan May 12, 2016, 4:54 pm

    Interesting stuff, I have very little knowledge about Munger. One of these days I need to head to the annual meeting. Probably should do it sooner than later…

    • Distilled Dollar May 16, 2016, 6:33 am

      The nice thing with Munger is that he does retell many of the same stories over and over again. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out this year’s annual meeting before the live stream feature goes away. I think you have about another 10 days to watch/listen to it. (The link is at the beginning of the article and I’m including it here again too.)

  • MrSLM May 14, 2016, 9:56 am

    “The safest way to try and get what you want is to try and deserve what you want.”

    Really love this quote.

    And watching his son waste away, that experience could have easily consumed him. Amazing how he was able to pick himself up and move on after. Will have to remember that next time I hit a rough patch in my life.

    • Distilled Dollar May 16, 2016, 6:31 am

      I had to reread the story myself the first time I came across it. To have the idea is smart, but he demonstrated a high level of character by being able to not let the situation consume him and he got back to moving forward with building a better life for himself and his new family. Incredible.

  • Financial Samurai May 18, 2016, 5:59 am

    Wonderful wisdom! Thanks for sharing. It’s really an interesting thing, how we approach the world/life/commenters/strangers and all sorts of other things. I try to maintain super optimism. Things could always be worse. The journey is exciting, don’t you think?

    I’m writing to you on a train from Prague to Vienna. I can’t believe there are such beautiful rolling hills with cute houses and fluffy sheep… and wifi. So awesome to explore, and have a site to communicate w/ others.



    • Distilled Dollar May 19, 2016, 11:16 pm

      Having another route to communicate with people was one of the earliest reasons I came up with when deciding on launching a blog. At first, it was to communicate better with my girlfriend about personal finance, but naturally the site has turned into a great hub to connect with all sorts of insightful and interesting people.

      I see myself as a tragic optimist. There are some terrible things we encounter or hear about, but there’s also the bright and beautiful things. Sadly, most information we’re exposed to tends to sell us only on the negative, but if we find new ways to explore more information, then we often see inspiring tales or we find new ways to enjoy a more fulfilling life.

  • Robert Mar 5, 2018, 12:16 pm

    I just found this article checking out the site, but I really love Munger and I have for years. I find that next to Munger I can mostly take or leave Buffet. Buffet is smart and interesting, but Munger is that with a spark of something more all in one phrase or sentence.

    I’d also recommend The Intelligent Investor by Ben Graham if you want a look at the early years of Buffet from another perspective and some very sound investing advice.

    Where should I start reading about Franklin? It’s not something I’ve pursued yet, but anyone that digs Munger must know all the best [book] parties.

    • Distilled Dollar Mar 5, 2018, 3:21 pm

      Glad to see another fan of Munger!

      Intelligent Investor was easily a life-changing book for me when I first read it back in 2011. There are so many fundamental principles essentially created from that book — primarily Mr. Market and Margin of Safety — so a big thank you for bringing that book up.

      The Intelligent Investor also helped shape my understanding if I was an active vs passive investor as I recall the first few chapters of that book dealt specifically with that notion of what type of investor are we.

      For getting started with Ben Franklin, I would recommend Walter Isaacson’s biography. For a shorter, 15-20 minute read from Ben Franklin, I love to recommend The Way to Wealth as its free on YouTube or via LibriVox recordings.

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