Seeking Wisdom VI – “In those unprecedented times, why not think “backwards”?”


If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son

 “If” by Rudyard Kipling

We are now 6 months into COVID-19 and during this hot summer lull, I thought it might be time to step back a bit, take stock and reconnect with our “seeking wisdom” series.  These are unprecedented times, where we do need to avoid certain behaviours, risks, attitudes, etc.  So why not approach things in an unprecedented fashion and think things backwards. “A lot of success in life and success in business comes from knowing what you really want to avoid – like early death and a bad marriage”, said Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner and Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway.

Marcus Porcius Cato, the Roman soldier and senator, also known as Cato the Censor, the Wise, wrote: “Wise men profit more from fools than fools from wise men; for the wise men shun the mistakes of the fools, but fools do not imitate the successes of the wise”. Studying errors encourages effortful thinking and improves our capacity to deal with change and new and unusual situations. In other words, turn the negative into an advantage.

That, by the way, is how Edward Jenner discovered vaccination in 1796. He noticed that milkmaids who had contracted a mild and usually non-lethal form of the pox virus – cowpox – seemed to be immune to the lethal form of the virus, smallpox. He then took samples of a milkmaid’s lesions and inoculated a young boy with cowpox. The boy built antibodies in his immune system that prevented him from getting smallpox and subsequently survived the epidemic. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

In a 1986 speech to Harvard Graduates, Charlie Munger added to Johnny Carson, the TV personality’s earlier address in which he gave his prescriptions for guaranteed misery in life. Carson said that he couldn’t tell the graduating class how to be happy, but he could tell them from personal experience how to guarantee misery. The prescriptions for sure misery included:

  1. Ingesting chemicals in an effort to alter mood or perception;
  2. Envy; and
  3. Resentment

Charlie Munger continued with his own 4 prescriptions:

  • First, be unreliable. If you will only master this one habit you will more than counterbalance the combined effect of all your virtues, howsoever great.
  • Second, is to learn everything you possibly can from your own personal experience, minimizing what you learn from the good and bad experiences of others, living and dead. This prescription, he added, is a sure-shot producer of misery and second-rate achievement. There once was a man who assiduously mastered the work of his predecessors, despite a poor start and very tough time in analytic geometry. Eventually his own original work attracted wide attention and he said of that work in a most modest fashion:
    “If I have seen a little farther than other men it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants.”
    The bones of that man lie buried in Westminster Abbey, under an unusual inscription: “Here lie the remains of all that was mortal in Sir Isaac Newton”.
  • Third is to go down and stay down when you get your first, second and third severe reversal in the battle of life.
  • The final prescription for a life of fuzzy thinking and infelicity is to ignore a story about a rustic who said: “I wish I knew where I was going to die, and I’d never go there”.  Most people smile at the rustic’s “ignorance” and ignore his basic wisdom.

In the same vein, one of my favorite quotes, is what Seng-ts’an, the third Patriarch of Zen, said:

“Do not seek the truth; only cease to cherish your opinions”.