Charlie Munger, widely acknowledged as Warren Buffett’s immensely knowledgeable partner at Berkshire Hathaway Inc., encountered a series of significant challenges throughout his life, many of which are not commonly known.
His life story is one of resilience and perseverance in the face of extreme obstacles and losses. Despite these hardships, he went on to become one of the most successful investors of his time, generously imparting his learned wisdom.
Munger is often recognized for his career as a lawyer before teaming up with Buffett, but his journey was far from conventional. His early life took a dramatic turn when he dropped out of college in 1943 to join the World War II effort with the U.S. Army Air Corps. Despite lacking a college degree, Munger’s determination saw him become an officer and train as a meteorologist, which led to his transfer to Alaska.
His path included taking graduate courses without an undergraduate degree, ultimately leading to his acceptance at Harvard Law School. He began his career at the law firm of Wright & Garrett, earning a salary of $3,300 per year.
In 1953, at age 29, Munger’s life took a dramatic turn. His eight-year marriage ended in divorce, a significant social stigma at the time, marking the first of many hurdles Munger would face. The divorce left him in a dire financial state, with his wife receiving the majority of their assets, including their home. Munger’s friends recall his move to markedly poor living conditions following the separation.
Determined to reclaim his financial stability, Munger immersed himself in work, dedicating long hours to recover from the financial loss resulting from the divorce. But life had more trials in store for him.
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A year after his divorce, Munger faced a devastating blow when his 8-year-old son Teddy was diagnosed with leukemia. In an era devoid of medical insurance and effective treatments for the disease, Munger shouldered the medical expenses while grappling with the emotional turmoil of his son’s illness. He juggled his responsibilities as a father to his other children and his law practice, even as he watched Teddy’s health decline.
Munger’s friend Rick Guerin recalls the heart-wrenching moments Munger spent at the hospital with Teddy and his solitary walks through Pasadena, California, overwhelmed with grief. Teddy’s death at age 9 left Munger shattered.
At 31, Munger was dealing with the aftermath of a divorce, financial instability and the profound grief of losing his son. Yet, he refused to succumb to despair or seek escape in vices, a common refuge for many during such times. He chose to forge ahead.
“Envy, resentment, revenge and self-pity are disastrous modes of thought,” he later said. “Self-pity gets close to paranoia. … Every mischance in life is an opportunity to behave well and learn. It’s not to be immersed in self-pity but to utilize the blow constructively.”
These words carried even more weight given Munger’s personal experiences, including the loss of his son.
Munger’s challenges continued. At 52, he developed cataracts, and a failed surgery left him blind in one eye. Despite the pain and the loss of his vision, his indomitable spirit prevailed. He learned braille, demonstrating his determination to adapt and learn, regardless of the circumstances.
Munger’s journey, marked by personal tragedies and professional setbacks, defies the common narrative of a smooth, unbroken path to success. It reveals the often-hidden struggles behind achieving prosperity and happiness. His ability to endure and transform adversities into learning experiences is a powerful reminder of human resilience.
In addressing challenges in investing and life, Munger once reflected the sentiment of Rudyard Kipling’s famous words — to treat triumph and disaster just the same. His approach to accepting failure as a normal part of life and learning from it, rather than dwelling on it, exemplifies his pragmatic and resilient mindset.
Munger’s life, beyond his investment acumen, stands as a profound lesson in overcoming adversity. His journey is a testament to the human spirit’s capacity to persevere, learn and evolve, transforming even the most challenging experiences into opportunities for personal growth and wisdom.