Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Charlie Munger on How to Become Rich

By Morgan Housel – Updated Nov 9, 2016 at 9:10PM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

Simple lessons from a great investor.

If you don't know who Charlie Munger is, you're missing out. Let's just say that if it weren't for Warren Buffett, Munger might hold the title as the world's most famous investor.

And not just because Munger -- Buffett's right-hand man -- is an extraordinary investor. He is, of course, and he's a multibillionaire. But what makes both Buffett and Munger so appealing to everyday investors is their ability to distill complex investing topics into simple sentences.

Buffett's words of wisdom have been repeated endlessly. But Munger doesn't get enough face time. One of his most overlooked contributions is a very simple 10-point list called the "investing principles checklist," spelled out in his book Poor Charlie's Almanac. Without further ado:

1. Measure risk 
All investment evaluations should begin by measuring risk, especially reputational.

Circa 2003-2007, investors loved banks because they were big and made lots of money. What few asked was how much risk they were taking on. Right now, investors love companies like Sears Holdings (Nasdaq: SHLD) and AMD (NYSE: AMD) because shares have gone gangbusters over the past six months. Those who properly analyze how much risk the run-ups have added will end up happiest.

2. Be independent
Only in fairy tales are emperors told they're naked.

Maybe the hardest part of investing is that the greatest odds of being right come when most think you're wrong, and vice versa. If your plan is to watch CNBC and invest in what the most talking heads like, you'll likely end up with average results at best. Some of the biggest winners of the past year were companies like MGM (Nasdaq: MGM) and 3M (NYSE: MMM) -- both of which elicited nothing but giggles and blank stares one year ago.

3. Prepare ahead
The only way to win is to work, work, work, and hope to have a few insights.

The past decade was defined by delusions of success: Buy a house, and you'll be rich. Have a credit card, and you'll be rich. Buy penny stocks, and you'll be rich. Live in America, and you'll be rich. None of it was true. But this fact is as true today as it's been for eons: The best way to become financially successful is to work hard, save harder, learn a lot, and invest patiently and prudently. That, or work at Goldman Sachs.

4. Have intellectual humility
Acknowledging what you don't know is the dawning of wisdom.

A related Munger quote: "The iron rule of life is that only 20% of the people can be in the top fifth." Sad, but true. You're not Warren Buffett. You don't know what's going to happen next year.

Most people probably can't fully comprehend what Intuitive Surgical (Nasdaq: ISRG) or even Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK) do. You might not even know what a balance sheet is. It's OK. And not just OK, but vital to admit it, and either pass on things you don't understand, or learn from someone who does. The alternative is going at investing roulette style. Las Vegas is for that. (Better food, too.) 

5. Analyze rigorously
Use effective checklists to minimize errors and omissions.

There's truth to the adage that people spend a month researching a new dishwasher, but 10 minutes researching a new stock. Take your time. Be patient. Be selective. Read annual reports. Crunch numbers. Get other people's opinion. This is your hard-earned money we're talking about.

6. Allocate assets wisely
Proper allocation of capital is an investor's No. 1 job.

Last fall, stock funds were liquidated en masse while money market funds got inundated with demand. No doubt this was because investors feared that the worst was ahead. But it also took a big, scary event to make people realize their allocation was dangerously skewed. Too many stocks, too little cash. The worst part is that most of these investors had to either sell or increase cash savings at precisely the same time stocks were cheapest.

7. Have patience
Resist the natural human bias to act.

Last fall, I interviewed famed value investor Mohnish Pabrai. I asked Pabrai what his edge as an investor was. "Control over my emotions" was his succinct answer. "That's it?" I asked. "It's huge. You'd be surprised," he responded. He couldn't be more right. It all comes back to one of Buffett's most famous sayings: "The market is there to serve you, not instruct you."

8. Be decisive
When proper circumstances present themselves, act with decisiveness and conviction.

Related to the previous quote, Pabrai began scooping up shares of cratering companies like Terex (NYSE: TEX) when markets hit the fan earlier last year. Shares later surged in value. Pabrai's main fund rose by more than 100% as of late last year. His decisive actions speak for themselves.

9. Be ready for change
Live with change and accept unremovable complexity.

If the past two years taught us anything, it's that what you don't think can happen not only can, but probably will. In both personal finance and investing, there's no more dangerous place to be than relying 100% on a certain set of circumstances. That's just not how life works.

10. Stay focused
Keep it simple and remember what you set out to do.

As Dale Carnegie said, "Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get." It doesn't get better than that.

Munger teaches us that investing is simple, but hardly easy. He's also an example of how much you can learn from a great teacher. If you're new to investing, looking to hone your skills, or interesting in learning from two phenomenal investors -- David and Tom Gardner -- I encourage you to try a free 30-day trial to Motley Fool Stock Advisor. Since its inception in 2002, the average Stock Advisor recommendation has outperformed the market by more than 50 percentage points. Click here for more information. There's no obligation to subscribe.

This article was first published on December 19, 2009. It has been updated.

Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Chesapeake Energy and 3M are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Intuitive Surgical is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection. The Fool owns shares of Chesapeake Energy and Terex and has a disclosure policy.


Premium Investing Services

Invest better with The Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from The Motley Fool's premium services.