“Man, as a social animal who has the gift of language, is born to prattle and to pour out twaddle that does much damage when serious work is being attempted. Some people produce copious amounts of twaddle and others very little.”
— Charlie Munger, The Psychology of Human Misjudgment
We have all come across people who somehow always seem to soak up our time, break our state of flow, and generally act as impediments to getting anything meaningful accomplished. When Charlie Munger gave his now-famous speech regarding psychological misjudgments nearly a quarter century ago, most of these distractions took place in person or over the telephone. Today, we have infinitely more opportunities for twaddle induced distractions due to our constant state of connectivity. The number of distractions that can impede serious work has risen exponentially. Achieving anything meaningful in life requires avoiding twaddle as much as possible, both in terms of generating it and being subjected to it. Like most things, this is easier said than done. How can we avoid twaddle and preserve our state of flow?
Charlie Munger started his professional life as an attorney who made a living billing clients for legal work. The legal profession is known for its focus on producing as many billable hours as possible. If an individual attorney in private practice wishes to increase his or her income, the two levers to do so are to increase the number of hours billed or to increase the hourly rate. At an early age, Mr. Munger grew dissatisfied with the limitations of billing people for his time:
“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.”Charlie Munger, The Snowball, pages 226-227
Diligence and hard work as an attorney will eventually lead to a higher hourly rate and more legal work and this will lead to higher income. However, this type of work has inherent limitations because it depends on a finite resource: the limited hours of an individual human being. Having the desire to increase his wealth exponentially, Mr. Munger started a legal practice in which he and his partners employed associate attorneys and he also began investing his capital in real estate ventures. How did he find the time to do this while also continuing to bill clients in order to support his large family?
“Charlie, as a very young lawyer, was probably getting $20 an hour. He thought to himself, ‘Who’s my most valuable client?’ And he decided it was himself. So he decided to sell himself an hour each day. He did it early in the morning, working on these construction projects and real estate deals. Everybody should do this, be the client, and then work for other people, too, and sell yourself an hour a day.”Warren Buffett, The Snowball, page 226.
The mindset of considering yourself to be your most valuable “client” is incredibly important. It recognizes the fact that the only way in which you can leverage your financial outcome is buy not selling all of your time to others. Even more importantly, you cannot allow your most precious resource to be consumed by pointless twaddle that not only does not result in any immediate income but steals your ability to invest your attention toward pursuits that might have exponential outcomes.
Never before has it been easier to be consumed by pointless twaddle, and to mistake twaddle for actual information. The most obvious distractions today stem from our constant connectivity which, by default, is very permissive in allowing twaddle to enter into our lives. Incoming phone calls and texts are classic disrupters of the state of flow and require constant context shifting in which deep thinking is impossible. Nearly every app one installs on a smart phone will send notifications and other interruptions unless we explicitly turn them off. Smart watches and smart speakers are even more intrusive than phones.
Yes, we can turn off many sources of twaddle, but do we want to? If we are going to be honest with ourselves, the truth is that many of us not only enjoy distractions but actively seek out twaddle as often as possible. Twitter is an excellent example of a source of noise that many people actively seek out, compulsively, multiple times every hour. The signal-to-noise ratio on Twitter, particularly on what is known as “fintwit”, is abysmally low unless one carefully limits followed accounts. Even then, what you’re mostly engaged in is the modern day equivalent of water cooler talk. Sure, it is entertaining, there are many links to worthwhile articles, you can communicate with some very smart and interesting people, and sometimes you might get an actual idea, but it’s hard to see most of it as much more than twaddle.
The concept of selling yourself your best hour can begin to counteract the malign effects of being subjected to noise. That “best hour” will naturally vary from person to person. If, like Charlie Munger, you find that your most productive time of day is in the early morning, don’t waste that time reading the newspaper, checking your Twitter feed, or even doing paid work for others. Instead, reserve that time to pursue projects that will add long term value and have the potential to produce exponential gains in your professional and financial life. Ruthlessly eliminate sources of potential noise during this most important hour by not being in the presence of your phone and making yourself totally unavailable to others.
There is much that we can learn from Charlie Munger’s latticework of mental models as well as the psychological framework he created entirely through self-study, observation of human nature, and practical application over a long lifetime. One of the purposes of Mr. Munger’s study of psychology was the realization that understanding irrational and harmful behavior and then doing your best to avoid such behavior can provide an enormous advantage in life.
Over time, dysfunctional behavior will change with technological innovation but human nature will change very slowly, if at all. The internet and connectivity in general has exponentially increased the amount of twaddle we are subjected to. But by creating so many productivity penalties that most people enthusiastically accept, it has also increased the dividends that will accrue to those who can resist the distractions that consume others.
Note to readers: This article is part of a series on Charlie Munger’s Psychology of Human Misjudgment.