Poor Johnnie’s Almanack
Business razors in the spirit of Charlie Munger
I don’t often read business books. I usually skip the finance section in the newspaper and go straight to sports. I know stock prices should go up and to the right, but for me, life lessons and personal stories are way more interesting than knowing the latest company going bust or reading about who’s IPO-ing next.
Needless to say, I never thought I would write anything business-y, yet here we are.
Over the last few months, I’ve been collecting notes about the lessons I’m learning while working on consulting projects.
What surprised me most about these observations is that business and ‘real life’ have a lot in common.
Similar to reading Poor Charlie’s Almanack by Charlie Munger, storied investment guru and former vice-chairman at Berkshire Hathaway who recently passed away (January 1, 1924 – November 28, 2023), you quickly see how many life lessons are hidden in career lessons.
In his years of investing and managing other people’s money, Charlie saw a lot and learned a lot. He then captured those lessons as razors and anecdotes for us to learn from. Things like:
“Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Day by day, and at the end of the day - if you live long enough - like most people, you will get out of life what you deserve.”
In this spirit and to follow in the footsteps of the Almanack-OG, I’ve captured five business lessons that have stood out to me recently.
Let’s dig in.
1. Don’t panic
Everything usually works out.
The key is having the confidence that things will be OK and approaching projects knowing you will find the solution eventually.
I picked this up from one of my business partners who is unflappable. Even when the situation looks dire and the deadlines are tight, he finds a way to laugh. The bar might be burning down, but he’ll order another drink before casually finding the fire extinguisher just in time to save the day.
As I see it, there are two roads:
Stressed. The route I sometimes default to. You’re unsure whether the solution for the project is out there. You start panicking and you get anxious. This reduces your problem-solving capacity and you start making mistakes. A vicious circle ensues.
Relaxed. The opposite approach my colleague embodies. You trust (know) that you will find the solution. You will deliver what the client wants. Being aware of this, you are more relaxed and confident. Your mind is primed to find solutions. You know you will get there given enough time. The ‘knowing it will work out’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in that it actually ‘works out’.
As the old saying goes, “Everything will be ok in the end. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end.”
2. No sacred cows
The best part about working with my current client?
There are no sacred cows.
Even though they run a solid business, they want to expand their product suite and grow their customer base. To this end, I am encouraged to point out what they are doing wrong and where they can improve.
I don’t have to fear hurting anyone’s feelings or sounding harsh.
They want the best solution for the business and that means dealing with uncomfortable truths. The website looks like it was built in the 90s? Cool, let’s revamp it. The salespeople are struggling to understand and sell a particular product? Great, let’s get them in a room and talk about their pain points.
This attitude reminded me of a quote from Smartcuts by Shane Snow:
“The research showed that experts - people who were masters at a trade - vastly preferred negative feedback to positive. It spurred the most improvement. That was because criticism is generally more actionable than compliments.”
Leave ego at the door to make the best decision for the company. The same applies to your personal context.
3. Dead leaves nurture the ground
While I wouldn’t encourage unnecessary pain, there are sometimes benefits to suffering.
I observed this in my journey over the last year.
Because I went through over 30 interviews last year, I ended up learning a lot about insurance companies and the myriad different business models out there.
This (originally disappointing) trajectory is now serving me well. Because of studying the different companies for my interviews, I am in the loop on the latest happenings and trends in the industry. My finger is on the pulse, which benefits my clients when they seek direction.
This taught me nothing is wasted, only repurposed.
Dead leaves nurture the ground.
4. ‘What can I learn?’ reframe
I caught up with my old manager a month ago.
He’s a great guy and one of the people I’ve learned from the most during my career. Another one of those people in the ‘unflappable’ bucket – he always exudes calm, never takes things personally and is quick to understand even the most complex actuarial phenomena and trends.
Over a beer, I told him about the consulting work I’m doing now. I explained that, while I’m thoroughly enjoying the autonomy of being self-employed, some of the projects are not as fun as others.
He sat back and listened to me brooding, before sharing some sound advice – to reframe each piece of work and ask myself “What can I learn?”.
No matter how boring the work appears to be, there will always be something new you can learn. Even if (especially if) the work is uninteresting, try to find the components that harness your curiosity. Pay attention to the gaps in your knowledge.
What’s more, you can pride yourself on your attitude. By pitching up with focus and energy no matter what, people will start valuing your consistency. And you value yourself too.
It’s easier said than done, but he hasn’t been wrong before and I doubt he is this time.
5. The value of good service
One of the companies I am consulting to has a relatively straightforward product suite. There are not many bells and whistles, the products are easy to understand and compare to competitors.
What makes them different is their commitment to good service.
They want to serve the hell out of their customers. Through 24/7 availability, quick response times during emergencies, and fast settlement & payments, they recognise the human on the other side of the email or phone line.
Since this isn’t standard in their industry (traditionally plagued by long turnaround times and sloppy, careless service), they outshine their competitors by just doing the basics right.
This speaks to the value of building a brand (and a life) around genuinely caring for people.
That’s a wrap. If any of these observations resonated with you or if you’ve experienced them in your own life, let me know in the comments below. I’m no Charlie Munger (yet), but I’m excited to continue capturing what I learn in my career.
💬 Quote. Love this from Mary Oliver:
“Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
I’m enjoying the observational lens writing lends to (seemingly) everyday occurrences. By paying attention and learning from the people I interact with, I’ve been able to capture valuable lessons like the ones above.
✍️ Essay. A simple habit to let luck find you by Khe Hy, in which Khe describes the Mutually Beneficial Introduction (MBI). If two people must know each other - make a quick intro. Matchmaking like this can be a generator of opportunities for the people you care about. As Khe says:
If two people should know each other – and I know them both – then it’s my fundamental duty to connect them.
📚 Book. Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Written in 1948 (on the eve of Apartheid), it portrays the hopes and fears of the diverse people of South Africa. It’s less about us versus them (black versus white), but more about man against his baser instincts.
A native priest from rural Natal goes searching for his son who hasn’t written back since moving to the ‘big city’ of Johannesburg — a place known for lax morals and the corruption of youths. The priest eventually finds his son but he can’t save him from a life behind bars.
I finished reading this book earlier this year and I was struck by how some of the themes persist to this day, almost 80 years later. South African society has made significant progress since the ugly days of Apartheid, but racial tensions (stirred up by politicians sowing division), corruption and crime continue to plague our beautiful country. Like Paton, I still hope that SA will reach its full potential, despite the issues holding us back.
Until next time - happy creating!
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