In 1986 Charles Munger gave the graduation speech at the Harvard School in Los Angeles (now Harvard-Westlake). His speech was an expansion on Johnny Carson’s graduation speech given at the Harvard School years prior, in which Carson gave his prescription for a life filled with misery. Munger’s speech is WELL worth reading in it’s entirety. However, I’d like to focus this post on Munger’s first prescription for misery – Be Unreliable.
“First, be unreliable. Do not faithfully do what you have engaged to do. If you will only master this one habit, you will more than counterbalance the combined effect of all your virtues, howsoever great. If you like being distrusted and excluded from the best human contribution and company, this prescription is for you.” – Charles Munger, 1986
This is so true, and so many people are doomed to mediocrity in my opinion because of their lack of reliability. How many people do you know that say they will do something and never follow through? How many people do you know that you CAN’T count on?
I’ve thought a lot about this, and I really believe that a big factor that plays into people’s unreliability is pride. Many people are more interested in themselves and the appearance of success and strength, than in doing the right thing. They are more interested in being “people pleasers”, than being real. If you’ve got better things to do, tell me. If you don’t feel like something is worth your time, say so. If you just can’t handle something, do everyone a favor and let us know!
It comes down to being able to set others expectations appropriately. You aren’t unreliable if you tell me you can’t do something – You ARE unreliable if you don’t do what you tell me you will.
Unreliability is also perpetuated by the culture of many organizations and teams. Without accountability and consequences for being unreliable, people never learn their lesson and correct their behavior. This lax culture of many companies today undermines the very power of a team.
Twenty years after his speech, Munger makes an excellent point about McDonald’s in this respect:
“Indeed, I have often made myself unpopular on elite college campuses pushing this reliability theme. What I say is that McDonald’s is one of our most admirable institutions. Then, as signs of shock come to surrounding faces, I explain that McDonald’s providing first jobs to millions of teenagers, many troubled, over the years, has successfully taught most of them the one lesson they most need: to show up reliably for responsible work. Then I usually go on to say that if the elite campuses were as successful as McDonald’s in teaching sensibly, we would have a better world.” – Charles Munger, 2006
Maybe working at McDonalds should be a prerequisite for every job? But then again, pride would get in the way there too…
Nobody is perfect. To me, being reliable and following through on the things I commit to doing is not something I take lightly. If I forget to do something, or I’m late to a meeting, etc, I genuinely feel bad. I apologize, and correct my mistake as quickly as possible. I feel almost like I’ve lied, because I didn’t follow through. Then I reflect on my mistake, and try my best to not let it happen again.
It’s easy to go with the status quo, to except a behavior because everyone else does. DON’T! That’s a sure fire way to be mediocre, and as many of you know, I absolutely despise mediocrity.
I’ll leave you with one last quote from Munger:
“Master this one habit (being unreliable), and you will always play the role of the hare in the fable, except that instead of being outrun by one fine turtle, you will be outrun by hordes and hordes of mediocre turtles and even some mediocre turtles on crutches.” – Charles Munger, 1986
What do you think causes people to be unreliable?