Let's take a contrarian viewpoint regarding success. Much has been written about the typical qualities required for success. (In fact, I covered those in this column last month.) But consider a favorite phrase of the great algebraist, Karl Jacobi: “Invert, always invert.”

It was in the spirit of Jacobi that Charles Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, delivered a Harvard School commencement speech in June 1986. In his infinite wisdom, the alter ego of the Oracle of Omaha understands that many difficult problems are best solved in reverse — that is, by considering those things that will prevent your success rather than allow it. In this particular commencement speech, Munger borrowed from none other than the great late night TV host, Johnny Carson. Carson had outlined three prescriptions for misery — ingesting chemicals in an effort to alter mood or perception, envy and resentment — as a humorous antidote to happiness. But Charles Munger was not after laughs. He wanted to offer some serious advice about how to remain on the path to achievement — advice that both he and Warren Buffett follow habitually. To this end, he added four prescriptions to Johnny's original three. The following are Charlie Munger's Seven Prescriptions for Misery:

  1. “Ingesting chemicals in an effort to alter mood or perception. We all know talented people who have ruined their lives abusing either alcohol or drugs — and often both.” Munger cites four of his closest friends from childhood who were extremely intelligent, ethical and popular, but all became victims of alcoholism.

    THE LESSON: Needless to say, be very careful with alcohol and prescription drugs.

  2. “Envy, of course, joins chemicals in winning some sort of quantity price for causing misery.” Just last week, I had a heartfelt conversation with a plateaued million-dollar producer (nice plateau) who was driving himself crazy because another team had recently landed a $150-million account. Rumor had it that the clients had just sold a business, and this envious advisor was searching state records for business sales — none of them matched the size of this account. Instead of concentrating on his own prospects, he spent all of his time worrying about how the other team won this big client.

    THE LESSON: Don't get distracted by the success of others. Focus on achieving your own goals.

  3. “Resentment has always worked for me as it has for Carson. I cannot recommend it highly enough if you desire misery.” You might find the following anecdote funny: Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of the UK in the late 19th century, famously claimed to have given up on revenge. But, in fact, he kept a list of the names of people who had wronged him on a piece of paper in a drawer. He was known to peruse these names and take enjoyment whenever any of them had fallen (granted, without his assistance).

    THE LESSON: Don't harbor grudges — they're a cancer to productivity.

  4. “Be unreliable. Do not faithfully do what you have engaged to do.” Think of the advisors to whom you'd entrust your family's financial affairs, if anything were to happen to you. My guess is your list will be short, and whoever made the grade is very reliable.

    THE LESSON: Do what you say you will do, and do it in a timely fashion.

  5. “Learn everything you possibly can from your own experience, minimizing what you learn vicariously from the good and bad experience of others, living and dead.” It can be hard to believe or accept sometimes, but what happens to others can happen to you.

    THE LESSON: Learn from both the mistakes and successes of others.

  6. “Stay down when you get your first, second or third severe reverse in the battle of life. Because there is so much adversity out there, even for the lucky and wise, this will guarantee that, in due course, you will be permanently mired in misery.”

    THE LESSON: Try to live by that old adage: What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

  7. “My final prescription to you for a life of fuzzy thinking and infelicity is to ignore this story about a rustic who said: ‘I wish I knew where I was going to die, and then I'd never go there.’”

    CHARLIE'S LESSON: Invert. If you are keenly aware of those things that will lead to failure, you are more likely to achieve success.

If these prescriptions are good enough for Charlie and Warren, they just might be good enough for you.

Writer's BIO: Matt Oechsli
is author of Building a Successful 21st Century Financial Practice: Attracting, Servicing & Retaining Affluent Clients.