A recent tribute in the Financial Review, What Charlie Munger Taught Me About Life, by Jonathan Shapiro, has made me think about mentoring and having positive role models. Charlie Munger was famous for being Warren Buffet’s sidekick. He passed in 2023, just before his 100th birthday with a net worth estimated at $2.7 billion. It would be easy to only look at that amassed fortune and say, ‘rich old white guy’ but Charlie Munger started work in the grocery store of Warren Buffet’s grandfather and dropped out of college to serve in the army in 1943.
He was a keen student of behavioural psychology and felt that we could choose to eliminate toxic influences that were not worth our time and energy. He believed that envy was one of our more destructive habits and that the game of life was ‘the game of everlasting learning. At least it is if you want to win.’ He advised us to have low expectations that could always be exceeded.
We are truly fortunate if we have decent and wise mentors, but I have often felt that we ignore the power of the inverted mentor, the person we see and refuse to emulate. I think that negative role models may be just as valid in shaping our behaviour.
I’ve heard as many stories of the inverted or anti-mentor in my working life, as I have of the more admired variety. One of the kindest managers I ever encountered, realised she had overdone a ‘mothering’ style with her team, who were walking all over her. But she explained that it probably started with an aggressive and foul tempered boss she’d worked for when she started out. I hated the way she talked to us, she said, and I was determined not to become like that.
I was reminded about anti-mentors in an interview in The Australian recently. Anthony Cavanagh is the CEO of a community mentoring organisation that works with Indigenous children. Cavanagh met his violent alcoholic father a few years ago. (They had been estranged since he was 10). He wrote that his father had taught him how not to be a father and how not to be a man. He taught me not to harm kids. He taught me not to be a drunk. He taught me the need to love and care for my own children and my wife. In him I saw the man I didn’t want to be.
Cavanagh’s life and his ongoing work to create a better society is a challenge to those who think that cycles of abuse are unbreakable, and that we cannot rise-up out of terrible circumstances and do better.
Charlie Munger said that the secret of success was a deeply personal pursuit of self-improvement, knowledge, and humility. Seeking contentment is the goal and we need to understand, that the world does not owe us anything. And like all good behavioural psychologists, Cavanagh and Munger would suggest that change is always possible if we are capable of learning and prepared to make better choices.