Charlie Munger on Why We Need More Multidisciplinary Skills

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In "Poor Charlie's Almanack," there is a transcript of a talk provided to the Harvard Law School in 1998, in which Charlie Munger proposes to answer five simple questions:

1) Do broadscale professionals need more multidisciplinary skill?

2) Was our education sufficiently multidisciplinary?

3) In elite broadscale soft science, what is the essential nature of practicable best-form multidisciplinary education?

4) In the last 50 years, how far has elite academia progressed toward attainable best-form multidisciplinarity?

5) What educational practices would make progress faster?

I will make a quick summary of each of Munger's answers, which are, as usual, both enlightening and thought-provoking.

1) "If A is a narrow professional, B consists of the big, extra-useful concepts from other disciplines, then, clearly, the professional possessing A plus B will usually be better off than the poor possessor of A alone. How could it be otherwise? And thus, the only rational excuse for not acquiring B is that it is not practical to do so, given the man's need to A and the other urgent demands in his life. I will later try to demonstrate that this excuse for unidisciplinarity, at least for our most gifted people, is usually unsound."

2) " My second question is so easy to answer that I won't give it much time. Our education was far too unidisciplinary. Broadscale problems, by definition, cross many academic disciplines. Accordingly, using a unidisciplinary attack on such problems is like playing a bridge hand by counting trumps while ignoring all else. This is 'bonkers,' sort of like the Mad Hatter's Tea Party."

3) Munger answers the third question by suggesting a six-element list that is used for pilots:

a) Wide-enough education to cover practically everything useful in piloting.

b) All of this knowledge is raised to practice-based fluency, even in handling two or three intertwined hazards at once.

c) The ability to think in a forward fashion and also in reverse, so to learn on concentrating on what we want to happen and avoiding what we don't.

d) Training time allocated among subjects to raise fluency levels.

e) Checklist routines are mandatory.

f) Even after original training, special-knowledge maintenance routine is mandatory.

4) " Many things have been tried as corrections in the direction of better multidisciplinarity. And, after allowing for some counterproductive results, there has been some considerable improvement, net. But much desirable correction is still undone and lies far ahead."

Munger states that while soft-sciences have been used to complement hard sciences (behavioral finance is a good example), we tend to forget about the fundamental principles of each science, and therefore tend to over-simplify processes, which can create mistakes in our logic.

5) "First, many more courses should be mandatory, not optional. And this, in turn, requires that the people who decide what is mandatory must possess large, multidisciplinary knowledge maintained in fluency. Second, there must be much more problem-solving practice that crosses several disciplines, including practice that mimics the function of the aircraft simulator in preventing loss of skills through disuse."

As a summary, Munger provides a framework in which, by learning different disciplines and finding connections among them to find solutions, we can solve complex problems and increase the level of our education system. What is better, is that Munger suggests that this acquired knowledge must be used in practical problem-solving, and then reinforced again to avoid the loss of fluency. In my opinion, and I believe Munger's life serves as the best example, is that we can become self-taught learning machines by reading and applying the framework that Munger laid out. There is no need to go to a fancy school, as long as we harness the framework to achieve better thinking.

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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