On November 28, Charlie Munger passed away, and we lost one of the smartest people on earth.
Munger was known to some as “Warren Buffett’s right hand-man,” which undersells Munger’s role in Berkshire Hathaway’s decades of success.
What I appreciated about Munger is that he always took the long view in an increasingly short-term world. And his folksy humor was the sugar that made his truth pills easier to swallow.
The fact that he gave away at least half a billion of his wealth, most of it to higher education, tells you something about who he was.
When I heard that Munger had passed, I went to my “quotes” file – yes, I keep a file of quotes that resonate with me, doesn’t everyone? – and discovered that I had socked away over a dozen of his gems over the years.
Several of these have been guiding lights during my career as a soloist, and it’s in that spirit that I share them with you today.
“The iron rule of life is that only twenty percent of people can be in the top fifth.”
This seemingly obvious statement holds a lot under the surface.
Part of it is about our tendency to overestimate our own abilities, a concept called “illusory superiority.”
Multiple studies bear this out. For example, in one survey of university faculty, 90% of professors self-evaluated as “above average.” That’s right – 90% rated themselves in the top 50%.
So this quote is a reminder: If I think I’m already in the elite tier, the odds are against it.
And that leads to the next thought: “How can I ensure I’m in the top flight?”
This applies not just to mastery of our craft – which is undeniably important – but to all the other things that make for a successful independent enterprise.
In my own business, I want to be in the top 20% for professionalism, communication skills, client leadership, positivity, reliability, and so on.
Of course, I’ll never know for sure whether I’ve escaped the bottom 80%. But if I hold myself to a high standard and continually incline myself upward, nothing bad will happen.
“I don’t know anyone I’d consider absolutely reliable who isn’t doing pretty damn well in life unless they had some truly extreme bad luck.”
I’ve thought about this quote a lot since I first heard it. And I think Munger had it right.
When I was client-side, I couldn’t rehire a partner who had shown themselves to be unreliable. As an independent, I can’t refer people like that.
Clients need to know that they can count on you. Their budgets and reputations are at stake.
Unreliability shows up in things like erratic work product, missed deadlines, or moodiness. If I display any of those, I can’t blame the client for looking elsewhere.
“Take a simple idea and take it seriously.”
Our freelance businesses are simple things. We exchange our time and expertise for money.
But sometimes, we make our businesses more complicated than they need to be – by offering dozens of services, or developing complex business plans, or attempting multiple business models simultaneously.
And I’ve known a few freelancers, like the infamous Fred, who didn’t take their work seriously enough. You’re reading this blog, so I can assume you’re not making that mistake.
This freelance thing has layers and layers to explore. Go for depth, not unnecessary complexity.
“It’s just so useful dealing with people you can trust and getting all the others the hell out of your life. Wise people want to avoid other people who are just total rat poison, and there are a lot of them.”
Apart from the phrase “total rat poison,” which is perfection, my takeaway here is that life is so much better when you surround yourself with people you trust.
So heed those red flags. If the prospect seems shifty, duplicitous, or unlikely to keep up their end of the bargain, then walk.
And if a client breaks trust during a gig, don’t work with them again. Remember one of my freelance maxims: “Never sign a second contract with a proven asshole.”
The quality of the clients you choose has everything to do with your happiness and longevity as a soloist. So choose wisely.
“Reputation and integrity are your most valuable assets – and can be lost in a heartbeat.”
This is what it all comes down to. Your reputation will earn you referrals to, and the attention of, people who are eager to do business with you. And those are the easiest sales you’ll ever make. So protect your reputation vigorously.
Your reputation, of course, flows from how you show up every day.
It’s not about your “personal brand” (whatever that means these days). It’s about your character.
Rest in peace, Charlie, and thank you for the wisdom.
Your time is valuable, and I hope I’ve rewarded it. If so, your shares are greatly appreciated, as I try to spread the gospel to as many freelancers as possible.
I have a limited number of slots available for 1-1 coaching. I’m not some guy who’s been freelancing for a minute – I’ve been doing it since 1997, with brands you’ve actually heard of. Click here to find out more about how my coaching services can help you level up.
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