Resisting Mediocrity

“Idleness is fatal only to the mediocre.”―Albert Camus

The Story

The man grew up in a small and slow midwestern town. The second he was old enough to leave, he got in his car, drove away, and never looked back.

He drove north and enrolled in the University of Michigan. Soon after he started, Pearl Harbor was attacked. The U.S. declared war, and he dropped out and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. It was 1943, and that small division of the Army would spin out into the United States Air Force.

Soon he became an officer. His specialty was meteorology and he got shipped to Alaska. During his training, he met a wonderful girl, the two started dating, and they married soon after.

Being stationed in Alaska turned out to be a godsend. The years passed, and soon the long years of death, destruction, and the madness of war were over.

The end brought relief, but it also brought the man a nagging question:

What next?

The answer for him was to think bigger.

He ignored the conventional wisdom that said finish his undergraduate degree. Instead, he summoned the courage to enroll in advanced graduate courses at Caltech. In those days, prerequisites didn’t keep you trapped. You could take any course you paid for, but you’d better be prepared to sink or swim.

It was a doggie paddle at first, but he managed to stay afloat.

He was getting by. And after he felt confident enough, he used his graduate level courses to sneak into Harvard Law School, where he graduated magna cum laude. In the military, he learned to play cards. And at Harvard, he became so successful at gambling that he turned his attention towards a larger gambling arena… the stock market.

When he left Harvard, he returned to California and practiced law. For a moment, life was good.

He and his wife had married when they were only 21, and now at age 29, with three children, the marriage wasn’t working. Divorce followed, which in those days carried a huge stigma. His wife got almost everything, including the house.

Each day, he summoned the courage to keep working hard. He worked like crazy all week to try and make the money back that he had lost in the divorce. On Saturdays, he would take his children to the zoo and try to forget how exhausted he was.

The months passed, and a year later, his nine-year-old son, Teddy, got sick.

The diagnosis came in… leukemia. In those days, there was no treatment — and no medical insurance…

(Scroll to the bottom to read the rest of The Story!)

Resisting Mediocrity

Arvind KC is the CIO of Palantir Technologies, a company that builds software that connects data, technologies, humans, and environments.

Arvind shares his thoughts about augmented intelligence, how to fight mediocrity, and how encourages innovation in the workplace.

“Innovation is often a function of people having space to think. The biggest impediment to innovation is busyness.”

Listen to the Episode!

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The Story (continued)

…The man took care of his other two children, practiced law, and then took Teddy to the hospital for checkups. Each visit grew harder and harder, and Teddy was shrinking and growing weaker. After the hospital visits, the man would walk home sobbing.

After eleven months of struggle, Teddy passed away.

The man was heartbroken. He looked at his available options. He thought about giving up and turning to vices to get by like so many people around him. Nobody would blame him.

Instead, at 31, broke, and heartbroken, he kept going.

Later, he would reflect on all those emotions that he could’ve given in to and say:

“Generally speaking, envy, resentment, revenge, and self-pity are disastrous modes of thought. Self-pity gets fairly close to paranoia, and paranoia is one of the very hardest things to reverse. You do not want to drift into self-pity… Self-pity will not improve the situation.”

Once he started feeling better, he began searching for a new wife. Soon, he found her. She had two children from a previous marriage, and so did he. The six of them became a family.

Life was finally starting to look up.

Not for long though. His father suddenly passed away. The man returned home to Nebraska to help his family through the tough time. While there, a friend insisted he meet a quirky midwestern investor. The two of them hit it off and remained in close contact after the man returned to California.

Back in California, he left his job to start his own law firm with a focus on real estate. It wasn’t long before he stopped practicing law entirely to focus on investment management.

Years went by, and his skill as an investor grew. Now his investments were delivering an annual return of over 20%, compared to the average market rate of 5%.

Ambition stirred within him, but soon adversity struck again.

He faced two years of heavy investment losses… and his instincts told him to fold. He was 50 years old when he closed his investment partnership. That wasn’t all. A few years later, he developed cataracts so bad that he had to get surgery. The surgery left him blind in one eye and caused complications and a “down-growth,” which is similar to cancer. His blind eye throbbed with pain so intense that he couldn’t stand up. Desperate to end it, he had the doctor remove his entire eye.

Some people might find an attorney and sue the hospital. Instead, he carefully reflected on the situation and said:

“A new and better operation had been invented, but I didn’t pay attention — I just went along with the doctor that recommended the old one that he knew how to do. The new type of surgery had a complication rate of no more than 2 percent while the (surgery) I had had a 5 percent complication rate. The man who did the first operation? I won’t tell you his name. A perfectly nice guy. Our family eye doctor. I made the mistake — the fault was mine.”

He went back to investing, this time stepping up his game. He would later join the hospital’s board of directors, invest in it, and turn it into a thriving and profitable business. His struggles had taught him to be careful, calculated, and forward-thinking.

Throughout this time, he built up a friendship with the quirky midwestern investor he had met back in Nebraska. By this time, the man had developed such an aptitude for investing that he became that quirky investor’s investment advisor!

They started investing together, first buying stock in a textile company, but that business soon started to wane. The two began to double down and invest in other businesses, and decided to keep the name of the failing textile business for their holding company…

Berkshire Hathaway.

The man was… Charlie Munger. And his quirky investor friend was… Warren Buffett.

Today, Berkshire Hathaway has an annual revenue of around $250 billion, and Charlie and his quirky friend — Warren Buffett — are two of the richest men in the world.

Munger went through his own personal hell before he turned his life around. Charlie was a student, a family man, a soldier, a meteorologist, a lawyer, a business owner, and an investment advisor before he ever found his way to Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway.

Excuses are always waiting. Self-pity, doubt, and tragedy all lurk. At any point, he could have succumbed to them, but he didn’t. He could have become spiteful but instead squeezed every ounce of learning out of his adversities. Charlie Munger forced those events to serve him, and not the other way around.

Our lives and the world can be hellish sometimes.

Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

There is always a way up and out. If you are persistent enough and have the courage not to quit, you’ll find it.

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