Ikigai abstract Venn diagram.

Famed investor Charlie Munger and diplomat Henry Kissinger both died within a day of each other in November 2023.

Each lived to 100 (Munger was 34 days short, but we’ll give it to him), and both put on suits and went to work until their final days.

One wonders: Did their continued work, curiosity, and professional purpose lead to a long life? Or was living to 100 the luck of the draw, and both just happened to be passionate about their careers?

Part of me admires their dedication to their respective callings, having outperformed all others at the highest levels in their fields and truly loving their professions.

The other part assumes they worked because they were stubborn older men set in their ways — feeding lifelong addictions to money, influence, and power. 

Munger

Charlie Munger was the Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and perhaps best known as the quotable #2 of Warren Buffett. 

The duo grew Berkshire Hathaway to the $850 billion company it is today. Buffett is credited as the investment guru, but he credits Munger as the “architect” behind their investment strategy. 

Forget what you know about buying fair businesses at wonderful prices; instead, buy wonderful businesses at fair prices.

Munger often spoke of the importance of lifelong learning through reading despite losing an eye in his fifties. Curiosity, it is said, assists longevity. 

If it is wisdom you’re after, you’re going to spend a lot of time on your ass reading.

Develop into a lifelong self-learner through voracious reading; cultivate curiosity and strive to become a little wiser every day.

He attended the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting and answered shareholder questions alongside Buffett for hours each year. It’s where many of his famous quotes gained widespread attention.

A collection of “Mungerisms” were published in book, Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger.

I’m a shareholder but never attended “Woodstock for Capitalism”. With Munger gone and Buffett in his 90s, the most magical moments may be in the past. 

Munger gave multiple interviews as he was nearing his 100th birthday. His obituary in the New York Times by Andrew Ross Sorkin and Robert D. Hershey Jr. is the definitive.

When asked by Becky Quick of CNBC what led to his success and longevity, he said:

Avoid crazy at all costs. Crazy is way more common than you think. It’s easy to slip into crazy. Just avoid it, avoid it, avoid it.

Kissinger

Few Americans are as storied and controversial as Henry Kissinger. Most notably, he was Richard Nixon’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State during the Vietnam War. 

Considered both a foreign policy genius and war criminal, Kissinger made several consequential policy decisions that shaped the world in the 1960s and 1970s, impacting and devastating many lives.

In an interview with Ted Koppel on CBS Sunday morning in May 2023, Kissinger said he worked 15 hours a day at his consulting business when nearing his 100th birthday.

Having watched all 18 hours of the Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War, it was sobering to learn how many poor leadership decisions were made throughout the conflict, escalating the violence and killing so many people. 

I visited Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in 2001. 

The U.S. fought a covert war in Laos from 1964-1973, dropping more than 260 million bombs on the country. Mines and unexploded ordinances still litter the country, killing, maiming, and stunting economic growth.

Kissinger himself was responsible for approving 3,875 Cambodia bombing raids, killing as many as 150,000 people. The war and bombing led to the rise of the Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who killed an estimated two million people from 1975-1979.

He eventually recognized the unwinnable playing field, was responsible for architecting a peace deal with the North Vietnamese, and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Kissinger didn’t take well to Koppel’s line of questioning when the Vietnam topics arose, calling out others’ ignorance instead of self-reflection. Perhaps he continued working to dilute his misjudgments and strengthen his legacy, which goes far beyond the darkest days. 

Depressing history aside, perhaps we can learn something from Kissinger’s work ethic and curiosity. 

Longevity and Purpose

Science has established the connection between purpose and longevity. 

The Japanese call this ikigai, defined as “that which makes life worth living”. I discovered this concept while reading The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner.

In his research, Buettner identified “blue zones” around the world where a much higher percentage of residents live to 100 compared to other locations.

One of the commonalities among the five blue zones was a strong sense of purpose or vocation. Meaningful work is one manifestation of ikigai.

Buettner said to the BBC regarding how older people are treated in blue zones:

Older people are celebrated, they feel obligated to pass on their wisdom to younger generations. This gives them a purpose in life outside of themselves, in service to their communities.

Neither Munger nor Kissinger ever lived in a blue zone, but this idea of having a purpose and being celebrated for their wisdom may have been a driving factor in their late careers and longevity.

Munger was loved for his wisdom, wit, and investor track record. Kissinger was respected for his intellect, admired for his service, and still called upon by world leaders for advice in his final years. 

Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers added this in an interview with Bloomberg:

So, if professional purpose is an important factor in a long and fulfilling life, are those of us pursuing early retirement cutting our lifespan short?

Purpose in Retirement

The Blue Zones and many other books, articles, and research made me question whether early retirement was what I wanted all these years. 

The rising cost of college has pressured many of us to chase careers that pay well instead of vocations that genuinely interest us. Well-paying jobs justify borrowing for expensive degrees. 

I took the first job that paid well, then raced to save and invest my way out of the office cubicle.

My initial early retirement goal to stop working completely at age 55 was rooted in a desire to travel more. I landed in information technology and used it pursue my objective.

I thought that was the path of least resistance. 

Along the way, I started a side business and found a purpose in writing and online entrepreneurship. Now that I’m doing it full-time, I think less about retiring. 

My youngest child won’t go to college for another ten years. So, retiring early to travel doesn’t fit into my changing realities. But the urge to explore again hasn’t gone away.

The thought of prioritizing well-paying work for another decade over a more meaningful profession led me to leave my IT career in favor of finance writing.

Now that I’ve found a calling, I’m more understanding when I see people still working in their 70s, 80s, and even their 90s. It used to baffle me. 

Ikigai can be many things beyond work. Family, relationships, hobbies, discovery, and community involvement can be as powerful a longevity driver as a meaningful career. 

When I was a full-time traveler in my 20s, that was my purpose. People, places, adventure, curiosity, and adversity filled each day, and I loved it. If all goes to plan, travel will be among many meaningful retirement activities and relationships.

A healthy retirement is about redefining purpose, strengthening relationships, and feeding new curiosities. But if you already have those things in a profession like Munger and Kissinger did, why quit?

 

 


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