You can learn a lot from Warren Buffett.
One way to do that (not the most efficient, mind you) is by reading the entire, 500,000-word combined text of every Berkshire Hathaway shareholder’s letter going back decades, and analyzing the heck out of the advice and structure that Buffett has compiled therein.
Or else, you could do some smarter and simpler things first, which is probably what Buffett would advise. For example, learn to count your blessings. Or even better, just ask him.
Buffett turned 92 years old recently, but as he once explained, he got the best gift of his entire life on the day of his birth, August 31, 1930.
In short, he said, he recognizes that simply having been born in the United States — and having been born a white male, and into an upper-middle class family — gave him tremendous advantages that allowed him to achieve and amass much more than most people could envision.
Moreover, it’s not just Buffett’s recognition of the gift of his birth circumstances that I think constitutes his most poignant advice. Instead, it’s how he says reflecting on that gift formed his worldview.
The discussion came in the context of a talk Buffett did with 20 MBA students back in 2013. One of the students asked him how his understanding of markets contributed to his political views.
Here’s part of what Buffett said, according to the recollections of Professor David Kass of the University of Maryland, who took notes:
Imagine that it is 24 hours before you are born. A genie comes and says to you in the womb … “I am going to assign to you – determination of the political, economic and social system into which you are going to emerge. You set the rules …
What’s the catch? One catch – just before you emerge you have to go through a huge bucket with 7 billion slips, one for each human. Dip your hand in and that is what you get. You could be born intelligent or not intelligent, born healthy or disabled, born black or white, born in the US or in Bangladesh, etc.
You have no idea which slip you will get. Not knowing which slip you are going to get, how would you design the world?
I call this the “Ovarian Lottery.” My sisters didn’t get the same ticket. Expectations for them were that they would marry well, or if they work, would work as a nurse, teacher, etc.
(There’s a much longer version of this quote, which you can find here. But I think this gives us the point.)
This whole reflection draws heavily on the work of the 20th century economist and philosopher John Rawls, whose 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, suggests that anyone with the power to design a societal system can do so fairly only by designing it without knowing what his or her position will be in it.
Buffett didn’t build the system, but as he acknowledges, he was gifted one of the highest positions in it.
And while his remarks that day in Maryland didn’t draw a direct line from his rather Rawlsian outlook to his aggressive philanthropy, the path is pretty clear.
As I write in my free ebook, Warren Buffett Predicts the Future, it can be funny writing about Buffett sometimes simply because he’s been prominent and loquacious for so long, that if you look hard enough you can find his opinion on almost anything.
Since he’s now in what he calls “the urgent zone” of planning and legacy, some of these bits of wisdom are even more worth remembering.