Chapter 1 - Normal is What You’re Used To
Chapter 2 - No One Deserves Anything
Chapter 3 - The Myth of the Level Playing Field
Chapter 4 - The (Mixed) Blessing of Choice
Chapter 5 - The Mystery of Vocation
Chapter 6 - Buying Time
Chapter 7 - Don’t Just Find Your Bliss—Do Your Bliss
Chapter 8 - Portals of Discovery
Chapter 9 - Be Careful What You Wish For „
Chapter 10 - What We Mean When We Say “Success”
Chapter 11 - The Perils of Prosperity
Chapter 12 - The Gentle Art of Giving Back
This is a book about gifts received and gifts given back to the world, about expectations and obligations, about family and community, and how they shape us. It’s about living in a society that lulls us with unprecedented comforts, but also tweaks us with anxieties—both economic and otherwise—and too often leaves us empty and
bewildered in our search for purpose.
In short, this is a book about values—about the convictions and intuitions that
define what’s worth doing during our brief stay on Earth, about the actions and attitudes that will add up to a well-lived life. Economic prosperity may come and go; that’s just how it is. But values are the steady currency that earn us the all-important rewards of self-respect and peace of mind.
This is also a book about identity—about the callings and talents and decisions
and quirks that make each of us uniquely who we are.
Values and identity. In my view, these things can be meaningfully addressed only as two sides of the same coin. Our values guide our choices; our choices define who we are. Life is what we make it. The concept is simple, but the process by which we make our own lives can be complex and baffling. Expectations and external pressures blur the outline of our truest selves. Economic reality, for good or ill, plays a big role in the dynamic, as does pure dumb luck.
Ultimately, though, we create the lives we live. This is our greatest burden and greatest opportunity. It is also the most basic, bedrock premise of everything I have to say in these pages.
So then, what sort of people will we choose to be? In the myriad choices that we face each day, will we choose the path of least resistance—or the path of potentially
greatest satisfaction? In our dealings with others, will we meekly shy away from intimacy and honesty and tolerance—or will we open ourselves to robust and candid
relationships? In our work lives, will we settle for making a living—no sure thing
these days!—or aim at the higher goal of earning a life? How will we become worthy of the various gifts we have received? How will we learn the redemptive art of giving back?
Answers to these questions can come only from inside each of us. The goal of this book is simply to raise them, to offer a framework for thought and, I hope, discussion.
But who am I to be writing such a book? The honest answer is no one in particular. I’m not a trained philosopher or sociologist, and I’m not setting up shop as one more self-help guru. My only credential, in fact, is my own life—a life that has
forced me to think long and hard about these matters.
By the luck of the draw—what my father calls “winning the Ovarian Lottery”—I
was born into a caring and supportive family, a family whose first and most important gift to me was emotional security. Over time, as a bonus that came as a gradual and wonderful surprise, my family also got to be wealthy and distinguished. My dad, Warren Buffett, by dint of hard work, solid ethics, and steady wisdom, has become one of the richest and most respected men in the world. I say this with plenty of filial pride—but also with the humble acknowledgment that those are his accomplishments, not mine. No matter who your parents are, you’ve still got your own life to figure
Further, as is widely known, my father has some pretty strong opinions on the subject of inherited wealth. Basically, he believes that the silver spoon in the mouth too often becomes the silver dagger in the back—an ill-considered gift that saps ambition
and drains motivation, that deprives a young person of the great adventure of finding his or her own way. My father had the enormous satisfaction of discovering his own passion and making his own mark; why should his kids be denied that challenge and that pleasure? So, no big trust funds for the Buffett clan! My siblings and I, upon turning nineteen, were each given a very modest amount of money, with the clear understanding that we should expect no more.
Certainly there would be no juicy end-of-life bequests. Back in 2006, my father, in an act of philanthropy historic in its scale, gave away the bulk of his fortune—$37
billion—to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. At the same time, he established billion-dollar charitable endowments to be administered by each of his three children.
So here’s an irony for you. Today, at the age of fifty, I find myself with the
enormous opportunity and responsibility of stewardship over a billion dollars meant to be given away, while in my own mind I remain very much a working stiff—a composer
and musician who, like most of my colleagues, is only as good as his last composition, neither more nor less successful than my next job lets me be.
But that’s okay; I’m doing something I love, something I’ve chosen for myself, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I guess I’ve inherited more than just my father’s genes; I seem to have absorbed much of his philosophy as well.
Don’t get me wrong: I am very well aware that I was born into a privileged life.
The economic head start I received from my father may have been a relatively modest one, but still, it was more than most people have—and it was entirely unearned.
Similarly, through no merit of my own, I have enjoyed the various, often intangible benefits of a famous last name. Far from denying these advantages, I have spent my life wrestling with their meaning and implications and consequences. To stand an old cliché on its head, I’ve had to learn to make the best of a good situation.
There is a famous quotation from the Book of Luke that was taken very seriously in our family: From those to whom much has been given, much is expected. And it was made very clear that the most important gifts of all had nothing to do with money. There were the gifts of parental love and close community and warm friendship, of inspiring teachers and mentors who took delight in our development. There were the mysterious gifts of talent and competence, capacity for empathy and hard work. These gifts were meant to be respected and repaid.
But how? How do we repay the gifts that came to us unbidden and more or less at random? And not just repay them, but amplify them, so that they grow beyond our own small circle to make a difference in the world? How do we balance ambition and service, personal goals and the common good? How do we avoid the pressures that can trap us into lives that are not really our own? How can we work toward a version of success that we define for ourselves—a success based on values and substance, rather than mere dollars and the approval of others, and that cannot be tarnished or taken away by shifting fashions or a bad economy?
It is my belief, based both on intuition and observation, that there are many, many people wrestling with these questions. Young men and women hankering to set off on their own course, even when their aspirations entail risk and sacrifice and bold divergence from the usual paths. Parents who want to instill solid values in their kids, so that they grow up with a sense of gratitude and adventure, rather than the smug passivity that comes from feeling entitled.
These people, and many others—teachers, nurses, business leaders,
artists—recognize that they are members of a society unprecedented in its affluence but appalling in its inequality. They are people of conscience—people who respect
the gifts that they’ve been given and want to use those gifts to make not just a livelihood, but a difference. If this book is of some small help and comfort to the many individuals who are questing to live their own true lives, and to give back in the process, then I will have accomplished what I hoped to do.
Normal is what you’re used to
You’re Warren Buffett’s son? But you seem so normal!
Over the course of my life, I have heard many versions of this comment, and I have always taken it as a compliment—a compliment not to me, but to my family.
Why? Because what we mean by “normal” really comes down to this: that a person can function effectively and find acceptance among other human beings. To put it another way, it means that a person has been given the best possible chance to make the most of his or her own life.
This ability, in turn, can come only from an embrace of the social and emotional values that connect us all. And those values are learned—maybe it would be more
accurate to say absorbed—at home.
Those core values are the foundation for everything I have to say in this book. So let’s look a little more closely at a few of them, and consider how they are passed
Very near the top of the list, I would place the concept of “trust.” Taken in the very widest sense, trust is the belief that the world is a good place. Not a perfect place, as anyone can see, but a good place—and a place worth the trouble of trying
to make better. If you want to function effectively in the world—not to mention stay
in a good mood—this is a very useful thing to believe!
Trust in the world is inseparable from a trust in people—a belief that human beings,
however flawed we all are, are fundamentally well-intentioned. People want to do the right thing. Clearly, there are many pitfalls and temptations that lead people to do the wrong thing. But doing the wrong thing is a perversion, a betrayal of our true nature. Our true nature is to be fair and kind.
Not everyone believes this, of course. Some people think that human beings are fundamentally bad—grasping, competitive, inclined to lie and cheat. Frankly, I feel sorry for people who see it that way. It must be difficult for them to get through the day—to maintain open friendships, to do business without constant scheming and
suspicion, even to love.
The belief—the faith—that people are basically good is one of the core values that allow us to feel at home in the world.
Where does this all-important trust come from? It has to start with a loving family then extends outward to a caring and secure community.
I was very fortunate in my upbringing. In our famously mobile society, my family was remarkably stable. The house I grew up in—a very average,
early-twentieth-century-subdivision sort of house that my father had bought in 1958 for $31,500!—was two blocks from where my mother had grown up. My grandparents still lived there. The city of Omaha was filling in around us, and the neighborhood became a strange mix of rural and urban. Our street was actually a main artery going in and out of town, but our house was rather barn-like, with teardrop attic windows like those seen in The Amityville Horror. Just for the fun of it, we used to plant a few rows of corn in our small side yard.
As soon as I proved that I was able to look both ways before crossing the street, I was allowed to walk by myself to visit my grandparents. The space between my parents’
and my grandparents’ houses was like a bubble or corridor of love. I got hugs at both ends of the journey. My grandmother was an archetype of a perhaps vanishing breed: a homemaker, and proud of it. She was always cooking, running errands, or doing projects around the house. When I appeared, she made me ice-cream cones with little candy surprises embedded in every scoop. My grandfather always wanted to know what I’d learned in school that day. On the walk back home, neighbors would wave or toot their horns.
Idyllic? Sure. And I am only too aware that not every child has the benefit of such a serene and supportive home environment. Those that don’t have that benefit have a lot more ground to cover on the path of learning to trust the world.
But the point I’d like to make here is this: The things that allowed me to feel safe and trusting as a kid had nothing to do with money or material advantages.
It didn’t matter how big our house was; it mattered that there was love in it. It didn’t matter if our neighborhood was wealthy or otherwise; it mattered that neighbors talked to each other, looked out for one another. The kindnesses that allowed me to trust in people and in the basic goodness of the world could not be measured in dollars; they were paid for, rather, in hugs and ice-cream cones and help with homework.
They were kindnesses that every parent and every community should be able to shower on their children.
If trust is the core value that allows us to meet the world in a cheerful stance, then tolerance is the equally important quality that allows us to deal with the realities of differences and conflict. Let’s be honest: If people were all more or less the same—if there were no differences in race, religion, sexual orientation, political leanings—life would in some ways be easier. But, boy, would it be dull! Diversity is the spice of life. Our ability to embrace diversity makes our own lives richer.
Conversely, whenever we fall victim to prejudice or unadmitted bias, we make our own lives smaller and poorer. You don’t believe that women are the equal of men in the workplace? Well, your world has just shrunk by half. You have a problem with gay people? Well, you just deprived yourself of 10 percent of the population. You’re not comfortable with black people? Latinos? You get my drift. Keep giving in to intolerance, and eventually your world contains no one but you and a few people who look like you and think like you; it gets to resemble a small, snooty, and deathly dull country club! Is that a world worth living in?
Tolerance was one of the key values I absorbed at home. I’m proud to say that my parents were actively engaged in the civil rights struggles of the late fifties and early sixties. I was just a child at the time—much too young to understand the
complexity and awful history behind the issues of the day. But I didn’t need to be lectured about racism and bigotry; all I had to do was keep my eyes open.
My mother, who was never shy about letting people know where she stood, had a bumper sticker on her car that said NICE PEOPLE COME IN ALL COLORS. One morning we found that someone had crossed out ALL COLORS and scrawled in WHITE. This petty and stupid bit of vandalism was a revelation to me. Racism was something that happened—or so
I’d thought—far away, in places like Selma, Alabama, and that we watched on television news reports. But this was Omaha—supposedly a bastion of fair-mindedness
and common sense—and racism was here as well.
This was hugely disappointing, but I learned a couple things from it. First, that one should never take tolerance for granted, but work actively to foster it. Second, that the smug belief that prejudice is someone else’s failing—in this case, that
of the benighted Southerners—is itself a kind of bias. Plenty of us Midwesterners shared the taint.
If racism has provided the most dramatic test of tolerance in my lifetime, it certainly isn’t the only arena where there is ground to be covered and lessons to be learned.
My mother was also determined to imbue us with religious tolerance. When I was a teenager, she would take me to different churches, so I could experience various modes
of worship. We went to a Southern Baptist church in which a minister stirred up the congregation to a fever pitch with his scriptural interpretations; women in white uniforms stood in the aisles, ready to catch and attend to those who fainted from ecstasy. We went to a synagogue whose unfamiliar language and ancient rituals gave rise to a different but equal kind of awe. At home we had books about the great Eastern religions, Buddhism and Hinduism.
The constant lesson was that each of these belief systems was a sincere and valid approach to the spiritual. None of them was “right.” None of them was “wrong.” They were human—and therefore approximate and incomplete—attempts to connect with
the Divine. All were worthy of respect. Far from dividing people, my mother believed, religion should make people allies in their shared quest for meaning and transcendence.
She was so constant and passionate in her fostering of tolerance that I took to calling her the Dalai Mama. If she could have taken her teaching to the Middle East (and if anyone had listened), the world would be a much more peaceful place today!
These family attitudes about religion and race were part of a more general emphasis on the importance of open-mindedness. One should always show respect to other people and dissenting opinions. One should always try to understand the opposite side of an argument. This was a moral imperative but also an intellectual one: Grasping an opposing point of view was a way of sharpening the mind.
My mother had been on the debating team in high school. She reveled in spirited but civil discussion, and the Buffett kitchen was a lively place.
My older brother, Howie, was also a debater. This caused me much frustration growing up. In our family discussions, he always seemed more nimble, more persuasive. He knew more words! Words like nevertheless and conversely. But if I often felt outmaneuvered and out-reasoned in these family debates, I also learned a valuable lesson—a lesson
that allowed me to feel more confident and more relaxed in these discussions (and even arguments!): No one wins a conversation, and no one loses.
You can win a tennis match. You can lose a baseball game. Discussions aren’t like that. The purpose is to exchange ideas, to gauge the merits of different points of view. If anything, the person who “loses” the battle of words has actually
“won”—since he or she has learned more from the transaction.
This brings me to another of my family’s core values: a fervent belief in education.
A distinction is in order. Much of what is called “education” these days, even at the college level, is in fact more in the nature of job-training. A particular major is a ticket to a particular degree, which in turn is a ticket to a particular
career. Now, as a practical person, I’m not knocking this. If your ambition is to be an investment banker or a management consultant, then, sure, an MBA is the likeliest way to get there. Majoring in poli sci as a prelude to law school makes perfect sense.
But my point is that this relatively narrow, goal-oriented sort of learning is only one aspect of what education really means—and not the most important aspect, either.
Life is what we make it, and if we want our lives to be as rich and round and gratifying as possible, we should try to learn about everything—not just what we need to know
to make our livings, but all the innumerable subjects at the periphery of our specialties.
Book-learning is certainly a part—a wonderful part—of this broader education.
This is a conviction I absorbed mainly from observing my grandfather, who showed me how much serenity and joy there could be in sitting quietly with a book. I can still picture him relaxing in his La-Z-Boy, his pants almost up to his chin, his teeth, as likely as not, in a glass at his side! He was the scholar of the family, and it was his influence that led me, for example, to study Latin in junior high school.
Was there any use in studying Latin? Not really. But it was a nice thing to know, a link to history and to the traditions of our culture. In other words, it was part of education for education’s sake. And doing my Latin homework at my grandfather’s side—the two of us turning to the back of the book to look up the words we didn’t know—was a wonderful exercise in family bonding.
I think of education, ultimately, as the fulfillment of curiosity. One of the best things parents can do for their children, therefore, is to keep that curiosity stoked. In our household, this was accomplished by wide-ranging conversation and the frequent advice to look it up. When I had questions, when some discussion or school project cried out for further information, I was steered to our family copy of the World Book Encyclopedia or to our vast archive of back issues of National Geographic.
I should add that, back in those pre-Google days, when one searched for something, one really searched! As a kid, I spent a lot of time on my hands and knees, looking for the magazine that had the article “Birds of East Africa” or “Peoples of the Amazon.” Doing research was a treasure hunt. As with any hunt, there was suspense
and adventure in the process, and appreciation and fulfillment when the treasure was finally found. A few clicks in a search-box might be more efficient, but it may not be as satisfying. I often ended up taking volumes of the encyclopedia to bed with me just to read for fun. The short passages about people, places, or things would fascinate me to no end.
Another way in which my family stressed the value of education was by taking an active interest in my school. Too many parents, I think, regard their kids’ schools
as mysterious brick boxes into which their children disappear from eight to three
each day, but which don’t have a lot to do with them. As long as the report cards are okay, as long as no discipline problems are reported, these sorts of parents stay largely aloof. Oh, sure, there’s the occasional visiting day or parent-teacher
conference, but too often these are mere formalities—if not downright torture for
My mother saw it differently. She would sometimes show up at my elementary school and even high school. (She knew her way around. They’d been her schools, too!) She would just sit quietly at the back of the room, observing the class, seeing what was being taught, and how. Her level of interest made me proud, and made me understand that my schooling was important. It wasn’t a matter of the grades I brought home a few times a year, but of what I was actually learning from day to day. If more parents showed that degree of involvement with their children’s education, I think that more
kids would get through school with their intellectual curiosity and appetite for learning intact.
Schooling and book-learning are important parts of education, of course; but in my view, they are not the most essential parts. Sure, for technical things like physics or statistics, there is no substitute for formal study. But looked at from a broader perspective—the perspective of making our lives as rich and rewarding as they can possibly be—books and schools may be the tools of education, but they are not its substance.
The substance of education has to do with understanding human nature—both our own
inmost hearts, and the motives and longings of people very different from ourselves. That kind of education doesn’t come from encyclopedias or dusty old magazines or
even Google. It comes from respectful engagement with a wide range of other people. It comes from careful listening.
Of all the ways in which my mother impressed upon me the value of education, maybe the most profound is this: She taught me that everyone had a story worth listening to. This is another way of saying that everyone has something to teach.
During my childhood, my mother was determined to acquaint me with as many people and as many stories as possible. When I was very young, we hosted exchange students from several African countries. We had a Czech student stay with us for a time. There were always visitors at our house from another side of town or another side of the world. Sometimes, coming home from elementary school for lunch, I would find my mother deep in conversation with a guest from Africa or Europe. My mother would usually be probing in her gentle but incisive manner. What was life like where they lived? What were the difficulties, the struggles? What were their ambitions and their dreams? What did they believe in?
Even before I was equipped to grasp the answers, I absorbed the lesson that these
were the important questions.
I want to touch on one more core value I learned from my family. In terms of earning self-respect, it might be the most important of them all, and I am especially indebted to my father for leading me to see its importance.
I’m referring to the development of a personal work ethic.
But let’s take a moment to define what the Buffett family work ethic is—and,
equally important, what it isn’t.
Some people believe that having a good work ethic equates with a willingness to slave away for sixty or eighty hours a week, at a job for which one has no passion or even actively hates. The idea here is that the sheer effort, self-denial, and time logged on the clock are somehow intrinsically virtuous.
But excuse me—that’s not virtue; it’s masochism! In some cases it’s also, paradoxically, a sign of laziness and lack of imagination. If you’re such a hard
worker, why not use some of that effort and some of those hours to find something you actually like?
For my father—and now for me—the essence of a good work ethic starts with meeting a challenge of self-discovery, finding something you love to do, so that work—even,
or especially, when it is very difficult and arduous—becomes joyful, maybe even
When I was very young, my father mostly worked at home. He spent long hours in his office—a small, hushed room off of my parents’ bedroom—studying massive and
mysterious books. These, I later learned, were things like Value Line and Moody’s—detailed statistical analyses of thousands of companies and their stocks. But if the subjects my father studied were essentially pragmatic, the concentration that he brought to the process bordered on the mystical. His “scripture” might have
consisted of things like price-to-earnings ratios and breakdowns of management performance, but he could as easily have been a rabbi studying Kabbalah or a Buddhist monk puzzling over Zen koans. His focus was that fierce—that pure. It is only a slight
exaggeration to say that when my father was working, he went into an altered state, a trance. He’d emerge from his office, wearing his usual outfit of khaki pants and
a worn-out sweater, and there would be an almost saintly calm about him—the calm
of a person whose ego has completely merged with the task at hand.
It is a well-known fact that extreme physical effort promotes the release of substances called endorphins—natural feel-good compounds with the power to blot out pain, make time seem to slow down, and give rise to a blissful state of well-being. My father’s affect when he was deep in work suggested that extreme mental effort