David Sedaris once wrote a piece about walking into a curio shop and seeing a large bowl filled with prosthetic glass eyes. He reaches into the bowl, grabs an eye and holds it up to his own. Then he sees a sign stating, “Please do not hold glass eye up to your own to pretend it is yours as the sharp stem can cause injury.” It was the ultimate moment of acknowledging that nothing is original.
Personal finance bloggers are no different. Every week a new blogger whose voice I find unique and charismatic writes a fawning piece about Warren Buffett (henceforth WB), drawing the same pertinent if tired lessons by admiring the same rich guy. After recently finishing “The Snowball,” a biography that runs 850 pages with another 100 pages of footnotes, I can understand that a time investment this large can make a blogger feel entitled to at least one article for her troubles. Spoiler alert: I feel equally entitled.
While it’s fresh in mind, allow me to reach deep into my reserve of hypocrisy to contribute to a genre no less tired than the paperback romance novel. Here’s the catch: I’m not going to write about his investing skills, but rather to figure out what happens when you evaluate a billionaire by a metric other than their accumulated wealth and acumen in obtaining it. How does he rate on the other axes of human potential?
WB the Brat
Born in 1930, WB lionized his stockbroker turned politician father, despite the fact that his hero did little to protect WB and his siblings from an emotionally abusive mother. He was bright, but a bit full of himself. He was the smartest kid in the room who always let his teachers and all his classmates know it. I found it interesting that his father was a multi-term U.S. congressman – WB came from extreme privilege, folk wisdom and midwestern values notwithstanding.
WB the Misfit
Call it a perfect storm. A sharp intellect. A difficult home life that led him to seek shelter through introversion. A facility with numbers. A profound level of social anxiety, especially around the opposite sex. A late bloomer. A know-it-all in class. A serial shoplifter for the thrill of it. Many of these formative experiences helped inure WB to the need or obligation to follow the herd. Further, it helped him to develop an “inner scorecard,” the idea that his self-appraisal mattered far more than external validation.
WB the Father
By all accounts, WB could not be accused of being present for his children in their youth. He was completely engrossed in business, and his kids were a distraction. The book provided a lot of rationalizing (i.e., mansplaining) that raising the kids was his wife’s department, and he didn’t want to interfere. Perhaps in the 1950s that was the norm, but he achieved new levels of aloof. At family retreats, he stayed for a meal and then absconded to his office to read or excused himself to play bridge or poker with friends invited for that explicit purpose. He was in his mid-40s before it occurred to him that he had no relationship with his kids and sought to establish one. Better late than never.
WB The Apprentice
Give the man credit for his willingness to sacrifice to seek great mentors. After reading, “The Intelligent Investor,” he relocated to New York exclusively to learn from Benjamin Graham, a professor at Columbia University who also ran an investment fund. He was invited to join the fund, and studied the people there with unrivaled intensity. He lived his creed that when you find people you want to emulate, you do whatever it takes to work with them.
WB The Spouse
This is another surprise, not a mid-western prude story. Without judging, here are the facts: WB married young. By his own admission, he was socially retarded when it came to understanding and dealing with the opposite sex up until (and arguably through) his marriage. He had extramarital romantic relationships with Katherine Graham, and later with Astrid, a friend of his wife’s that she selected to care for WB in her absence. His wife departed for California to live separately and engage in her own extramarital relationships. While his wife was gone, Astrid moved in with WB. While living in San Francisco, his wife underwent numerous abdominal surgeries, and WB apparently did not make it to any of them. He rejoined his wife near the end during her cancer diagnosis, major surgery, and chemotherapy. It was complicated.
WB the Compromiser
He didn’t. This rewarded him in business as it punished him in his personal life.
Warren The Friend
He had deep friendships, but they were often indulged during infrequent and specific events. He had friends to play bridge with. He had investing friends that would gather annually. He was not surrounded by those friends in his day to day life. Not being a phone person, there were few people he was able to connect with for longer than a few minutes of small talk by phone. He had a special bromance with Bill Gates, a deep and productive friendship for both of them. I sometimes wonder if big shots feel more at ease befriending other big shots because they know the other is not out to use them for personal gain. I’ve also found that not all deep friendships can be lived in proximity; some of them require distance to survive.
Warren The Adventurer
He wasn’t. He hated travel outside of Nebraska. He lived life eating hamburgers. This bordered on almost Rain Man levels of habit, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had Asperger’s Syndrome.
WB the Philanthropist
His wife used to be in charge of all the charitable giving for the family foundation, and when she died, WB had to figure out what to do with the fortune he’d amassed. A friendship established over decades with Bill and Melinda Gates led him to realize that these friends had put more thought into utilitarian giving than he ever could or would. He committed to giving the bulk of his fortune to the Gates Foundation. He and the Gates’ also spearheaded a pledge among the super-wealthy to commit most of their fortune to charitable causes during his lifetime. He gifted millions to each of his kids’ individual foundations. He led by example.
In conclusion, once you take away the billions, WB was flawed, human, and incredibly relatable. We’ve all known an obnoxious smart kid; a bruised ego torn down by an emotionally damaged parent; a driven uncle whose ambition was unstoppable; or a serene cousin whose sense of self was unshakeable, and immune to peer opinion.
I’ve written of him in the past tense not because he’s deceased, but because “The Snowball” does not reveal the ending of his story, and I’d like to think there’s a capacity for continuing change, in WB and in the rest of us.