20 Uncommon Lessons from My Weekend with Warren Buffett (career & life advice most don’t talk about)

Written by Scott May 7, 2012

Career advice from Warren Buffett

“Take a job that you love. I think you are out of your mind if you keep taking jobs that you don’t like because you think it will look good on your resume. Isn’t that a little like saving up sex for your old age?”

- Warren Buffett [Tweet this Quote]

The Power of Continued Education

On Friday night I walked into the Omaha Marriott to check in for the weekend.

The first person I said hello to was Bill Gates (yes that Bill Gates).

He didn’t exactly respond to me by first name, but the brief exchange (and shot of adrenaline that came with it) reminded me of the potential of the weekend ahead.

When in Omaha you never know what’s going to happen. That’s why I go.

The next day I spent over eight hours with Warren Buffett.

What I learned blew my mind…

As it always does.

I wish it were just the two of us, but there were actually about 35,000 other passionate Buffett fanatics who joined me to learn from the most wealthy investor of the modern world.

This was my 6th straight year attending his company’s Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholder’s Meeting, and it certainly won’t be my last.

The weekend is packed with inspiration and possibility (and more See’s Candy than my body can handle), but the main event kicks off at 7am Saturday morning. This is where Warren Buffett and his partner Charlie Munger answer every question under the sun – for nearly seven hours.

I know of no other event in the world where you can get this type of access to two of the smartest and most successful business men of all time – and they’ll literally answer anything you ask.

It’s one of my favorite ways to surround myself with passionate people who believe what I believe about the world of business, investing and more importantly…life. As far as I’m concerned events like this are a requirement for truly Living Your Legend.

Without it I never would have started my investment fund nearly 5 years ago. And that’s just for starters.

The equation is simple: hang around enough Living Legends and you start to operate on a new level. 

But my favorite part about this weekend isn’t the dinners with friends, the very late nights, the lessons on business and investing, or even the surprise run-in with Bill Gates.

For me, my favorite part is hearing the life and career lessons from some of the most well-read and experienced two men on the planet.

So that’s our focus today – only the stuff that’s most relevant to us Living Our Legend.

I won’t bore you with the finance and investing details – we’ll save that for another place.

While many of these yearly lessons aren’t new (in fact they’re often far from it), each trip reminds me that often times the things most worth learning are the lessons we’ve already been taught so many times in the past.

Here’s to learning (and relearning) what matters…

The 20 Uncommon Career & Life Lessons from My Weekend with Warren Buffett:

1. Lose money for the firm and I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation and I will be ruthless. This is covered every year. Money can always be made again. Reputation doesn’t recover quite so easily. It’s all too tempting to trade long-term respect for a little short term gain. The world constantly tries to seduce us. Here’s an easy reminder: imagine whatever you do will be reported by an informed reporter the following day in your local newspaper for your family, children and closest friends to read. Act accordingly. [Tweet This Lesson]

2. Don’t expect people to change. Berkshire Hathaway owns over 70 businesses. They buy a few more every year. But they only buy ones they won’t have to improve (contrary to what happens in acquisitions elsewhere). They’ve realized how futile is to try to changes others’ behavior. We love to paint a rosy picture that things will be better after some special event happens (an acquisition, a marriage, kids, a move, a new job, whatever), but for the most part, how people act is out of our control. Make sure the people you surround yourself with are the right fit from the beginning. [Tweet this Lesson]

“If we thought the success of our investment depended on them taking our advice, we’d move on.” – Charlie Munger

3. Conventional wisdom is often an indication of what not to do. 99% of business schools teach their students that the type of investing Warren and Charlie do is impossible. Who do you think’s right? (side note: it’s funny for two guys crazy about learning, to so openly put down business school, given 30% of the audience probably has an MBA or is trying to get one). The road less traveled still does make all the difference. If everyone’s doing it then it’s usually time to reassess. Be careful taking things as fact just because a bunch of other people do. Like we’ve seen before, everything was impossible until someone did it. [Tweet this Lesson]

4. Fighting the tide can be brutal, but it’s usually the only fight worth fighting. Enough said. [Tweet this Lesson]

5. Start as early as possible. When a 26-year-old asked Warren what he’d do in the man’s shoes, Warren said “If I had to do it over again, I would have done the same but earlier.” It is never too early to start something. The sooner you begin, the sooner you get your experience. [Tweet this Lesson]

6. Don’t expose yourself to steps that can keep you from tomorrow. It can take a lifetime to build a masterpiece, but only an instant to destroy it. Very smart people have failed this way all throughout history. No matter what the possible benefit, these two guys refuse to do anything that opens them to the chance of going back to zero. That’s why they don’t use debt, and in their last 50 years have never faced a truly dire situation. In fact, when things are the worst for the world, is often when they do best. Nothing’s worth risking everything. [Tweet this Lesson]

“Never risk what you have and need for what we don’t have and don’t need.” – Warren Buffett

7. Tell the truth to a group of people who believe what you do, and things will work out. I do everything I can to run Live Your Legend the same way. Align with the right people and do it in an honest way. Pretty simple. [Tweet this Lesson]

8. Great things are built as a result of the combination of time and consistency towards a cause you deeply believe in. Find what you’re good at – what you want to build. Then put your head down and allow a lifetime to build it. 40 years ago Buffet wrote out 13 principles of what he wanted to create and how he wanted it run. He then built a culture that executed on that every day. Just about anything can be done with the right focus, time and consistency. As long as you care enough and aren’t in too much of a hurry. [Tweet this Lesson]

9. Be your own market of one. As a result of the culture they’ve built, Berkshire is often the only company a business owner is willing to sell to (even despite other more attractive offers). Those who think of Berkshire first, don’t think of anyone second. Instead of going out and trying to replicate those around you, go out and create a category. Then be the first guy to hang a shingle in that space. Be willing to do the things others won’t. Standing out will come naturally. [Tweet this Lesson]

“The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.” – Simon Sinek [Tweet this Quote]

10. There’s little progress without failure. These guys quickly admit not only that they’ve had plenty of failures, but that they wouldn’t have what they do if it wasn’t for the screw ups. Unsuccessful people avoid failure at all cost. The successful ones embrace it, learn from it and keep building. If you’re not screwing up every once in a while, you’re not trying hard enough. [Tweet this Lesson]

11. You don’t need to be able to do that many things right to succeed. In fact, success is inversely proportional to how many things you try to do. Do a few things really well. Focus on that. Hire others to do the rest or don’t do it at all. The most successful businesses and people have a much longer list of what they aren’t willing to do, than what they actually spend time on. Warren is notorious for how many things he’s says no to. Stay within your circle of competence. When in doubt, do less. [Tweet this Lesson] 

warren buffett taking life too seriously

12. In business and in life, incentives make all the difference. Understand the incentives on both sides before engaging in a transaction. Most investment managers get paid for how much money they manage, not how much money they make you. Real estate agents are more encouraged to get your house sold as fast as possible than they are to get you the best price. Even the best natured of people can get lead astray by misaligned incentives. Align your incentives with the people you work with (clients, customers and partners) and you’ll get a lot more done, with a lot less frustration. Most importantly, only engage in activities that incentivize you to act in line with what you believe. [Tweet this Lesson]

13. The first $200 billion is the hardest. The 2nd is relatively easy. The hardest part is starting. Achieve small victories, build momentum and watch what happens. The first time is always the most daunting, there are always more excuses and it certainly takes the most courage. But once you know it’s possible, it becomes your new normal. That starts with starting. [Tweet this Lesson]

14. Purpose is the ultimate compensation. Job satisfaction and loyalty come from the autonomy to do the work that matters to you, not from a lofty salary or bonus. Every manager at Berkshire is independently wealthy, yet they can’t wait to come to work every day. “They get to paint their own paintings,” as Buffett says. Give people autonomy and trust to do things they are good at. Avoid micro-managing. Don’t think you can do their skill better than they can. Give them the paintbrush and freedom to build upon their vision and that’s what they’ll do. Daniel Pink has an excellent TED talk on The Surprising Science of Motivation.

The same goes for why Warren and Charlie, in their 80’s, have no interest in retiring:

“We get the opportunity to paint our own painting every day and it’s a painting that will never be finished. We love it.” – Warren Buffett

You can’t infuse passion into someone, but you can certainly create a system that takes passion out. When in doubt, give those around you the brush. [Tweet this Lesson]

15. The most powerful investment is the one you spend on yourself. As Charlie puts it “Berkshire’s record would have been terrible if Warren didn’t keep learning.” These guys are crazy about going to bed slightly smarter than when they woke up. Read everything you can get your hands on. Learn from those around you. Be a sponge. Everything is a lesson. Despite all kinds of advanced formal education, Warren’s #1 diploma in his office is the one he got from completing a week-long Dale Carnegie Public Speaking course. You never know where you’re going to find the best nuggets. Just keep learning. [Tweet this Lesson]

16. Be a student of other people’s folly. The first seven pieces of art on Warren’s office walls were the seven biggest financial failures of the past century or so. These guys study failure like a med student would study for the Boards. They absolutely refuse to take steps that have even the the slightest chance of leading to financial ruin. The more you learn about the brick walls others charged into head first, the more likely you are to avoid them. [Tweet this Lesson]

“Learn a lot from other people’s mistakes. It’s a much more pleasant way to live.” – Charlie Munger

17. Think huge. When Warren was in his 20’s, he told his wife that one day they were going to be incredibly wealthy (despite having no real wealth at the time). He wasn’t exactly sure when, but he was sure it was going to happen. He told her to prepare and think about what she’d do with a great deal of money. Then he slowly made $50 billion dollars. Have your vision of what you want your life to represent. Visualize, animate and create it in every part of your world. Give yourself something inspiring to build towards. Sketch out your castle in the sky – then start building the staircase to get there. [Tweet this Lesson]

18. A brand is a promise. People all over the world buy a can of Coke over the generic options because they trust what’s inside. That it will be of the consistent quality they’ve come to expect. What promise does your brand represent? What do you want it to represent? What about yourself? Every one of us is our own brand. The things we say and do, the way we treat people – all of it is building our own personal brand. The promise that we will deliver to the world. Are you representing a promise that makes you proud? [Tweet this Lesson]

19. Stop saving up sex for old age. This is my all-time favorite analogy. Working a job you hate, just to build up a resume to hopefully do something you enjoy later on, is just like saving up sex for old age. There is no sense in waiting. If you’re going to build your resume, then build it with things you enjoy, or better yet, take the steps to start doing things you are excited about, with people you admire, right now. There is no waiting. Happiness not spent today does not equal more happiness tomorrow. [Tweet this Lesson]

“Take a job that you love. I think you are out of your mind if you keep taking jobs that you don’t like because you think it will look good on your resume. Isn’t that a little like saving up sex for your old age?” – Warren Buffett

20. The most powerful tools cost nothing. Last week we talked about how today it’s possible to build a meaningful business for less than a $100. You don’t need huge investors, you don’t need an Ivy League education, you don’t need a huge office or a bunch of employees. The most powerful and enabling tool required to run a passion-based business in today’s world is totally free: The Internet. So is most every other key ingredient… Meeting passionate people is free. Learning through books, studies and videos is all free. Hard work on something you love doing, is also free. Have you been embracing the tools that make what was previously impossible, possible?

Buffett recently mentioned how he’d give up his private jet long before giving up his Internet access. And who wouldn’t? But think what that means. A billionaire has access to every tool in the world, yet the most important is the one that all of us have equal (and free) access to. No one needs the jet, but we all need the information. We need the tools. Because the access is what makes everything possible.

Stop thinking you need something more to pursue a dream. [Tweet this Lesson]

The things that can change our life are right here.

They’re either inside of us or accessible at the click of a button.

They don’t cost anything.

This leaves us with very few excuses not to do what matters.

Aside from my flight and hotel (which I split with a few buddies), this weekend, this 7-hour session with Buffett and Munger, cost me nothing to attend. But as a results of what I’ve learned and experienced in the past six years, my life operates on an entirely new level.

Thanks to a free weekend, I have an investment business I run with people I enjoy.

I have a set of principles that all but ensure success.

And I have the kind of stories most only get to read about.

And the cost of admission was exactly nothing.

Are you spending your resources the right way?

Tell us in the comments.

Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger, thanks for doing what you do. It does not go unnoticed.

-Scott

P.S. Anyone free this Weds night in San Francisco? I’m hosting a meet up with a few good entrepreneur friends of mine (whom you’ve likely heard of) and I’d love for you do join us. It starts at 7:30pm at Dalva at 3121 16th Street in the Mission. Everyone’s welcome. Hope to see you there!

Oh and here’s last year’s life lessons from my meeting with Buffett if you’re curious.

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“It was 18 months ago when I came across Live Your Legend and it just completely blew my mind. I was living this life thinking I have to kind of just do this. Then it was like a kid on Christmas Day with my wife thinking ‘we don’t have to do this anymore.’ It was literally a life change. It opened so many doors. Thanks for everything you’re doing.”

- Simon P., Singapore