A Word of Advice from the Son of a Billionaire

When Dad’s got almost $40 billion in the bank, it looks like it could be a cushy life. Except, that is, when Dad decides not to give you any.

In his new book, Life Is What You Make It: Find Your Own Path to Fulfillment, Peter Buffett, son of investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett, credits his normality to the fact that he did not receive a large cash flow from his illustrious father. His dad’s philosophy has always been to give a child “enough to do anything, but not enough to do nothing.” In the eyes of both father and son, inheriting too much money can obscure anyone’s true passion, preventing that person from excelling at something that makes him or her happy.

Buffett knows a bit about finding a passion. He attended Stanford for only one year before dropping out to pursue a career in music. With $90,000 from his grandfather, he set out to San Francisco, where he supported himself as a burgeoning composer. Now, thirty-one years later, he is an Emmy-award winning composer with credits that include part of the soundtrack for the 1990 Oscar-winning film, Dances with Wolves.

The music industry was one of the few in which his last name could not possibly help him. “No one hires you because of your name in music unless you’re related to Quincy Jones,” Buffett said. “That’s the beauty of art – it’s based on output.” In fact, the only time in which his name impacted his career was when he tried to fundraise for a concert. “People almost laughed me out of the building!” he remarks.

Buffett credits his success to the fact that he paved his career for himself. “If I had felt like I was on some gravy train,” he says, “I don’t know if it would have lit the same sort of fire underneath me.”

And “fire,” he says, is exactly what it takes.

“If you’re only doing [your major] because it’s safe and practical, forget about it,” he says. “I think it’s a huge mistake. You’re going to miss so much by being safe.”

His words are all-too-relevant to Stanford students, whom, he notes, are adept at many different disciplines but can therefore lack direction. “Either it’s comfortable to stay [in college] or you can’t figure out what you want to do,” he notes.

His book encourages those students to take a “gut-check:” to zone out extraneous pressures and pinpoint their own source of intellectual excitement. Most people are average, he says; success comes to those who have the courage to “break out of the pack.”

It’s not the easiest advice to follow, especially in a world that seems to value practicality over passion. Buffett himself admits that “finding yourself” can sound hippie and outdated. However, careers that once seemed stable and lucrative – particularly those in finance – are now riddled with uncertainty. It might not be a bad time to try something unconventional. And as “hippie” as it may sound, Buffett insists that the journey, not the outcome, offers the reward.

The reward can be substantial. Warren Buffet’s goal was never a large fortune, his son says. His father was only pursuing what he loved: investing. “What mattered was the substance of the work: exercising his boundless curiosity, testing his analyses against real-world performance, living the adventure of discovering new value and possibilities,” writes Buffett in his book. In this case, following a passion earned Buffett Sr. enough money to be able to donate $37 billion (roughly the size of Italy’s annual defense budget) to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2006.

In the end, Buffett’s most valuable advice is perhaps the hardest to take: appreciate failure. Mistakes will come and go, but the regret of never taking a chance will linger.

“If you’re germ free, you’re going to get sick,” he says. “If you’re experience-free, you’re not going to have the robustness and the complexity that will prepare you for real life.”

Failure is not a word Stanford students like to hear. Neither is the term, “real life.” But for better or worse, both are linked, both are unavoidable, and both might not be as bad as they seem.

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