One might think being the son of one of the world’s wealthiest men would mean a life of endless privilege. Yet for writer and composer Peter Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, that hasn’t been the case.
When he was 19, Peter received about $90,000 worth of stock in his father’s company. If he had held on to that stock, it would be worth about $72 million today.
However, he didn’t. He sold it and used the money to pursue a career in music, a decision he said he’s never regretted because the real inheritance from his father has been a philosophy – forge your own path. Peter’s book, “Life is What You Make It,” explains that philosophy, and challenges readers to recognize that the path of least resistance is rarely the path to the greatest fulfillment.
The Oracle spoke to Buffett, who has won an Emmy for Best Soundtrack for the documentary “Wisconsin: An American Portrait,” about his book, philosophy and life.
The Oracle: Former U.S. President Bill Clinton has said your book should be required reading for all young people. Why is your book particularly relevant to college students?
Peter Buffett: The book is relevant for anyone in a transitional period and, specifically, kids coming out of college and high school students graduating and thinking about college. It really tells mine, and other people’s, transitional stories, how they thought one path was the way to go and how they learned otherwise.
O: Today, there’s a lot of talk about the cost of a college degree versus its actual value. Would you say a college degree is absolutely essential to success?
PB: I would have to say no. A college degree is invaluable for certain pursuits – if you want to get into law or medicine, it’s essential. But if you’re entrepreneurial or if you just have your own ideas about what you want in life, college isn’t always part of that path. I’m not recommending dropping out of college, but it isn’t absolutely essential.
O: You’ve said the greatest inheritance you’ll receive from your father is a philosophy. What does that mean?
PB: Watching my dad’s approach to life has proven invaluable to me. A lot has been written about that as it applies to his investing styles, but it applies just as well to life outside of that. Most importantly… he enjoys his work so much, and that money has not really entered into his pursuit of what he loves. He doesn’t get distracted by a bunch of material stuff. He’s doing what he loves and that is the point in itself.
He also talks about his circle of competence. He doesn’t invest in things he doesn’t understand or get involved in areas that distract him from his main focus. So many people feel they have to impress, or go beyond their comfort zone, and in some aspects of life, that’s good. But my dad’s philosophy is stick to what you know and do it well. You don’t have to live anybody’s ideals but your own. That has proven to be a great philosophy for me.
O: This book sort of demystifies the perception of your family. What are the biggest misconceptions people have about you and your father?
PB: People don’t realize that my dad still lives in the same house that I grew up in. There’s no fence around that house. I walked to public school growing up. Things like that. I think the biggest misconception is that I don’t have to do anything because my dad pays for everything. They think, because my father is so wealthy, I get a free ride. That’s the biggest misconception. But if that was true, I wouldn’t have been able to write this book.
O: Have there ever been times during your life when you wished you had been able to take advantage of coming from such great wealth and take the easy way out?
PB: I would say no. People think that I was born the son of the ‘Oracle Of Omaha,’ but he was just a guy who worked really hard and loved what he did. So the great wealth came after I was already a young adult and making my own way, and I’m glad that was true. Ultimately, when I look back, I never wanted to take the easy way out. All the difficulties and ups and downs in life led to living a real life.
Now, would there have been a time at some point in my 30s or 40s when I thought, ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be great to pay off my second mortgage?’ – maybe, but struggling made life way more real. Sometimes it was good, and sometimes it was bad, but to be in the weeds and figure out how to live life just like everyone else is so important.
O: You and your siblings were given nearly a billion dollars each to use for charitable work. What’s it like to be given that sort of opportunity, and what is the focus of the NoVo Foundation?
PB: It’s an awesome responsibility. You start to look at the world through the eyes of someone who might be able to make a difference in someone else’s life. That is humbling, to say the least. You want to do the best you can. I take it very seriously. I have a real strategy and a vision. It’s not easy, and in fact, that’s why my dad’s not doing it himself. He decided to give it to Bill and Melinda Gates and myself because he knows how hard it is to do.
The focus of the NoVo Foundation, in short, is to try to refocus a world that’s dominated by greed and exploitation into one that is built on collaboration and partnership. The primary agents of change that we see are girls and women. So it’s really supporting and empowering women around the world in a variety of ways through economics and education, stopping violence against women and lots of different areas that also go into social and emotional learning. It’s all to try to rebalance the world as best we can toward women.