Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

Alice Schrodeder wrote this recounting of the life and times of surely one of the most enigmatic men of our generation. Buffet, usually a very private individual, cooperated with Schroeder on this work, and while the book may lack a bit in its critique of Buffett, it does provide a revealing look into his life and philosophies. The title comes from a Buffett quote, "Life is like a snowball. The important thing is finding wet snow and a really long hill."

To begin with, it's clear that Buffett is not an ordinary person, although he modestly credits most of his success to luck. "I won the ovarian lottery," Buffett is quoted as saying, giving credit to his parents and schooling. However, this is a child that asked for a stopwatch as a kindergartner, and carefully noting the time it took for various marbles to race down his bathtub, learned to calculate odds. He became so enamored with numbers, that he sat in church calculating the lifespans of hymn writers in the hymnals, in order to figure out if piety actually resulted in a longer life.

As a fifth grader, Warren memorized most of the world almanac, including the population of every major city. His first business, at six, was selling chewing gum, and his genius for complex business principles began to evidence even then. He would refuse to break apart packs of gum to sell individual sticks, reasoning that neither the profit nor the risk was worth doing so. He also began his love affair with Coca Cola at an early age, selling cokes to sunbathers during family vacations. At 10 years of age, Buffett requested and got a trip to the New York Stock Exchange and was mesmerized by what he saw.

As a teenager, Buffett learned about handicapping race horses and parimutuel betting, and began publishing a tip sheet for betters. He figured out that the rules of the racetrack, applied to the stock market as well, and hence the beginning of Buffett's famous abilities in that area.

Warren is uncomfortable in posh settings, and is noted for pulling a server aside at a state dinner and asking if they could bring him a hamburger and coke.

There's a sad side of Buffett as well. Schroeder doesn't dwell on it, but its hard to escape the "poor little rich boy" side of him. As with many of us, Buffett's strengths are also his weakness. He's not unkind, but can be distant. He doesn't seem to know how to relax, and his relations with his family are odd at best. He doesn't live with his wife, but with a defacto mistress, and while he's notoriously miserly, he doesn't seem to be motivated by money in the traditional sense. Perhaps to Buffett it's just a scorecard.

What he seems to be fixated on, is the game. The book can serve both as an inspiration and a warning. Buffett seems to have the business of business well figured out, I'm not so sure about the business of life.

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