On Saturday, an expected 40,000 people will gather in an Omaha, Nebraska arena to attend the annual shareholders’ meeting for Berkshire Hathaway. The actual business meeting will last about 4 minutes, followed by hours of Q&A featuring the wit and wisdom of Berkshire’s 92-year-old Chairman, Warren Buffett.
Over the decades, much of Buffett’s advice has predictably been about investing. But his common sense, unemotional, logic about the nature of human behavior – not his unmatched 70-year investment track record – is why he has become an icon.
Buffett is a voracious reader, understanding that risk comes from a lack of knowledge about your decisions. He also extols the importance of having a margin of safety when making decisions that involve uncertainty – as almost all decisions do. “Margin of safety means don’t drive a 9,800-pound truck over a bridge with a 10,000-pound capacity. Go down the road a bit and find a 15,000-pound bridge.”
He is willing to stand out from the crowd, making decisions that, at the moment, are immensely unpopular. “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.”
Buffett understands the virtue of doing nothing. The human mind craves activity, but sometimes the best decision you can make is not to do anything. Change simply for the sake of change is wasted energy. Buffett lives in the same house that he bought in 1958 when he was 27 years old.
He is also generous, both with his time and his money. Almost all his wealth will be left to charity. “I want to leave my kids enough money that they can do anything, but not enough for them to do nothing.”
Incentives are powerful motivators, as Buffett regularly explains. Unlike most corporate CEOs or investment professionals, Buffett’s money is invested in his company, right alongside his shareholders. That is, he eats his own cooking.
A properly incentivized person may have great intentions, but great intentions by themselves aren’t all that important. “Noble intentions should be checked periodically against results.”
Buffett teaches that the benefits of compounding extend well beyond investing. Just as capital compounds over time, so can learning, habits and even your reputation. And just like an investment portfolio, a reputation that takes decades to build can be destroyed with one horrible decision.
Buffett understands the limits of what money can buy. “If you get to my age in life and no one thinks well of you, I don’t care how big your bank account is, your life is a disaster. Some people would like to think they could write a check and buy a million dollars’ worth of love. But it doesn’t work that way.”
David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management. A version of this piece originally appeared in the USA TODAY NETWORK.