Of Snowballs, or 5 Lessons from Warren Buffett

Buffett is someone I’ve always been curious to learn more about. A self-made billionaire (and yet, a publicly admired/popular person), a man of simple tastes who’s communications are filled with homespun (and sometimes, self-deprecating) humor, Buffet can be an inspiration and a fascination at the same time. As a student in graduate school in 2006, I guess I was late to the party of Buffett admirers, but am glad to have joined it neverthless.

I remember buying a hard-copy of the Snowball when it was first released in 2008, but for some reason never got through beyond the 3rd chapter. It is a long, exhaustive narration of several events in the life of the legendary Warren Buffett, and his close family/friends. Perhaps more material than if you just wanted to study the positive aspects of his life, but it certainly leaves you hungry for even more if you wish to get a more holistic peek.

More recently, though, I listened to the unabridged audio version of this book.

In this piece, I’ll not review the book so much as I’d like to recall some of the ‘sticky’ lessons from Buffett. After reading the book, I read through several annual shareholder letters that Buffett wrote himself (highly recommended reading, if you haven’t already), watched his university lectures/speeches, and read through many of his interviews to news channels. Below is no comprehensive a list of the lessons, but merely a recollection of a few ideas that have stuck in my mind (blame my memory/mind for any important omissions!):

  1. Inner ScoreCard
    As paraphrased here:

    • Your inner scorecard is more important than your outer scorecard. It’s very important for people to evaluate how they behave over a lifetime morally and ethically and not be overly concerned with other people’s impressions. Keep an inner scorecard: judge yourself by your own standards. This keeps you focused when you have many people giving you advice.
  2. Best investment is investing in yourself
    Quoting from an ABC interview:

    • Generally speaking, investing in yourself is the best thing you can do. Anything that improves your own talents; nobody can tax it or take it away from you.  They can run up huge deficits and the dollar can become worth far less.  You can have all kinds of things happen.  But if you’ve got talent yourself, and you’ve maximized your talent, you’ve got a tremendous asset that can return ten-fold.
  3. Focus is the most important ingredient for lasting success. 
    When Warren Buffett first met with Bill Gates at a dinner, someone asked “What factor did people feel was the most important in getting to where they`d gotten in life” (sic), both Buffett and Gates answered: “focus”
  4. Perspective: 98th floor is way better than the 2nd!
    “If you go from the first floor to the 100th floor of a building and then go back to the 98th, you’ll feel worse than if you’ve just gone from the first to the second, you know. But you’ve got to fight that feeling, because you’re still on the 98th floor.” — Buffett

  5. On Careers: Do what you love, and get on the right train.
    “There are generally two recommendations I offer to college and business school graduates.

    1. The most important thing about where you work is that you admire/love it.
    2. Get o­n the right train; that is, moving in the right direction. There’s no course in business school called “Getting o­n the Right Train”, but it’s really important. You can be an average passenger but if you get o­n the right train it will carry you a long way. You want to learn from experience, but you want to learn from other people’s experience when you can.”
Finally, in Buffett’s own words…
“Life is like a snowball, all you need is wet snow and a really long hill.”

Delivering Happiness… — Tony Hsieh

It is always nice to meet with people who brim with energy and passion. It is in this cocktail of effort and meaning that life can become a lot of fun.

Tony Hsieh recently visited Google to talk about his new book: Delivering Happiness. Hsieh is an entrepreneur, a venture-capitalist and salesman, now trying his hand at writing a book. Having read through the first few chapters, I’d say that he has done it well. The book is a well-paced, interesting read. Below are some of the things that I carried back from the talk and my reading:

  • If you strongly believe in something and have done your due diligence in researching its pros and cons, it may be worth sticking to it even if it is against the norm.
    For Tony Hsieh, that thing was the culture at Zappos. They founded a company where people are paid to leave, customers are provided with a 365-day return guarantee on shoes/apparel that they buy, employees are encouraged to have long conversations with customers (in direct contrast with the philosophy of resolving stuff and getting off the phone as quickly as possible). Tony said that this culture was to promote passion (in employees) and strong relations (with customers).
  • Mission and Core Values matter. A lot!
    The first company that Tony helped find (LinkExchange) sold for $265 million in 1998. In their quick growth, however, they had lost track of keeping alive passion and commitment to the company’s mission. Tony writes about waking up and not wanting to go to the office. The fact that even in the presence of a lot of financial success, if one struggles to find reason and fun in what they do, it becomes dull. Clearly, our choices should strongly correlate with our values.
  • Happiness…
    Why do you want a job? To make money? Why do you want to make money? To buy a big house? Why… (you get the idea)
    “When you talk about you doing something, ask why. Keep asking the why…” , said Tony “and it is likely that you will end up with the eventual goal of being happy.” Hsieh cited some recent research in the field of happiness, including Flow, which we have talked about earlier in this blog. He encouraged the audience to think about getting to happiness directly than through the winding routes that our lives often tend to take.

P.S. — Thank you to all my friends who stop by at A Speck in the Cosmos.

Life can keep one as busy as one wants to be, but few things are as soothing as writing! I hope that experiences — both good and not-so-good — inspire more passion through this blog.

Inspiration: ‘Invictus’ by W E Henley


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

— William Ernest Henley

More about the poem and the poet here. Many leaders have drawn inspiration from this poem, including Nelson Mandela, who had it pasted on the wall of his prison cell.

Long-distance vs. Sprinting, or ‘The Role of a Teacher’

It was during a casual coffee chat that A and I found ourselves discussing trekking and sports. Turns out he has been to the glaciers above Badrinath, right along the Indo-China border. I asked him about how he trained, and he said:

I was not in to sports. It was during my first year in IIT, that I began getting up early in the morning to go and run. It went on for about a year, until one morning when I ran in to the institute coach. He stood in the park keeping an eye on me, and then asked me to run slower.

The coach watched — pleasantly surprised — as I completed 12 rounds. Then he asked me to race another guy. I tried it about seven times, but I always lagged. (It) felt terrible. The coach came to me and said “Don’t sweat over this. Sprinting is for those whose body muscles have quick response. You are better suited for long-distance running. Focus there, and develop yourself more.” It was that motivation which eventually helped me win long-distances races, trek for adventures, and enjoy so much more.

The conversation left me wondering. How many of us keep sprinting without realizing that we’re long-distance runners, or vice-versa? How critical is the role of a good teacher in life?

Agnipath – Harivansh Rai Bachchan

Vriksh ho bhale khade,
ho ghane ho bade,

Ek pat chhav ki
mang mat, mang mat, mang mat

Agneepath Agneepath Agneepath.

Tu na thakega kabhi,
tu na thamega kabhi,
tu na mudega kabhi,

Kar shapath, kar shapath, kar shapath,
Agneepath, Agneepath, Agneepath.

Ye mahaan drishya hai,
chal raha manushya hai,

Ashru swed raqt se
lathpath, lathpath, lathpath,

Agneepath, Agneepath, Agneepath.

Harivansh Rai Bachchan

Translation (from here)

There may be huge, shady trees all around
Don’t even ask for the shade of a single leaf
Walk on the Path of Fire, Walk on the Path of Fire

You will not stop, You will not turn, You will not halt
Take this oath, take this oath, take this oath
The Oath of Fire, the Oath of Fire, the Oath of Fire

This is a great situation
Man Walks
Tears, Sweat and Blood
They swathe Him, they swathe Him
Walk on the Path of Fire, Walk on the Path of Fire