Why I went:
Attending the Berkshire annual meeting in person has been on my bucket list for a long time, and I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t go. After all, I’ve watched the annual meeting online every year since I joined the industry, notebook and pen in hand. Too, Charlie Munger is 99 years old, and Buffett is 92, so there was some urgency related to how long they can keep doing this meeting.
I didn’t really have expectations of what the experience would be like. As I mentioned in my last newsletter, I was worried that my fellow attendees would be a “bunch of billionaire-worshiping weirdos.” But I needn't have worried.
Who all goes to this thing?
I’d estimate that maybe 60-80% of everyone I met there works in the financial industry. My favorite people to talk to, though, were those who worked outside of finance. I made friends with a cabinet-maker from Australia, an engineer from Seattle, and a Navy Submariner from South Carolina.
While I think everyone there is interested in business and investing, the real commonality I observed was that everyone was there to learn. Very few people were there for self-promotion. Instead, everyone was having a good time getting to know one another. It’s rare to find such widespread humility, yet I think that was the unifying theme of the weekend.
What it was like, what were the best parts of the experience:
The best takeaway I got from being there in person was that these two business idols of mine are real, living, human beings. There’s something about being in the same room as the people you admire and realizing that you belong to the same species.
While their accomplishments are great, it was encouraging to remember that they live the same day-by-day existence as me. At least on a philosophical level. They sleep, they get up, they work, they eat. On Saturday, the biggest difference was that I got up at 3 am to wait outside to get into the auditorium, whereas they had their reserved seats up on stage.
My other epiphany was that while they're making decisions at a high level, with much larger sums of money at play, they didn’t get there magically. They accumulated their knowledge, judgment, and insight by stringing together a (very) long succession of productive days, doing their best at each moment with the options in front of them. With that approach, Buffett's particular gifts translated into him becoming one of the wealthiest people in the world. But I think his life still would have been a success with that approach even if he'd had different aptitudes and interests.
The important decision, and the one we have the most control over, is how we use the gifts we have today to do the most good with the opportunities in front of us right now. There’s no need to become one of the world’s richest people, nor even to aim for that. Instead, a good life is one in which you consistently do the best you can with what’s in front of you, letting the outcomes worry about themselves. And if you do that, the outcomes are usually pretty good.
How it made me a better advisor:
The best advice of Warren and Charlie isn’t actually about business and investing, it’s about life. They talk about what makes good partnerships, how to build a good career, and they do a great job of putting money in its proper place.
When asked how he defines success, Buffett said this, “Basically, when you get to my age, you'll really measure your success in life by how many of the people you want to have love you actually do love you…If you get to my age in life and nobody thinks well of you, I don’t care how big your bank account is, your life is a disaster.”
First of all, that’s spot on. And I think it applies universally, to anyone aiming to have a good life. Second, when you’re living in a society that is as materialistic as ours, it’s really reassuring to get that particular advice from the guy who has already won the money game.
The other piece of advice I took from Mr. Buffett was around estate planning. Buffett has seen a number of wealthy individuals pass and leave extraordinary amounts of money to their children, often with mixed results. He shared a couple insights as to how to help it go well, which I really appreciated.
“I would not sign a will until my kids have read it, understand it, and agree to it…. keeping your kids in the dark doesn’t work.”
If there’s a problem, you don’t get the chance to fix it after you die. So he recommends giving a chance for any potential problems to surface while you’re still around to repair things.
Another estate planning note is something he asks his managers at Berkshire Hathaway. “If you died tonight, what will your successor wish they’d asked you.” That’s another one that applies to the rest of us. Beyond the terms of a will, such as who gets what, and when, and how, and the other items like healthcare directives, there might be details that your kids would like to have in your absence. It’s an incredible gift to provide them with anything that you want them to know.
It could be a final, personal note, or it could even be a list of who you want invited to your funeral. Or maybe it’s just login information for your Netflix account so they can cancel your subscription.
There’s more I could share about what I learned from them, and I might write that up in another post. But for now, I’ll only add one more lesson, which is the example that Warren and Charlie set for others. Even at 92 and 99, they remain as curious and humble as ever. They are still here to learn and grow. Buffett often has some new nugget of insight about technology or changes in business, which is impressive given how much he already knows. If there was anyone who could know it all, it’d be him. And yet, he isn't done yet. Which is a sign to the rest of us that there is always something more to be learned.
The other example they set is to be of service to others. The annual meeting isn’t something they have to do. At least not in such a public fashion where literally anyone can badger them with questions. But they’re gracious enough to do it, and you can tell they really do their best to listen thoughtfully to each question and give it a proper answer. The way they talk about what they do, you can tell they’re doing their best to be useful to others, which is a great way to live.
One last thought:
While talking with the other attendees, I came away feeling proud of what I am building, and why. Some other financial professionals I spoke with were focused only on investments, or on raising capital from pensions and nonprofits for their hedge fund. And that’s fine for them. But my passion is for how money and investing affects clients’ lives. My purpose is to develop a “worry-free retirement” for my clients so that they can focus on their day-to-day lives, free from fear. It’s a gift to be able to guide people to that state of being.
Over time, I want to help more and more people in bigger and bigger ways, and I feel lucky for the opportunity to do that. The best is yet to come.