In 2008, the managing partner and principal of Aquamarine Capital, Guy Spier, and his colleague Mohnish Pabrai got the rare opportunity to attend a charity lunch with famed investor Warren Buffett.
Although a decade has passed since the pair made their $650,000 donation and met with Buffett, the lessons Spier learned are still vivid in his mind.
Family Is Important
“Warren Buffett was super excited to see us. I think part of the reason why he was excited is he knew it was going to be a family meal. There was me and my wife, … Mohnish Pabrai, his wife and two children,” Spier said. “As my wife, Laurie said pretty early on, (Buffett) is just like a grandfather.”
It’s OK To Have Fun
“On another level, (Buffett) is a bit like a child. He is having fun every day in a way that is sort of rather surprising. You expect a serious guy — and he can be serious — but he was just super happy and excited to meet us.”
Never Take On Debt If You Don’t Have To
About Buffett and debt, Spier said, “I do not remember how, but we got into a discussion about debt. He said he would never have liked to have gotten into debt because he was afraid of discovering how he was capable of behaving. The idea that even somebody of Warren Buffett’s stature and ethics could be afraid of himself is an insight into how dangerous getting into debt can be.”
It Can Be Hard To Admit Your Mistakes
“We didn’t talk about specific investments. We knew that was off limits and those topics would not be addressed. (But) there was this interesting moment (in) the beginning when I talked about some of my investing mistakes, and he looked (at me) and said, ‘I never make mistakes.’ That kind of took me back a bit … (because) it is not true. He has made mistakes. And he talks about his mistakes. But still, there is a part of him, it seems, that wants to say he does not make mistakes,” Spier said.
Equity Is Invaluable — Hold On To It!
“Something he reiterated is he is not planning on selling his shares ever. He will never sell them for his own benefit. The only thing he is going to do is give them away.”
Just Because You’re Rich Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Live Frugally
“He pays himself and lives on a salary of $100,000. So, … in a certain way, that big sum of money — his wealth (was) $70 or $80 billion at the time we met — is completely irrelevant. He is as wealthy or not wealthy as the next person who does not have $70 or $80 billion of Berkshire shares. … When you stop and think about that, I think it is a very powerful insight,” Spier said.
That Said, Being Frugal Doesn’t Mean Being Stingy
“Buffett’s frugality is legendary. Yet, he was extraordinarily generous in the way he tipped our waiters. It really demonstrated to me, you can be frugal without being stingy. I think it is (an) extraordinarily important lesson, so I want to repeat it, you can be frugal without being stingy!”
Be Generous and Create Opportunities for Others To Do the Same
“The whole point of the lunch was to support (the Glide Foundation), a charity his wife supported,” Spier said.
According to its site, “GLIDE has been serving the people of the Tenderloin and San Francisco since 1963. As a social justice movement, social service provider and spiritual community, GLIDE offers individual and collective transformation through compassionate, sustained, comprehensive care to all in need.
“(Buffett’s) wife had died at that point. (But) she was certainly a very, very generous and giving soul, (and) he clearly loved her very, very much. He was very grateful for her presence in his life which is evidenced by the fact he runs this … lunch that benefits … a charity that she picked.”
Have Fun … but Not Too Much Fun
“(Buffett ordered) a diet coke — no wine! A part of me regrets not ordering some expensive wine because the lunch was on the restaurant, (but) I ordered diet coke as well.”
Stay Down to Earth
About Buffett’s tastes, Spier said, “(I remember) he chuckled and said, ‘I don’t order anything to eat that I would not have wanted when I was five years old.’ It was funny and felt so normal. And he had a steak with hashbrowns, I believe.”
“(Of course), I ordered exactly the same thing. What else would I have done?”
Don’t Get Caught Up on Formalities
“There were so many normal and modest things about him. … Of course, I (was) calling him ‘Mr. Buffett’ during the lunch. And, at some point, he holds up his hand and … he says, ‘Listen, we have (Mohnish’s children) Monsoon and Momachi calling me ‘Warren.’ I know by the end of the lunch you will be calling me ‘Warren.’ So, why don’t we just cut to the chase and (you) call me ‘Warren’ from now on?'”
Learn Everything You Can and Never Stop
“(Overall), there is very little that is not normal about him. What I would say is the most abnormal thing about him is this intense intelligence that was clearly sucking up information out of everybody. I just felt I was in the presence of somebody who was processing things way faster than I was capable of processing,” Spier said.
Lead By Example, Both Personally and Professionally
“(Buffett) has taught and led by example. I tend to be suspicious and distrustful of books that say, ‘This is what you should do.’ Warren Buffett does not tell anyone what to do. He just sets an example of what to do and a fantastic example at that.”
Sometimes You Have To Concede That Someone Is Better Than You at Something
“The strongest takeaway for me, which is a difficult takeaway, was (that) I came into that lunch — and I feel like I am (a) pretty smart guy — (and) I thought, maybe I (would) find a guy who (was) my equal. I feel like having had lunch with him, I can be in no doubt his mind is superior to mine in all sorts of ways. There is this famous statement, “How do you beat Bobby Fischer?” the famous chess grandmaster. The way you beat Bobby Fischer is to play him at anything but chess. So, I am not saying Warren Buffett’s mind is better than mine in all regards, but, coming out of that lunch, I think the chances of my mind being better than his at investing — there is zero chance of that,” Spier said.
Be Yourself — and Be the Best Version You Can Be
“Don’t try and be Warren Buffett. Let Warren Buffett be Warren Buffett. And hopefully (by) accepting that, I can go away and do the best job I can of being Guy Spier. Cause that is one thing I can do way better than Warren Buffett. He’d do a really terrible job of being Guy Spier — that is for sure.”
If You Want To Know More About Buffett
“(If you want to get more guidance from Buffett) … Roger Lowenstein(‘s) biography on Warren Buffett, (‘Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist’) is my favorite book on personal finance. ‘Snowball’ by Alice Schroeder is also an excellent book on Warren Buffett. Warren Buffett’s life story really teaches so much about what one ought to be doing when it comes to personal finance,” Spier said.
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