The Snowball is the best and most comprehensive biography on Warren Buffett. Roger Lowenstein’s Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist is good, but does not compare in the depth and breadth of Alice Schroeder’s work. Of course, how could it? Schroeder, unlike Lowenstein, was given an all-access card by Buffett himself with free reign to him, his friends and family, and his personal records. If you have any interest in Buffett, you need to read The Snowball. If anything else, it’s an interesting biography on an interesting human being. With that being said, my biggest takeaway from The Snowball wasn’t some investment advice or deeper understanding of Buffett’s investing style. No, my greatest takeaway was the supreme importance of understanding what is truly important in your life.
It’s rumoured that the chummy relationship Schroeder shared with Buffett before and during the writing of The Snowball chilled considerably once Buffett had time to digest the encyclopedic story of his life that Schroeder written. Even though Buffett had himself personally given Schroeder access to any-and-everyone and anything in order to write the most detailed, truthful, and accurate biography of his life – because he knew he couldn’t do it himself – he was still unsettled by a jarring truth: his relationship with his late wife, Susan Buffett. Ironically, Warren Buffett, one of the clearest, most rational, and most logical thinkers, is himself prone to wishful thinking. In the case of his relationship with Susan Buffett, he has reality-distorted himself to believe something that is most likely far from the truth. I have to give him credit for at least being aware that he was prone to his own reality-distortion field, especially his complicated relationship with the women in his life, and having enough courage and integrity to allow an independent third party to write accurately on this chapter in his life.
Yet, when the reality that Schroeder portrayed conflicted with his fairy tale version of his complicated relationship with his first wife, he retreated to his irrational, fairy tale version of events. It’s a bizarre thing to witness from someone who is such a clear thinker. His attitude towards Schroeder before and after the release of the biography seems like some type of amygdala hijack sort of response to a threat stimulus – the threat in this case being his reality-distortion field being popped. You’ll have to read the book to get a sense of this relationship with Susan Buffett, but it basically boiled down to Warren continuously, time after time, choosing investing over his wife.
I pass no judgement that Buffett decided that his interest in investing exceeded his interest in his own wife, who he genuinely loved to bits and pieces. We all have choices to make in life and we live with the consequences of those choices. The Snowball goes into great detail of how Buffett lived the early years of his life: up in his attic reading financial reports all of his waking hours. The neglect his children and wife felt were very real. He eventually got to a point where he was very rich at a fairly young age. He could have stopped there and lived a luxurious life, with time spent dotting his wife and children. But he didn’t. He kept on accumulating the snowball of money that was to become the defining purpose in his life.
Like I said, those were his priorities in life and I respect that: who am I to tell others what they should or should not prioritize in life? What I do find curious is his almost childlike approach to relationships with the women in his life, especially his first wife. If she meant so damn much to him, he really should have considered harder what was more important in his life: the money or his wife. To cry about it after someone accurately details how his wife felt in that relationship – I’m sure you could imagine how you would feel with a spouse that never left their study and paid more attention to financial reports than you – seems so irrational from a man who is so highly rational.
We all makes choices in life. And then, we live with the consequences of those choices. I think Buffett genuinely did regret how he treated someone he loved so dearly in his life. And I think he tried to make up for some of his past mistakes later in their lives when both were still alive. What I took away from all of this was that it is insurmountably, unfathomably important to get your priorities correct in life. To identify what is important and what is not, and then rank the important things in your life.
When I did this exercise, I created a pyramid and the most important thing in my life went on top. Then the next most important a layer down, and etc, etc. It deliberately makes you rank and choose what’s important, and it focuses you to make sure the important things in life aren’t neglected. I can tell you with certainty money is not at the top of my pyramid.
There is no right or wrong priorities in life: they depend on you. If you have blow and hookers at the top of your pyramid, that’s cool if that is truly what is most important in your life (although I would probably advise against it). Like I said earlier, who am I to judge what is important in someone’s life? But what is fundamentally important is to truly understand within yourself what is important to you. Understanding this can mitigate some deep regrets and pain in life.
My biggest takeaway from Warren Buffett has nothing to do with investing or money or finance: it has everything to do with prioritizing what’s important in your life and ruthlessly executing those priorities.