Don’t Just Bite Buffett, Think For Yourself

With the release of the annual Berkshire Hathaway letter this weekend, Warren Buffett is out making the rounds. Apparently, he’s been on CNBC all morning – as the push notifications to my phone keep reminding me.

Now don’t get me wrong – I loves me some Buffett, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I feel annoyed by the pony show every year when the letter comes out. I think I finally figured out why.

At first, I thought it was taking a brilliant long-term thinker and trying to get him to give you soundbites, but that can’t be right. Part of Buffett’s gift IS that he can make those soundbites. This isn’t like your favorite unknown band “selling-out” and getting trendy. Buffett’s like Patsy Cline being reborn as Madonna and then evolving into Taylor Swift. The hits just keep coming, no matter what the current trends are. Even when you think he’s gone (i.e. the mid to late ‘90s), nobody else seems to exist across generations like this staging comeback after comeback.

Those little one-liners are for the true-fans to steal for decades to come. Whether they are in the letter, on TV, or at the Annual Meeting – they are the Best of Buffett. Honestly, I’m one of those Buffett biters who can rattle them off and I don’t dislike myself for it. So if it can’t be that, what else could it the source of my annoyance?

Well, I think I finally figured it out this morning. Over the weekend, Shane Parish shared a Farnam Street blog titled, “Your First Thought Is Rarely Your Best Thought: Lessons on Thinking.” It quotes William Deresiewicz as saying, “I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom.”

For many investors, Buffett IS conventional wisdom. Don’t be dumb, think long-term, be opportunistic, remember that price is what you pay but value is what you get – it’s all in there. He gives you conventional wisdom as one-liners AND as fully developed thoughts. Lawrence Cunningham even took all of the letters (my edition of “The Essays of Warren Buffett” goes through 2001) and rearranges them by category for ease of reference because they are just that good – talk about “give me convenience or give me death!”

It’s like the SNL “da Bears” skit where they ask, “Who would win in a fight, Ditka or God? Trick question, Ditka is God!” We’ve accepted Buffett as our deity, and that’s OK, it’s just what follows that irks me. If all we do is dwell on the conventional wisdom, we never develop an original thought about it. This is what was bothering me. Sometimes it’s just too easy to steal a Buffett line, and for me personally (because I’m guilty of this) what matters is really making a genuine idea connection.

We need Buffett on TV, we need his letters, and it’s going to be a sad day when he’s gone. BUT – we also need to be able to internalize these lessons and think for ourselves. The Buffett answer to a question may very well be the correct/best answer, BUT when you’re asked – you need to give YOUR answer. Let the deity inform you, read from the scriptures, but recognize that it’s only foundational. You are moving forward informed by the lessons of the past.

Neither of us are going to be the next Buffett so forget the results and focus on his process. The daily reading, the voracious appetite for knowledge at age 87… THAT is the good stuff. The burgers and Coke’s? Maybe not so much, but the hunger for knowledge – that’s the appeal, that’s what we need to follow.

As the poet/philosopher Ash from the Evil Dead Trilogy once said, “Hail to the king, baby.” Now, I think I need a burger for lunch today.

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