The most important lessons are not always learned inside the walls of our nation's top business schools. I've been closely observing and listening to Warren Buffett meet with students here in Omaha for a decade, and he has never swayed from the belief that simplicity wins over complexity.
At a meeting Friday with students from eight campuses - University of Southern California, Northern Arizona University, University of Nebraska at Omaha, Iowa State University, St. Louis University, Wake Forest University, Villanova University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - Buffett again emphasized challenges and opportunities for all of us.
At age 85, Buffett seems increasingly aware that he will not live forever, yet still passionate about his work as an investor. He has no interest in retirement. The secret is having integrity, he says, followed by brains and energy, which depend upon continuing health.
Buffett has lived longer than his first wife, some key friends and even his favorite Omaha steak houses. Piccolo Pete's, where he treated students to lunch last week, has announced it will close at the end of the year. It is a concrete sign of change.
The health sector of the economy continues to become more important, as agriculture, manufacturing and other areas benefit from technological efficiencies that require less people to produce the same output. While robotics displace workers, retraining and a safety net are important. "It's very tough, but it's the price of progress," Buffett said.
Buffett remains bullish on the U.S. economic potential to keep growing at the "staggering" rates during his lifetime. While the quality of life improves, though, "the tough problem of human kind" remains terrorism, he said in response to a student question.
While Buffett uses computers, including playing online bridge 12 hours each week, he does not see them as a substitute for making decisions. "I think humans will be the key to everything 20 or 50 years from now," he said.
It's interesting that successful people seem to share certain tendencies. When Buffett first met bridge partner, friend and Microsoft founder Bill Gates in 1991, they were asked during a party game to write down the most important success factor. Buffett and Gates, now a Berkshire Hathaway board member, both wrote the same word: focus. Buffett sees that "intense passion for the job they do" in longtime business partner Charlie Munger, 91, and basketball star LeBron James. If you think your best work is yet to come, Buffett believes it will happen.
Buffett's first teacher was his father - a congressman and broker. Buffett says teaching your children is the most important job because kids observe everything we do. "You've gotta live with yourself, and you're teaching your children."
His work in recent years on convincing other billionaires to make a giving pledge while they are young enough to make sound decisions is important. In fact, he told the students he would like to be remembered with one word: "teacher."
When it comes to risk, you cannot lose in following passion. It is important, though, to avoid borrowing against everything you have and value. There is no reason to take on too much debt, Buffett says. "Everything we do, if it goes wrong, will not cost us a night's sleep."
Buffett said students were lucky to be born in a wealthy country and at a time when women have increasing opportunities in business. He was wired to be good at allocating money to investments. He teaches that students can find what they are good at, but then they must take advantage of opportunity. He suggests reading biographies to learn about others' lives.
Buffett is troubled by high amounts of student loan debt, and he wonders if some would do better by not going to college. "For a great many it doesn't pay, for others it is tremendous." As a political issue, he favors diverting some higher education funding toward early education, "where it matters."
While the U.S. economy continues to shift in global markets, Buffett maintains his bullish stance. "Never sell the U.S. economy short."
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