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You Only Live Once, So Do It Warren Buffett's Way

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"You'd get very rich if you thought of yourself as having a card with only twenty punches in a lifetime, and every financial decision used up one punch. You'd resist the temptation to dabble. You'd make more good decisions and you'd make more big decisions."
--Warren Buffett , quoted in The Snowball by Alice Schroeder

This week Warren Buffett celebrates his 84th birthday.

Those of you who follow my blogs know I have a bit of a man crush on Buffett, not just because of his investing acumen but because he has always seemed to me endowed with a kind of uber-common sense -- an ability to cut to the heart of a situation or an issue and capture it in a few words, understandable to experts and common folk alike.

Lists of his "10 greatest" or "18 greatest" (or however many greatest) sayings pop up everywhere in online searches. But the Buffettism that's stayed with me is the one at the top of this blog post -- namely the notion of a punch card (a quaintly antiquated thing you don't run across very often these days).

Buffett used his punch-card analogy in an investment context. It's consistent with his belief that really profitable investment decisions are few and far between. His counsel to individual investors has always been to "wait for the fat pitch." (See "Bored Investors Beware.")

But I think the punch-card analogy applies equally well to life, and to the decisions that define and shape our lives over the five, six, seven or eight decades most of us are on Earth. For someone graduating from high school, I think the number 20 is just about right. For someone like me, in middle age, the number of unpunched punches on the card is a lot smaller. There might be only two or three left.

The point is that, whether it's two or 20, the number of inflection points in our lives is a lot smaller than it often seems. The trick is having the wisdom, or the instinct, to recognize "fat pitches" at the time they show up, which is always easier in hindsight. Then we need to make our big decisions count.

Getting married. Having children (or not). Making a career change. Starting or investing in a business. Those are obvious hole punches.

By contrast, the last two times I punched my card, it had less to do with me, personally, than with the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others.

The first of these was agreeing to chair Wall Street's advocacy group -- the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association -- in the wake of the financial crisis. I did so because I never wanted our clients, the investing public, to again have to go through the trauma and disruption they experienced in their financial and personal lives during that unprecedented and volatile period.

My second recent hole punch was deciding to help lead, in 2011 and 2012, a campaign to defeat a constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage in my home state of Minnesota. I got a lot of advice and counsel against getting involved, as a business leader, in what became known as the "Vote No" campaign. But every bone in my body told me this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of LGBT residents in a state long known for its progressive brand, inclusive culture and values of respect and tolerance.

As it turned out, the support of the business community was critical to not only defeating the amendment but, six months later, legalizing same-sex marriage in Minnesota.

That was last year. Just this month two gay friends who had lived together for 34 years before getting married last year at Minneapolis' City Hall thanked me, with tears in their eyes, for being able to celebrate their first-ever wedding anniversary.

I wish someone had told me about Buffett's punch-card analogy when I was a lot younger. However, I'm glad I have the opportunity to use it now to recognize and lean into the few remaining "big decisions" in my life. I pass it on here as a birthday gift to others -- not from me but from Warren Buffett, who, by the simple arithmetic of his own analogy, has made a big decision once in every four of his 84 years.