While working on my book, Getting There: A Book of Mentors, I found myself at a charity event with business legend Warren Buffett. The idea for Getting There was that leaders in a broad variety of fields would share their secrets to navigating the rocky road to the top, so I of course desperately wanted Buffett to participate. I had already sent a request to his office and been rejected, however, and the prospect of approaching him cold was daunting to say the least.
Then I thought about Sara Blakely, the inventor of the shapewear company Spanx. A few months earlier, I'd interviewed Blakely for Getting There and she told me how she camped out in the reception areas of hosiery mills until she persuaded an owner to make the Spanx prototype for her and how she sold her product to Neiman Marcus by whisking their buyer into a bathroom to show off her butt in a pair of Spanx. I drew inspiration from these stories -- if Blakely was in my shoes, she would never pass up the chance to approach Buffett.
Toward the end of the night, just as Buffett was about to leave, I joined a bunch of attendees in posing for a group photo with him. As soon as the last flash went off, I made a beeline for him and delivered my 15-second request. He told me to contact his secretary, and, after jumping through a few hoops with her, I got the interview.
To say that The Oracle of Omaha is a wealth of wisdom is an understatement. Getting to know him has had a tremendous impact on the way I look at the world. Here are just some of the many wonderful insights he shares in Getting There:
You can always tell someone to go to hell tomorrow. This is a piece of advice Buffett received from a friend about fifty years ago -- but Buffett reveals that it's one of the most useful things he's ever learned. The point is that when something upsets you, refrain from spouting off in a moment of anger and saying something you might regret. He explains, "Just forget about it for a day. If you feel the same way tomorrow, tell them then. You haven't missed the opportunity."
Whom you choose to associate with matters. "If you surround yourself with people who are better than you are (high-grade people) you will end up behaving more like them, and they, in turn, will get it back from you. It's like a planetary system. If you hang around with people who behave worse than you, pretty soon you'll start being pulled in that direction."
On maintaining a good reputation: Buffett says that qualities of good character and integrity make an enormous difference in achieving success. He judges every action he takes not just by legal standards but also by what he calls the "newspaper test." He asks the managers of his companies to do the same. He explains that people should think about how they would feel if their actions would be written about the next day on the front page of their local paper, written by a smart but kind of unfriendly reporter and read by their families, friends, and neighbors. "If it passes that test, it's okay. If anything is close to the line, it's out."
On forming good habits: "Most behavior is habitual," explains Buffett. "They say the chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken. There's no question about it. I see older people entrapped by self-destructive behavior patterns all the time. Bad habits are hard to kick, but good habits are too. So why not decide to have good habits? And form them as soon as you can. When you get to be my age, it's a lot tougher to do."
On Communication Skills: Buffett reveals that up until the age of twenty had an acute fear of public speaking. Just the thought of it would make him physically ill. This all changed when Buffett forced himself to take a Dale Carnegie public-speaking course. He discloses, "That $100 course gave me the most important degree I have... In graduate school you learn all this complicated stuff, but what's really essential, no matter what you do, is being able to get others to follow your ideas. Good communication skills are incredibly important and something that almost anybody can improve upon, both in writing and speaking. A relatively modest improvement can make a major difference in your future earning power, as well as in many other aspects of your life."
Operate within your "circle of competence." Since no one is good at everything, Buffett stresses that it is essential to know your strengths and weaknesses and pursue something you are skilled at. He says, "The most important thing in terms of your circle of competence is not how large it is but how well you define the perimeter. If you know where your edges are, you are way better off than somebody who has a circle five times as large but is very fuzzy about the border. Knowing what to leave out is as important as knowing what to focus on. Tom Watson (the founder of IBM) put it best. He said, 'I'm no genius, but I'm smart in spots, and I stay around those spots.'"
POSTSCRIPT: It took me five years to complete Getting There. A couple of years after Blakely inspired me to approach Buffett, she got an opportunity to speak with him over the phone. Before calling him, guess who she came to for advice? Me!
Check out Warren Buffett and Sara Blakely in this video:
Top photo: Me and Warren, several years after the interview.