Does Warren Buffett have a good soul?

Winter forces us to hide within modern caves.  Its bone-shattering cold and blankets of ice force us deep into dark places, nowhere to gaze but within ourselves.  Deep within there is supposedly an unchanging essence that defines us as unique entities.  Some call this essence a soul.  Is it real?  Is it eternal?  Can it be rewarded or punished or born again?  It’s hard to say because all of these claims are impossible to prove.  For the moment, let’s accept the idea of a deep essence, and call it our soul.

Saying someone is without a soul is normally a great insult, for it means they are evil, doing harm to others, without redemption.  Yet even by our religious standards we know this is wrong.  Everyone has a soul, and it’s that soul which is judged to be good, or evil.

As I sit here by the fire, watching another layer of snow blanket my yard, and sip on an extremely good IPA, my thoughts turn to a well-known tycoon.  This tycoon is Warren Buffett, whom many call the “oracle of Omaha,” but whom we will call simply, WB.  WB appears before me an a regular basis because of his popularity in the business media.  A recent Bloomberg article profiled one of his newest, and youngest, trusted advisors.  This advisor was making news because she’s only 29 years old.  She started working for WB at the ancient age of 25, and within four years already holds the Chairman position in several companies in the WB empire.  Her name is Cool.

Now Cool earned her way to this position, and has worked an extremely hard and focused life.  Under her guidance weak managers have been replaced and companies that would have been ignored or jettisoned are now being properly attended to within the WB empire.  The article quotes WB saying certain companies wouldn’t have been bought if it wasn’t for Cool.  The WB empire is now comprised of many dozens of companies with a total annual revenue of 160 billion dollars.  Almost any way you look at it, this is a large company.

But I’m not here to discuss the business empire; we’re here to study behavior.  The behavior of large groups are normally most meaningful, but we can learn something by taking out the microscope and putting the occasional individual on the slide.

What kind of person is obsessed to the extreme with accumulating wealth, building an empire, and growing only for the sake of growth?  If this person was a cell in our body, we’d be worried.  As a member of society, we laud them as leaders and brilliant meta-managers, even calling them “wealth creators” from time to time.

As we adjust the microscope’s focus it’s doubtful WB or Cool are any of these.  They are popular, but are they of value to society?  A proper evaluation would require an article for another day.  For now, we want to see if we can zoom in on their soul and describe it.

The soul of WB is bent on conquest, is insatiable, and highly focused.  His wealth allows him all his allotted hours to spend with his children and grandchildren.  Yet he chooses to spend time with business associates instead.  He’s near death, and every moment becomes more precious than the last.

Meanwhile, Cool has been blessed with riches, power, and publicity.  This seeming blessing may be a curse, for it puts her on course to value board meetings over board games with her future children.  Even if she chooses to start a family, there’s a good chance she’ll have her children later in life, and fewer in number.  The amount of time she’ll spend with them will be less than average, and there’s a better chance their values will be heavily influenced by material goods, superficial relationships, and an obsession with wealth.

Remember that this site strives to be impartial observers of behavior, of human nature, and unbiased scientists as much as possible.  The above observations and expectations are grounded in evidence, precedence, and experience.  They are not meant to be judgements; for there is no good or bad delineation here.  WB is ambitious, and Cool is his protege.  These are given.  What we want to address is their essence.  Deep inside, once all the trappings of society, technology, and the superficial layers of skin and time are removed, what is it that is left?

Not surprisingly, we are left with a soul reeking of ambition, a soul without empathy, and a soul unconnected to the rest of us.  These souls are rooted in the present, solidly looking to their immediate left and right.  These souls choose to ignore the past as irrelevant to their existence.  They choose to ignore the future they could do so much to create.  And they choose to ignore the other souls around them, not only those of their family, but of their fellow humans as well.

As souls go, these are exceptional qualities, but not uncommon.  Installed in a lesser vessel, souls such as these become psychopaths, embittered divorcees, or worse.  But placed in a healthy body with an extraordinary mind, coupled with a charismatic persona and then given a push by an unpredictable universe, this type of soul has been known to stamp great slices of history with their name.

The greatest of these souls was Alexander the Great of Macedon.  When he began his career he was younger than WB, even younger than Cool.  He charmed both his army and even the conquered across the known world.  2,350 years ago, this 20 year old sought nothing less than world domination.  He would have achieved it as well, but for an errant arrow he met somewhere in today’s India.  Part of his charm was that he led his men into battle, being up front where they knew he was working as hard as they were, taking the same risks.  Had that unlucky archer known, he would have missed Alexander.  Had he missed, his city would have been conquered, an older Greek soldier would have become his Governor, and life would have continued under a new master.

As it was, this archer may have smiled for a moment as he watched the dreaded Alexander fall from his wound.  What he didn’t see coming was the power of the soul within Alexander, a soul that had bound his legions both in duty and love.  That archer awoke the monster of vengeance within the army, and not a single defender or citizen survived.  There was no life to continue under any master, and that city was lost, known to us only as Alexander’s farthest reach East.

And what does the soul of Alexander, one of our greatest military leaders have in common with WB?  They are the same.  Nothing could stop Alexander or his army, errant arrows included.  WB has not stopped his quest for growth.  Which sounds more impressive?  Owning a large portion of a holding company whose portfolio includes companies with a combined annual revenue of 160 billion dollars?  Or conquering the world from the Mediterranean to India?  There is no city named after today’s tycoon, WB.  Alexander founded at least 30, many of which still survive, and at least one still bears his name.

So what of the soul of WB?  Is it good, or evil?  Would he have been an Alexander if he’d been born 2,300 years ago?  Is what he is doing good for humanity?  These are all questions for another day.

Watching A Hero Die

My friend Mimi needed a hug today.  Her father died a few weeks ago after a lingering brain tumor.  He was 90.  He was in great pain.  It was hard to see him go, and it was a relief.

A few weeks ago I read that a famous cartoonist, Scott Adams, lost his father after a very trying illness.  Scott felt relieved, yet badly at the same time.  He felt badly because he had to watch his father suffer.  And suffer.  And suffer even more, up to the bitter end.

For everyone who’s lost a loved one this way, I would like to suggest this small thought that gives me a little bit of hope.  Please, don’t hold it against me, for it helps me when I think of my grandparents.  When I think of my mother.

Do I wish they never felt pain?  Do I wish that they could ‘go’ when they wished?  Yes.  But beneath it all, I’m happy to say that my heroes aren’t quitters.  They know the outcome.  Death is inevitable.  Yet they fight.  They fight though it hurts.  They fight though it causes us pain to watch.  They fight though it means spending lots of money.  And they fight though it may be a wasted effort.

And there’s the ray of hope.  Their efforts may NOT be wasted.  Their fight may actually lead to something good.  Their fight may help the rest of us in some way.

How?  How can their slow and painful meeting with death be anything but sad?

For one, they teach us, the young, the innocent, and the living, how to live up to the very end.  They teach us through example that we can fight, for every second, for every breath, for every instant of blessed existence.

For another, they give our doctors, our nurses, our soothsayers an opportunity to learn something new.  Here’s a technique to try and alleviate the pain, does it work?  Here’s a new drug, here’s a new massage.  Each hero who dies is showing the rest of us a slightly easier way to make the transition into darkness.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they are making their last statement as to how they live their lives.  They could cry, they could quit, but on the whole our grandparents and parents are made of sterner stuff.  Even if we weren’t there to watch and hold their hands, they would fight the coming of Grim Reaper as best they could.  This is a statement that is made by equals – for nothing equalizes the rich and poor, the genius from average, and the evil from good – faster than crossing the threshold of life.

Please, if you know of such a hero, or someone close to a hero, let them know that their suffering is appreciated.  They suffer for us.  Through that suffering they make us better individuals, and perhaps even a better society.  Finally, it may be that because they suffer today, our children may suffer less tomorrow.

Blessings to all.