In 1977, when Warren Buffett’s son Peter turned 19, he received his inheritance — proceeds from the sale of his grandfather’s farm, which his father converted into $90,000 worth of Berkshire Hathaway stock.
“It was understood that I should expect nothing more,” Peter, an Emmy Award-winning musician and philanthropist, writes in his 2010 memoir “Life Is What You Make It.” (Although he and his siblings have been given an enormous sum of money from their father to do charitable work, that $90,000 was the only inheritance Peter received for personal use, he said in an NPR interview.)
So what does a teenager in college do with all that money? Spend it on a fancy car or an oceanfront condo? Fly first-class across the world?
But as the youngest of the Buffett children, Peter writes: “I had the advantage of seeing my [two] older siblings burn through most of their cash rather quickly. I didn’t want to follow that path.”
How Peter Buffett found his ‘sound’
At the time Peter received his inheritance, he’d recently decided to pursue his dreams of becoming a musician. So he sold his shares and used the money to “buy the time it would take to figure out if I could actually make a go of it in music,” he writes.
His first move was to drop out of Stanford University. Although Peter admits he “didn’t have a clue” about how to become a professional musician, he realized it wasn’t going to happen by “taking all those 101s and -ologies.”
Peter worked out a budget and moved to San Francisco, where he “lived very frugally” in a small studio apartment. His sole extravagance, he remembers, was in “updating and expanding my recording equipment.”
He worked on perfecting his craft, both as a pianist and a music producer. He wrote tunes and experimented with sounds and recording techniques. He put classified ads in the San Francisco Chronicle. He took on unpaid work.
In time, Peter achieved the successful music career he’d hoped for. But his big break didn’t come from some connection through his father. It started one day when he was washing his “crummy old car,” and a neighbor he often saw (but barely knew) stopped to ask what he did for a living.
“I told him I was a struggling composer,” Peter recalls in his book. The neighbor introduced him to his son-in-law, an animator in need of ad tunes for a newly conceived cable channel. That channel turned out to be a defining cultural phenomena of the 1980s. It was called MTV.
At 62, Peter has released over a dozen studio albums, mostly in the new age and ambient music categories. He also worked on the score of the critically acclaimed Western film “Dances with Wolves.”
Why time can be the greatest investment of all
Looking back, Peter says there was another path he could have taken: Graduate from college and find a steady, high-paying job — perhaps at his father’s company — while leaving his stock inheritance untouched to accrue in value.
(According to CNBC’s calculations, $90,000 of Berkshire Hathaway stock in 1977 would be worth more than $200 million as of May 6, 2020, for a total return of over 250,000%.)
“But I didn’t make that choice and I don’t regret it for a second,” Peter writes. “I used my nest egg to buy something infinitely more valuable than money: I used it to buy time.” And that time allowed him to find success in doing the work he loved.
Early in his childhood, Peter learned a very important lesson about work ethics. The point of work, his father taught him, isn’t to make as much money as possible (that, Peter explains, is called wealth ethics). Rather, it’s to do something you love, something that makes you delighted to get out of bed every morning.
That distinction is easy to miss in Warren’s case, because the work he loves most — investing — is all about money. It is a job in which, if you do it well and you do it with passion, then you can’t help but get very, very rich. But Warren never did it for the money. In fact, he advises young people today, “Take the job you would take if you were independently wealthy.”
Not taking the path of least resistance
Most of us won’t get the chance to do what Peter did. “I am well aware that [my inheritance] was more than most young people receive to help them get a start in life,” he acknowledges in the book. “Having that money was a privilege, a gift I had not earned.”
But here’s the point he tries to make: “There are many people who are privileged, either in terms of money, emotional support or some sort of unique talent or opportunity,” Peter explains. “But they fail to understand the value of time and instead try to rush into their destiny” — and, as a result, end up “working jobs that may or may not be right for them, that may or may not be fulfilling.”
“Without those hundreds of unpaid hours spent fiddling with my recording gear, I would not have found my sound or approach. Doing so,” he writes, “required patience and time.”
“I learned more in those difficult times about myself and my resiliency than I ever would have if I had a pile of money and glided through life,” Peter said in the NPR interview. “I honestly feel that my father’s refusal [to let me take the easy way out] was an act of love — as if to say, ‘I believe in you, and you don’t need my help.'”
Minda Zetlin is a freelance writer covering business, money and leadership. She is also the co-author of “The Geek Gap” and president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Follow her on Twitter @MindaZetlin.