HBO Documentary: Becoming Warren Buffett

HBO has a new documentary film called Becoming Warren Buffett that includes a more personal look at his life, including “never-before-released home videos, family photographs, archival footage and interviews with family and friends.” I just watched it on using the HBO Now 30-day free trial. Here’s the HBO trailer:

My notes:

Warren Buffett does have a folksy exterior. He drives around in his own car, eats at McDonald’s, drinks Coke, and still lives in the same house he bought in 1957 for $31,500. He doesn’t have a personal stylist or fashionable clothes. He likes to say things that sound like common sense.

Some people think this is a fake exterior. I don’t think so. Some people take this to mean that “anyone” can get rich buying and selling stocks. I also don’t think so.

Warren Buffett is also extraordinarily intelligent and competitive. His net worth is one of his scorecards. His skill is capital allocation and that involves extreme emotional detachment and rationality. These are features that aren’t visible, and he’s better at it than you are.

Warren Buffett is always learning and improving. Buffett skipped grades, finished high school at age 16, and finished his undergraduate degree in 3 years. However, instead of any degree hanging on his office walls, he has a certificate from a Dale Carnegie course on public speaking. Buffett realized his weaknesses and worked to improve himself.

Charlie Munger shared an analogy with someone who can juggle 15 balls in the air. How did that happen? Well, at some point they started with one ball, practiced, and then two balls, and then practiced some more…

The film does explore his personal life, albeit in a very sensitive and respectful manner. His emotionally volatile mother is mentioned but not explored deeply. His father was a great influence and Warren keeps a picture of his dad on the wall in his office. His late first wife, Susan, was shown as a very kind, considerate person. In her interviews, she came off as very well-spoken, fair, and intelligent. She definitely played a huge part in his overall development. She is also a huge reason that eventually $100 billion is going to charitable causes to improve the world.

Buffett has said many times that he won the “ovarian lottery”. He was born in the United States. He was born a male. He had many opportunities to succeed and support structures if he failed.

As a relatively new and clueless parent, I wonder about his kids. Warren Buffett spent most of his time working and not much time raising the kids. I wonder what they would have been like if their father didn’t become famous and rich. (Supposedly when they were young, Warren really wasn’t all that rich or famous yet.) Today, all three of them appear to be well-adjusted adults, but everyone’s job is to give away their parent’s money. Do they do this out of obligation to their parents? Out of obligation to make sure the money is well spent? Is this the “job they would get if they didn’t need a job”?

Warren attributes his financial success to “Focus”. Was that laser focus detrimental to his family and other personal relationships? What if he had just stopped when he reached $10 million or whatever?

Warren Buffett is worth over $60 billion, yet he doesn’t meet certain definitions of “retirement”. What Buffett has always been keen on is constructing a life that fits him. His version of financial freedom includes sitting by himself and reading 5-6 hours a day and thinking. He’s loved being his own boss since filing his first income tax return at age 13 and taking a $35 tax deduction for the use of his bicycle and watch on his paper route.

I think hero-worshipping can be dangerous when you simply try to follow everything about someone else. Every human has their flaws. We should extract the qualities that we admire, and try to emulate those qualities. Warren Buffett has a lot of worthy attributes and I value his shareholder letters, but I certainly don’t want to “be just like Warren Buffett”. For me, I respect that he basically figured out how he wanted to live his life (no bosses, lots of reading) and that he achieved it an early age. The eventual billionaire status doesn’t really excite me, other than the fact that he managed to remain “grounded” and relatable.

Overall, the film does offer some new personal glimpses but not much new deep material for those that have read his biographies – The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroder and Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist by Roger Lowenstein.

Comments

  1. I found it on youtube. Looks awesome. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. The documentary was interesting, but I agree that it didn’t go in depth as “The Snowball”. Buffett paid a high price for his billions – he didn’t really get close to his children until later. And his wife essentially left him.

    On the other hand, he spent his life the way he wanted to spend his life.

    I just wanted to put it in perspective however that many men in the 1950s were expected to work long hours to build their careers, in order to provide for their families. And spouses stayed at home to take care of the family and kids. These men probably didn’t have the life of Buffett, nor did they have his wealth and the relative freedom that it provides (and I doubt their families saw much of them either). I am thinking that if he had become a Don Draper from Mad Men, his family wouldn’t have been great either.

    The funny thing is that Buffett considered himself retired at te age of 27 in a Forbes article I read a few years ago. He initially planned on spending $12,000 off of his $127,000 nest egg (this was worth a lot more in the 1950s).

    • Yeah I was going to comment on the parenting topic too. I think that it was not really expected for men to do much parenting and generally the norm and even desired for them to work long hours providing instead. Things were different then. In 1965 women did ~80-90% of the parenting and housework and the average father spent ~1 hr a day on childcare/housework total. Today fathers spend ~2.5 hrs and fathers do ~35% of the parenting/housework.

  3. Mike Katt says:

    “He’s loved being his own boss since filing his first income tax return at age 13 and taking a $35 tax deduction for the use of his bicycle and watch on his paper route” OMG, in the 70’s I had 2 paper routes from ages 11-17, (one before and after school with a doubleheader on Sunday – illegally, as you had to be 12) maybe cleared $20 per week for slaving in the cold & heat of NY for huge corporate entities . Never crossed my mind I had to file a return even as a CPA today . Makes me wonder about him a bit…

  4. ParatrooperJJ says:

    I got a different impression of his first wife. I thought she came off as enormously self centered by abandoning her family.

  5. I liked it. he seemed very genuine and humble. He is able to look back at his life and see where he made mistakes and admit them.

    I was also struck that his biggest asset (his genius) was also his greatest weakness which kept him from connecting fully to those he loved most.

  6. I haven’t read either of his biographies but I’ve heard good things about the documentary from a few people and your review makes it sound compelling, even if it is missing some of the details about his life. I’ll have to check it out sometime!

  7. I am an admirer generally of Buffett, but I wish he would reckon with the enormous damage his company does through their work in the manufactured housing industry (formerly known as “mobile homes”).

    The Seattle Times and Public Integrity did a great investigative piece into the company Buffett bought in 2003:

    http://www.seattletimes.com/business/real-estate/the-mobile-home-trap-how-a-warren-buffett-empire-preys-on-the-poor/

    It truly does prey on the poor and those who are not financially literate. And this is not how every business is in this industry – it is unique and is how Berkshire Hathaway intentionally revamped this country to extract massive profits.

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