Which end of the room is the front? we asked. There was no microphone, just round white tables crammed with students. I grabbed a chair along the wall and looked for an opening at one of the tables. Seeing none, I tiptoed in between chattering MBA candidates and plopped my chair down in the middle of one of the aisles, which several students had already started to do. Just then, clapping broke out on the side of the room from which I had entered. Within that second, the entire room was on its feet in applause. We knew exactly what was going on: Warren Buffett had entered the room.
News of the Yale Entrepreneurial Society’s trip to Omaha, Neb., first reached me by e-mail in August. When I applied for a spot, I never expected that over 80 students from Yale would be attending. We had heard that YES would be joined by the University of Toronto, but when the bus arrived at the Omaha Field Club and we found 120 Canadian MBA students already waiting inside, I immediately wrote off any chance of meeting and talking with Buffett. It’s like a guest lecture, I thought, only this one was costing me a weekend and a round-trip plane ticket.
But I was wrong. Rather than lecture us on his life as an investor and philanthropist, Mr. Buffett opened himself up to questions of all kinds, on all subjects. Like the most gifted of actors, he gave himself to the moment without reservation or hesitation. He had such a casual and naturally charming style that each person in the room felt that he or she was engaged in a one-on-one discussion. For me, Buffett’s presentation was more captivating than any play in recent memory.
What was it about this man that captivated us, that made me feel that I was viewing a work of art? Was it his large ears, his wide-rimmed glasses, or his plain black suit? Hardly. Was it the way he moved freely through the room, ignoring the barrier between stage and audience? Perhaps. More than anything, it was the honesty of his account and the joy with which he delivered it. His narrative wandered through the serendipitous discoveries and interactions of his life, not just as an investor, but also as a mentored grad student, a corporate leader and a friend. Here was a man who had been “truly blessed,” as he said, and his totally unquestionable sense of gratitude touched us all.
When I arrived back on campus Saturday, I sat down with a friend for dinner in the Berkeley dining hall (after I sadly watched the clock wind down at the Yale Bowl, that is). He asked me whether I learned any lesson that I might be able to pass on to him. I thought for a moment, but I could come up with no answer. My friend had no interest in Geico or Coca-Cola, and “be honest” and “do what you love” sound like lessons for third-graders. It was then that I realized that, like a character in a play, the nobility of the action depends upon the context.
There was nothing particularly life-altering about Buffett’s words or advice. As was mentioned in yesterday’s article in the News, some students even felt that their questions were left unanswered. But the real impact of Buffett’s talk lay not with the stories of his personal growth, but in the unspoken principles that backed them. One might view his success as the ultimate test of those principles, and indeed, he has passed with flying colors: He can do virtually any self-serving thing he wants with his time and money, yet he chooses to devote his Friday afternoons to meeting students, and he pledges the majority of his incredible net worth to charity. His needs and desires have not changed as his purchasing power has increased; rather, he thinks in terms of surpluses. Perhaps Mr. Buffett said it best: Once he’s taken care of himself, his family and his friends, “there’s a lot left over.” There’s a kind of beauty in such simplicity.
Before the trip to Omaha, I thought that a person can create a work of art by picking up a paintbrush or by writing a poem, by putting on a costume or by moving in rhythm. Now I realize that a person’s life can be a work of art in and of itself.
Alexander Dominitz is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.