Jeff Benedict: 15 minutes with Warren Buffett nets advice for a lifetime

Published: Tuesday, March 29 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

Jeff Benedict with Warren Buffett in Omaha, Neb.

Photo provided by Jeff Benedict

Forbes just published its annual list of the richest people on the planet. Warren Buffett ranks third with a net worth of $50 billion.

It was hard to ignore that when I traveled to Buffett's office in Omaha last month to interview him for a television documentary I'm currently producing.

I was told I'd have 15 minutes with Buffett. Hours were spent preparing and refining questions for the greatest investor of all time. I flew out to Nebraska the night before the scheduled interview and arrived at his office the following morning in time to watch the camera crew set up.

I was struck by the simplicity of the Berkshire Hathaway headquarters. There was no expensive art. No custom furniture. No spacious suites. It was a remarkable testament to frugality and a stunning contrast to the many corporate headquarters I've visited previously.

I also couldn't help noticing all the framed pictures of him that decorated the walls. In almost every one he was wearing a simple business suit and laughing. That's also exactly what he was doing when he came through the door at the appointed time of our interview. Smiling and joking, he treated me and the rest of my team as if we were his friends. Then he sat down in the chair and we were rolling.

The next 15 minutes were among the most electric ones of my career. I asked him business-related questions. But it's the stuff he said about life that convinced me that the Oracle of Omaha's most valuable wisdom may be in his perspective on happiness and relationships.

For instance, he told me that one of the secrets to his success and longevity (he's 80 years old and works as hard as ever) is that "it hasn't been a question of going to work; it's been a question of tap-dancing to work." His love for his job, he said, has never worn off.

I felt the same way as I was making my way across the country to meet him. The privilege of writing — whether for books, magazines, blogs or a TV documentary — has made my life rich in experiences, like the one I was having with Buffett. Journalism will not land me on a Forbes list. But Buffett's point is that money isn't the point. Loving one's profession is worth its weight in gold.

Another thing that struck me about Buffett is the way he treats the people around him. David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue Airways and the current CEO of Azul Airlines in Brazil, once told me it's easy to be nice to people that you need things from. The question, he said, is how do you treat the person who can do absolutely nothing for you?

Neeleman's question gets to the subjects of gratitude and humility. Buffett seems to have these down. In preparation for my interview with him, I'd been given access to a stack of personal letters that Warren had written to one particular CEO of a company that Berkshire Hathaway acquired back in the 1990s. The letters were remarkably poignant and complimentary. The fact is that Warren didn't need to write them. Moreover, you'd think a guy as busy as he is wouldn't have time to write letters of thanks. So I asked:

"Why do you write letters like that and is that something you do all the time, or just with this one particular CEO?"

He responded: "Quite a few of them. I appreciate our managers and if you appreciate people you ought to tell them. You don't know where you're going to be tomorrow. You don't know where they're going to be tomorrow. It applies outside of business. I've had all kinds of people do all kinds of things for me — grade teachers in the past — I've had a lot of good luck with people. I believe in telling them so. I'd like it if people told me. It's nice to get those letters."

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