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November 16, 2009

Success the Buffett-Gates Way: Combining Passion, Mentors and Luck

Alex Gordon ’11
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While there is no secret recipe for success, a few of the necessary ingredients became evident on November 12 during an hour of conversation with two of the most successful American businessmen of all time, Warren Buffett, MS ’51, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

During their town hall meeting with the Columbia Business School community, Buffett and Gates discussed the environment that facilitated their success, from America’s “equality of opportunity” and willingness to invest in long-term projects to their own driving passion, mentors and even good fortune.

Both Buffett and Gates gave enormous credit to what Buffett termed the “fertile soil” of the American economy: “What drives the American system is the equality of opportunity in a market system and the knowledge that when you get out of here, you're going to enjoy the fruits of the knowledge you have gained,” said Buffett. Gates added that he “was a huge beneficiary of this country's unique willingness to take risk on a young person.”

It became clear that the fruit Buffett referenced was neither money nor his investment in clothier Fruit of the Loom. It’s crucial, Buffett argued, to find a career or idea that “turns you on,” while Gates added that his “fanatical” passion for software drove him forward for the early part of his career. Buffett summarized this point in one of the most poignant moments of the conversation:

“We did both have a passion. We were doing what we did because we loved it. We weren't doing it to get rich,” he said. “We probably felt if we did it well, we would get rich. But we’d have done it if somebody was slipping bread in under the door, you know, to keep us going.”

The two titans of industry also touched on the importance of being taught by good mentors. Buffett cited Columbia professor and father of value investing Benjamin Graham, for whom he went to work shortly after graduating from Columbia Business School.

Another important element of success, they acknowledged, was luck: Gates credited his parents for creating an environment that enabled him to pursue his passion, and his good timing to be working with software while the applications for microprocessors were still developing. “It turned out only if you were kind of young and looking at [the invention of microprocessors] could you appreciate what it meant,” he said.

Passion and opportunity continue to propel Buffett and Gates’ upward trajectories — and they’d like to keep going: “I’d love to trade places with any of you,” Buffett said to the student audience with a knowing smile.

Cover photo credit: Eileen Barroso