Buffett and Munger on Success, Toxicity, and Elon Musk

From a Wall Street Journal story by Chip Cutter headlined “Buffett and Munger on Success, Toxicity and Elon Musk”:

The question was a philosophical one: How should you avoid major mistakes in business and life?

Warren Buffett, the 92-year-old chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway paused briefly.

“You should write your obituary and then try to figure out how to live up to it,” Mr. Buffett said. “It’s not that complicated.”

At Berkshire’s annual shareholder meeting , an event that draws thousands to Omaha, Neb., each spring, Mr. Buffett and his longtime business partner, Charlie Munger, spent hours weighing in on topics as varied as the recent banking turmoil to artificial intelligence and the future of the U.S. As is typical at such gatherings, the executives also doled out plenty of advice on management practices, career choices and how to enjoy a good life.

In prior years, Mr. Munger has heaped scorn on consultants, compensation specialists and what he described as make-work activities inside U.S. companies. This weekend, he directed his ire at wealth managers.

“Having a huge proportion of the young and brilliant people all going into wealth management is a crazy development in terms of its natural consequences for American civilization,” Mr. Munger said. “We don’t need as many wealth managers as we have.”

He added: “I don’t think a bunch of bankers, all of whom are trying to get rich, leads to good things.”

Mr. Buffett, for his part, said he wanted to see greater accountability inside banks, saying that the recent crisis in the industry illustrated why executives and board members should face consequences if a business encounters problems.

“If the CEO gets the bank in trouble, both the CEO and the directors should suffer,” Mr. Buffett said. “You’ve got to have the penalties hit the people that cause the problems, and if they took risks that they shouldn’t have, it needs to fall on them if you’re going to change how people are going to behave in the future.”

Over hours of questions from investors and others, the two billionaires often peppered their answers with recommendations on how to navigate business. Mr. Buffett advised that people pay attention to how others might try to manipulate them.

He also encouraged those in attendance to resist the temptation to criticize or vilify others.

“I’ve never known anybody that was basically kind that died without friends,” Mr. Buffett said. “And I’ve known plenty of people with money that have died without friends.”

Mr. Munger said that success comes from steering clear of toxic people.

“The great lesson of life is get them the hell out of your life—and do it fast,” Mr. Munger said.

When hiring some of his top leaders over the years, Mr. Buffett said he has tried to suss out someone’s talents and not focus on whether they attended a prestigious institution.

“I have never looked at where anybody went to school in terms of hiring,” Mr. Buffett said. “If somebody mails me a résumé or something, I don’t care where they went to school.”

One of Mr. Buffett’s top lieutenants, Ajit Jain, studied at Harvard Business School, “but he isn’t Ajit because he went to those schools,” Mr. Buffett said.

Mr. Buffett graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and later studied under the legendary value investor Benjamin Graham at Columbia University. Mr. Munger, who is 99 years old, studied mathematics at the University of Michigan and meteorology at the California Institute of Technology, and went on to earn a law degree from Harvard University.

On artificial intelligence, Mr. Buffett said he had been impressed at generative AI’s abilities to summarize legal opinions and potentially take on other tasks, though he said he also worried about its potential consequences. “It can do all kinds of things, and when something can do all kinds of things, I get a little bit worried because I know we won’t be able to uninvent it,” Mr. Buffett said.

Mr. Munger said he was skeptical of some of the hype around artificial intelligence. “I think old-fashioned intelligence works pretty well,” he said.

Near the end of the meeting, an audience member asked the two billionaires to weigh in on Elon Musk, the SpaceX and Tesla CEO who took control of the social-media platform Twitter last year.

Mr. Buffett called Mr. Musk a “brilliant, brilliant guy,” who had a much different approach in dreaming about the future than the Berkshire executives. Mr. Buffett has often said he takes a hands-off approach to managing Berkshire’s subsidiaries, which range from the insurer Geico to the restaurant chain Dairy Queen. Mr. Musk is known for weighing in on the details at his companies.

“He would not have achieved what he has in life if he hadn’t tried for unreasonably extreme objectives,” Mr. Munger said of Mr. Musk. “He likes taking on the impossible job and doing it. We’re different: Warren and I are looking for the easy job.”

Mr. Buffett said he didn’t want to compete against Mr. Musk, to which Mr. Munger added: “We don’t want that much failure.”

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