Aspen current thinking column


Spring 2013

October Current Thinking Column

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Vision and Voice: Growing Healthy Kids

by Leslie Dashew

I attended a conference this week where the opening speaker recounted the story of his life. He revealed how he overcame circumstances that have proved perilous for others, yet prevailed to grow up and become successful. He described the circumstances, the messages he received and his path to success.

“I walked to school,” he told us, “from a very loving home.”

His grandfathers, Frank and Ernest, lived nearby and exemplified their names.
“I grew up the youngest of three with an older sister and brother. “

His father, he described, was a hard worker and very consistent, coming home from work every day at the same time, and reading the paper on the porch after dinner at night. “We didn’t quite know what Dad did at work. What we did know is that he loved it, and was very good at it. And he was happy.”

“Mom was good at listening and learning from people from any walk of life. She and Dad both loved music. I grew up playing piano on the porch where my dad would go every night to read the paper.”

It sounds like the mother played the role of the “Chief Emotional Officer” that we have spoken about in other writings.

He then described the transition away from music as an adolescent, “While I loved music and playing the piano, I got discouraged when I became great buddies with someone who was so much better at it than me. He had such a natural talent for music that I figured I could never be as successful as him. So I gave up. I went off to college without a clue as to what I wanted to study or do ‘when I grew up.’”

“My dad and mom both told me to find my own passion and follow it. They followed their passions, and that is what made them happy.”

“I rediscovered my love of music,” he told us, “and began rediscovering the joy it brought me. I wasn’t sure how I could make a living out of it, though. Just then, my grandfather died, and my dad informed me that I would be inheriting $90,000. My dad encouraged me to invest in myself and find my own ‘voice.’ He coached me to live frugally so the money would last. He didn’t rescue me when I made mistakes or failed—he encouraged me to learn from it and provided the emotional support I needed. He would regularly ask me if I had found my own voice yet.”

“When I inherited the money, my father said he could invest it for me, or I could use it to invest in myself. If he had invested the $90,000 at that time in his business, Berkshire Hathaway, it would have been worth $120 million today! But he encouraged me to invest in myself.”

Yes, the speaker was Peter Buffett, son of Berkshire Hathaway founder and one of the richest men in the country, Warren Buffett. 

Peter appreciated a number of things his father did that helped him stay grounded during his childhood despite the enormous wealth his family accumulated:

1. First and foremost, he encouraged Peter to become his own person and not follow anyone else’s path or vision—not his family, his peer group or even their professional path. Peter gave an example of a great opportunity he had to build his music career by moving to Los Angeles, where he would have access to the contacts needed to score music for films (which is what he wanted to do). His music agent encouraged him to do so, but he realized that he loved living in the Midwest and was finding his voice by being there. A path to discovery that may have been swamped by other peoples’ voices in LA. 

2. The wonderful relationship he had with his father was based on mutual respect between two well-differentiated people. “We never asked the other one to be something he was not,” Peter told us. It appears that Warren knew how to be a coach or mentor to his son without trying to control him. 

3. Clarity of values and integrity: Warren Buffett still lives in the modest home he lived in when he started his family. He believed in using his money to help others, and didn’t feel the need to live extravagantly to boost his own sense of self. He gave his kids money in foundations to do the same. While he was helpful to his kids, he didn’t enable them, as he so famously stated “to do nothing” in reference to financing his children. He lived his values, and as a result, his kids grew up with a clear understanding about them.

4. Importance of recognizing individuality and not forcing teamwork: Warren gave each of his kids a $10 million foundation. Peter relayed this was very useful, as it did not force the three of his siblings to collaborate, but gave them room to follow their own interests and passions with their philanthropy. As a result, the three siblings sought each others’ counsel, and ended up collaborating in many ways when they were ready. He felt this encouraged their teamwork rather than trying to force it. 

5. Transparency about the asset base: “We always knew my dad would give away his money. It was his to do that! He made all three of us executors of his will, so we always knew what would happen. There is no mystery about it. Involving us from the beginning took away all of the concerns and questions.”

6. Finally, he spoke about the power of believing in another person and encouraging them to be the best at what is in their heart. He illustrated that by showing us his father’s report card as a young adolescent: mediocre grades. He was industrious, but lost. He didn’t believe in the teachers’ assessment of him, nor did his parents. His parents encouraged him to find his path and excel at that. Peter is now reaching out to young, oppressed girls around the world and helping them escape from poverty, ignorance and slavery, becoming an encouraging force in their lives. He told the audience: 

 “Being a witness to someone else’s life is a powerful intervention…Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Peter shared his story with the creativity that characterizes his voice: music, video and art. His story and his messages were very powerful, and he inspired us to reach out around ourselves.

So many affluent families struggle with how to encourage healthy, productive living in a world of abundance. Peter’s message could be interpreted as suggesting that parents live lives of integrity by manifesting the values they want their kids to embody and fostering their individuality. Offering guidance without control, teaching “life skills,” such as budgeting and handling frustration, and finding the quiet still place to hear one’s own voice are all tools to achieve this.


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