Editors

Warren Buffett on Success, Mistakes and Betting on America

EditorsNov 29, 2023

Warren Buffett on Success, Mistakes and Betting on America

The best quotes from the Oracle of Omaha and his right-hand man Charlie Munger from the 2018 Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting.

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Warren Buffett is seen playing bridge at Borsheims on Sunday. Seated across from him is master bridge player Sharon Osberg, while to her right (partially obscured) is Microsoft founder and longtime Buffett friend Bill Gates. The third gentleman at the table is another champion bridge player, Bob Hamman. (Photo credit: Borsheims)
Editor’s note: This story originally was published in May 2018 following the author’s trip to Omaha for Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholders weekend. Charlie Munger died Tuesday at age 99.

Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending the annual slate of events for Berkshire Hathaway’s shareholders weekend, which included a few trips to (and interviews at) Berkshire-owned jewelry store Borsheims and the shareholders meeting itself, which took place Saturday at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska.

The vast majority of the meeting consisted of Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett—who is by far the weekend’s biggest attraction—and his longtime business partner and friend Charlie Munger sitting on a stage constructed on the floor of the arena and answering shareholders’ questions.

They did this for six hours. Warren is 87, and Charlie is 94.

What follows are my favorite Buffett quotes from the Q&A portion of the meeting, along with a couple of zingers from Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Munger, who is known for plain-spoken one-liners.

On success: “Being successful at anything means having a passion for it.”  (In the interest of full disclosure, this first pearl of wisdom came from the short film shown before Buffett and Munger took the stage to begin the marathon Q&A session.)

On why he made certain investment decisions/mistakes: “In the early years, it’s very clear—the answer is stupidity.”

Buffett was self-effacing and a bit self-deprecating throughout the Q&A, remarking on his own “stupidity” multiple times.

This particular statement was made in response to the question, Why did Berkshire Hathaway never buy stock in Microsoft?

Early on in his career, Buffett admitted to making a mistake in passing up the software stock. Today, the company really can’t because of his close personal relationship with Bill Gates and the fact that Gates is on the Berkshire Hathaway board; Buffett said he wants to avoid any situations that could be misconstrued as insider trading.

(For all the Gates fans, yes, the Microsoft co-founder was in attendance at the shareholders meeting on Saturday, and he also was at Borsheims on Sunday afternoon playing bridge with Warren.)

“Both that and my stupidity have cost us a lot of money,” Buffett said.

On accepting mistakes made by others: “We [all] do a lot of dumb things in this world.”

The above quote came from a question submitted to and read aloud by New York Times journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin.

The questioner employed one of Buffett’s own quotes—“Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.”—to set the stage for a question about Wells Fargo.

Had Buffett and Munger ever considered dumping their shares in the bank considering all the “leaks” the bank has sprung, including the fake accounts scandal of 2016?

They basically said no.

Buffett noted that Wells Fargo’s actions were really no worse than those of the other big banks with which it competes, adding: “I like it as an investment. I like (CEO) Tim Sloan as a manager. He’s correcting mistakes made by other people.”

On managing a large staff: “You can’t have 377,000 employees and expect that everybody is behaving like Ben Franklin all the time.”

This tidbit also came out of Buffett’s answer to the Wells Fargo question.

Buffett used the employee count at this own company, Berkshire Hathaway, to make a point: when you run a big company (or even a small company), you’re going to have people who do things that are wrong, unethical or just not smart.

No manager, no matter how skilled, will ever be able to account for the actions and decisions of every single employee on a day-to-day basis. Entire companies shouldn’t necessarily be judged on the behavior of a few, or even more than a few, bad people.

Pearls of … Warren? Borsheims moves a lot of merchandise bearing Buffett’s signature during shareholders weekend, including strands of freshwater pearls with his script on the clasp.
Pearls of … Warren? Borsheims moves a lot of merchandise bearing Buffett’s signature during shareholders weekend, including strands of freshwater pearls with his script on the clasp.


On shrinking margins in one Berkshire Hathaway business, McLane: “That’s just become much more competitive. You look at our competitors, and they’re not making much money either. But that’s capitalism.”

McLane is a supply chain company that distributes food and other grocery items to convenience stores, mass merchants, drug stores and chain restaurants. I thought it was interesting to hear confirmation that the jewelry industry is not the only one struggling with margins today.

On what Berkshire Hathaway will look like 50 years from now: “The answer is, I don’t know, and I didn’t know 50 years ago what it would be like now.”

Even the Oracle of Omaha’s ability to prognosticate is limited.

On the United States: “Through it all, in fits and starts, America really moves ahead … This is a remarkable, remarkable country. I’d love to be a baby being born today.”

Buffett remarked on his belief in the U.S.—and his belief the country’s economy will continue to grow—several times over the course of the afternoon.

This particular quote came in response to the question, Is America more divided today than it was 50 years ago, or does social media just make it seem that way?

Buffett’s lived through his share of presidents, political situations and media coverage of both. I don’t think he directly answered the question with a “yes” or a “no” but, basically, he said the country will continue to progress and grow.

Munger wrapped up the answer to the question about the constant bickering today about this Democrat or that Republican with this reminder: “We tend to forget how awful our politicians were in the past.”

On Buffett’s special talent: “Warren is very good at doing nothing.” -- Charlie Munger

In case you were wondering about the habits of one highly successful person, Buffett said he spends five to six hours a day reading, and he also likes to just sit and think.

It reminded me of Pat Henneberry’s column on the importance of downtime in leading a happier, healthier and more creative life.

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