“I’d Rather Have a Life than a Pile of Money”

Peter Buffett, Warren Buffett’s son, on his family wealth, his music career, and his commitment to social justice.
Peter Buffett

Recently Peter Buffett, son of famed billionaire Warren Buffett, talked with YES! Magazine Publisher Fran Korten, about his new book Life is What You Make It and the choice points of his life.

Fran Korten: As the son of a multi-billionaire, isn’t it a bit audacious to write a book advising others on how to live their lives? What gave you the courage to write this book? 

Peter Buffett: Yeah, when you see my last name and my book title, “Life is What You Make It,” you're probably thinking, "easy for you to say." But that’s why I wrote it. People would say to me "You're so normal," and I thought, “Why is that?” I grew up in a household that, at its core, was about egalitarianism, humanitarianism. I didn't think there was any reason to feel entitled or special. When people started to put that assumption on me, I thought, "Well, this could be interesting to try to bust that assumption." If I can help redefine success and privilege then I think it’s my duty to do it. If I can show up vulnerable and real, I think it gives other people permission to show up vulnerable and real. 

Fran Korten: Your book is about choice points in life. Like that moment when you're listening to a tape of your own music in a beat-up Honda Civic at the beach and suddenly you see that your future is in music. When you informed your parents, how did they react?

Peter Buffett: They were wonderfully supportive. They knew I loved music all my life. So it wasn't some crazy idea to them. I was also fortunate that I had recently inherited Berkshire-Hathaway shares worth $90,000. So my dad said, "Look, here's what you should do. Take a year off, you can spend x amount of dollars and it won't eat into the principal.”

Fran Korten: And was he saying, "Be careful with this gift, because this is all the inheritance you're ever going to get?"

Peter Buffett: Most definitely. I never questioned that. I never thought, "Oh no, he's a pushover, he'll give me something." And he never did. I knew he was serious and I knew it was right, somehow.

Fran Korten: Did you? I mean, the normal reaction might be resentment. To think, "Look, you've got so much. Why don't you help me more?"

baby with flag Photo by Victoria BernalThe Moral Case for Change
It’s time to put the moral life back into our philanthropy and politics.

Peter Buffett: From what I remember, I saw it as a great opportunity. I felt at that time that $90,000 was a lot of money. All us kids did ask for help at some time, though it was never "Can you just give me some money," but rather, "I'm building my business, I need a loan." Each time, my dad said "no." He was right. As I say it in my book, "Self respect comes from earning your own reward." You know, if I had just kept those 600 shares of Berkshire-Hathaway stock, it would be worth 70-some million dollars today. But I’d rather have a life than a pile of money.

Fran Korten: Peter, I am struck with how you have walked in many different worlds. You immersed yourself in Native American culture with your music for “Dances with Wolves,” with the “500 Nations” documentary series, and with the live production of the musical “Spirit: The Seventh Fire.” You looked straight at the pain of what happened with Native Americans. You also walk in the world of wealth and privilege, flying in a private jet to events your father puts on. And you've lived in the world of musicians struggling to make it. What is the hardest part about navigating these very different worlds?

Peter Buffett: I think it’s asking myself, “am I worthy?” Am I worthy to be sitting in a room with American Indians in North Dakota, not having any sense of how deep the pain and how strong the sense of self is? It's almost easier to look at the pain and loss than to look, too, at what it takes to survive that. I never had to do that.

You think, "Okay, why am I sitting here?" I try and do that in all those situations. When I’m in a private jet and I think this is such a waste in terms of dollars and carbon—and I'm doing it. What does that say about me? I try to say, "What can I do with what I'm feeling?" I shouldn't just sit back and say, ‘Wow, this is so cool.’” Instead, it’s about trying to turn that experience into something that might shift consciousness somewhere, or might do something for the world.

Fran Korten: What has “doing something in the world” meant for you?

Peter Buffett: Well, it evolves. It's showing up in the moment to speak to something that touches your heart in the hopes that you’re not the only one who feels this way. I spoke to a 15-year old girl in Calcutta who was sold when she was ten. She asked me to tell her story. So what are you supposed to do? You're supposed to do that. If I don't do my job as a musician and as a witness, then what am I here for?

Fran Korten: So as you think about these very different worlds, what does it tell you about the time that we're in and the work that needs to be done?

Peter Buffett: It's hopefully a time of change and shift. There are so many things that feel to me related to a culture based on domination and exploitation and a zero-sum world. How do you get underneath that and make those changes? Obviously, you do what you do and I do what I do and we each try our best. If people listen to me because I'm Warren Buffett's son, then damnit, I'll keep talking! If you learn anything from any indigenous culture, it's that we are all connected and one person's action is going to influence somebody else's somewhere. So we better start thinking about how our actions affect people we'll never meet.

Fran Korten: Given your passion for recognizing that interconnectedness and the many ways in which our society and our economic system violates that reality, what message do you have for the world?

Peter Buffett: We have so much to unlearn. People talk about local living economies and other progressive ideas. These are not progressive ideas. They are fundamental ways in which we've lived for millennia.

In the recording business we talk about the signal-to-noise ratio. You try to get a strong signal and low noise. In life, it's getting rid of the noise, getting rid of people telling us what's going to make us happy, how we should behave, what happiness is, what security is, what a home should look like. All these things are just pure noise. The signal is us, individually, and outward from ourselves into our community. We've made it complicated, but it's incredibly simple.

I have an old stone house in upstate New York. When I go to the little general store and get my breakfast sandwich, I see all the same people. I'm starting to really understand what community has always been. You know each other, you know where your food comes from, you know that you can lend somebody twenty bucks because you're going to see that person tomorrow. These are not new concepts. Anything that reminds us that there's a human being on the other side of whatever thing we’re doing is what it's all about. It's removing the transactional nature of things and turning them back into relationships.

Fran Korten: Let’s talk about your philanthropy. Your music career was cooking along nicely. You had won an Emmy, had lots of contracts, etcetera. And then your father laid a philanthropic task on you. Not a huge one, because he gave most of his money to the Gates Foundation. But he gave some of his money to your foundation. How does becoming a philanthropist fit into your life?

Peter Buffett: When our family was on the plane together going to New York to make the announcement about his gifts, my dad said to me, "How do you think this will affect your music?" My thought was, "It’s going to take me away from it, because this is important stuff and I want to do it well." And for a couple of years, it did, although not in the way I expected. For a couple of years, my wife Jennifer and I poured everything into deciding how we were going to do this. We wanted to use this gift in a thoughtful and meaningful way that was not about us. It showed me so much of life that I probably wouldn’t have seen. It took me places I never would have gone.

Those experiences then affected what came out of me musically. When we got the foundation gift, our friend Bob Dandrew asked us to go back to our childhoods and think about what really turned each of us on. What was the first thing that really made you feel, “Wow. This is something I'm excited about or I feel in my heart'"? I didn't have to think for two seconds. It was the Beatles and Martin Luther King. So now here I am, in my own little way, able to go out and speak to experiences. Through music and speaking, I'm combining the very things that at six years old gave me the shivers. 

Fran Korten: I’ve heard you mention the idea of “philanthropic colonialism.” What do you mean by that? 

We are all connected and one person's action is going to influence somebody else's somewhere. So we better start thinking about how our actions affect people we'll never meet.

Peter Buffett: Sometimes, what's being done in the developing world in the name of something good is really in the name of "Look at me. Look how good I am" as opposed to "I'm trying to help create some sort of change and transformation." If it’s about “Look at me,” how different is that from colonialism? Somebody coming over here in 1690 and saying, "I need that more than you do, so I'm going to take it." How different is that from a corporation in Ethiopia saying "We need these minerals for our phone so move out of the way, we're going to take it”?

I walk in this strange world where I have a foundation with all this money to give away, a powerful parent who is looked upon in a certain way, and yet I've touched aspects of humanity that are both the most beautiful and the most horrific. How do you reconcile all of these pieces into a whole that makes you feel like you're worthy of carrying all this, that you're doing something that might enhance the best of it and neutralize or transform the worst of it? For me, broadcasting it, sharing it, putting it out into the world as information for us all to share is the solution that feels like the best thing I could personally be doing.

Fran Korten: Is that why you wrote the song “Blood into Gold”?

Peter Buffett: Yes, that’s a song about what I’ve learned about human trafficking. In my performances, you will hear me say things that I think nobody wants to hear. I say we don’t pay enough for anything. There is a social, an environmental, a health, a human cost that is never reflected in the things we buy. I know right now that there are women being raped and villages being burned to control the minerals in this cell phone. And I didn't pay for it. When I say that, the room just goes into this vacuum of shock. I don't have a solution. It's not about a guilt trip. It's about saying, "This is happening. This is what's going on in the world."

Fran Korten:  You also did a musical piece that took some swipes at Wall Street. Given who your father is, did you get criticisms for that?

Peter Buffett: Not really, I've had a few audience members say, "What's the deal here, isn't your dad...?" But I haven't gotten as much as I expected. My dad is disgusted by so much of the Wall Street behavior that I don't feel out of alignment with his fundamental principles. I don't think there's very much you can touch right now that isn't tainted in some way. I'd rather face it and say, "Okay, how do we change that?"


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