The Secrets of Warren Buffett’s Psyche

I turned on Charlie Rose yesterday at lunch and had one of those frozen-to-the-table experiences. He was doing a three-part series on Warren Buffett, which concludes tonight. Rose gets access, and the access has been rewarded with an incredibly intimate portrait, which will be remembered in part for its exploration of Buffett’s menage with his late wife Susan and the woman she chose to move in with him, Astrid…

Here as I gleaned them are the secrets of Buffett’s genius:

1. Simplicity. He learned when he was young that he had a highly circumscribed “circle of competence,” as he likes to say—basically, the love and study of good businesses. He stayed within that circle, forever. His judgments are filled with homespun simple analogies. “Leave yourself a margin of error. Don’t try and drive a 9800 pound truck over a bridge that can only support 10,000 pounds.”

2. Study, concentration. The thing Buffett likes to do most is read. He spends 80 percent of his time reading, company reports and journalism. He is a kind of luftmensch. Indeed, 45 years ago, his neighbor turned down an opportunity to give him $10,000 (a stake now worth $400 million) because he couldn’t see giving money “to a guy who doesn’t get up and go to work in the morning.”

3. Humor. He loves to laugh at himself. He grabs every opportunity Rose gives him to do so.

4. Generosity. Many times Rose shows Buffett reaching out to others. He offered the neighbor an in on his investment company because he likes the guy’s kids. He offered Katharine Graham companies he would have bought himself because he adored her so much. The third show, tonight, is about Buffett’s recent gift to the Gates foundation. So brimming with generosity—and life has repaid him. “The gift is to the giver,” as Whitman said.

5. The worship of women. Though psychologically incurious himself, he has, per the Jungian phrase, a “highly developed anima.” He seems to respond to women more than men. This has led him to close relationships with some of the most sophisticated women on the planet. He seems to have fallen in love with Kay Graham, and made it his project to build her confidence as a manager—and his $10 million stake, picked up in the Nixon years, when the Republicans declared war, is now worth $1.5 billion. His late wife Suzie reveals herself—Rose says he got the only interview she ever did on TV, in 2004—as a woman of enormous depth and sensitivity (now reflected in her daughter) who had the wisdom to nurture Buffett when he chose to sit in his room and read all day long, and could make fun of him. The best line in the first show is when she tells Rose that her father told her when Buffett came a-wooing, “He has a heart of gold.” Then she throws in, “No pun intended.”

6. Pleasure-seeking. Buffett has always done what he most liked to do, and avoided all things that he disliked. “I knew what I enjoyed.” Everything from delivering newspapers as a boy to hobbies of playing the ukulele and bridge and telling corny anecdotes.

Adding all this up, the one word I’d choose for Buffett is childlike. There is a naive and wondering quality to his statements. As his late wife says, he couldn’t take care of himself. His humor is often cornpone, his psychological judgments seem credulous and boyish. And the joy he derives from his work, it’s like a kid in a sandbox.