Written during a grinding recession, but hardly in the spirit of deprivation, Peter Buffett's Life Is What You Make It is a personal collection of life lessons from the son of one of the world's wealthiest and savviest investors.
Okay, I'll admit it. As I opened the book, a voice in my head whispered, "What makes Peter Buffett an expert on life?" With typical Midwestern modesty, Buffett has anticipated the question and answers it simply: nothing. He willingly admits he has no credentials that qualify him to be a life coach, a happiness guru, or an anthropologist. And he acknowledges that his advice is unsolicited. No matter. The purpose of the book, he writes, is to share with the world what he has come to believe are simple truths and rules for living.
He starts by setting the record straight with respect to his experience of great wealth. His father's astounding financial success, he tells us, was not a result of his dad pursuing money for the sake of money, but rather the direct outcome of his father's passion for hard work. It's an important distinction for Buffett (the son), and one that shaped his values and essentially optimistic outlook on life: trust that people are fundamentally good, be tolerant and keep an open mind, pursue education as a way to feed your curiosity, and maintain a joyful work ethic — not for the sake of financial reward but for the personal satisfaction that comes from a job well done.
Other than a few references to being an impressionable youth during the 1960s and the fact that the Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show sparked his lifelong interest in music, Buffett's worldview seems to have been remarkably uninfluenced by the turmoil and dramatic events that have marked the last fifty years. His values, instead, are rooted in family, friends, and personal experience, which makes reading the book less like listening to a sermon and more like sitting down for a heart-to-heart with a good friend.
Indeed, the most important lesson Buffett has to share is this: No matter what circumstances we are born into, each of us has control over his or her life and we must exercise that control wisely. In Buffett's view, luck is a residue of hard work and personal choice, and it's up to each of us to make sure we are deserving of good fortune. I use the word deserving intentionally, as Buffett dedicates a chapter of the book to exploring the connotations of the word. Among other things, he argues that no one is deserving of anything except what they earn through their own actions. Indeed, for Buffett, the sense of entitlement that often attaches the word almost invariably leads to a purposeless and unfulfilling life.
Elsewhere in the book, Buffett uses the term "gift guilt" to describe the chief motivation behind many an affluent person's attitude toward philanthropy and charitable giving. Gift guilt is the gnawing recognition in a person who has attained a certain level of wealth and status that privilege isn't a level playing field. Buffett argues that in order to mitigate one's guilt, one must strive to level the playing field — not just by writing checks, but through philanthropic deeds committed in the spirit of the word's original meaning: the love of humankind.
In fact, love is Buffett's enduring touchstone. It's love that should matter most when giving back to the world, he argues, and that love can come from any number of sources. It can be the love one has for his or her vocation; the love one has for a particular cause; or the love shared by family members or passed down from generation to generation. Whatever the source, the philanthropic act itself should be personal, selfless, and universal in spirit.
Indeed, by the end of Buffett's little book, the careful reader will realize that the most important lesson to be derived from it is not that life is what you make it, but that you should strive to infuse every aspect of your life with love. Buffett is well aware that singing "All You Need Is Love" won't put a roof over anyone's head. Nor is he interested in teaching readers how to make good investments or how to build a nest egg. He just wants to help us understand that the pursuit of happiness has nothing to do with one's net worth. In our overly commercialized, debt-ridden society, it's a lesson we should all pay attention to.