Life Is What You Make It: Find Your Own Path to Fulfillment
By Peter Buffett
Hardcover, 272 pages
List price: $23.99
You're Warren Buffett's son? But you seem so normal! Over the course of my life, I have heard many versions of this comment, and I have always taken it as a compliment — a compliment not to me, but to my family.
Why? Because what we mean by "normal" really comes down to this: that a person can function effectively and find acceptance among other human beings. To put it another way, it means that a person has been given the best possible chance to make the most of his or her own life. This ability, in turn, can come only from an embrace of the social and emotional values that connect us all. And those values are learned — maybe it would be more accurate to say absorbed — at home.
Those core values are the foundation for everything I have to say in this book. So let's look a little more closely at a few of them, and consider how they are passed along.
Very near the top of the list, I would place the concept of "trust." Taken in the very widest sense, trust is the belief that the world is a good place. Not a perfect place, as anyone can see, but a good place — and a place worth the trouble of trying to make better. If you want to function effectively in the world — not to mention stay in a good mood — this is a very useful thing to believe!
Trust in the world is inseparable from a trust in People — a belief that human beings, however flawed we all are, are fundamentally well-intentioned. People want to do the right thing. Clearly, there are many pitfalls and temptations that lead people to do the wrong thing. But doing the wrong thing is a perversion, a betrayal of our true nature. Our true nature is to be fair and kind.
Not everyone believes this, of course. Some people think that human beings are fundamentally bad — grasping, competitive, inclined to lie and cheat. Frankly, I feel sorry for people who see it that way. It must be difficult for them to get through the day — to maintain open friendships, to do business without constant scheming and suspicion, even to love.
The belief — the faith — that people are basically good is one of the core values that allow us to feel at home in the world.
Where does this all-important trust come from? It has to start with a loving family then extends outward to a caring and secure community.
I was very fortunate in my upbringing. In our famously mobile society, my family was remarkably stable. The house I grew up in — a very average, early-twentieth-century subdivision sort of house that my father had bought in 1958 for $31,500! — was two blocks from where my mother had grown up. My grandparents still lived there. The city of Omaha was filling in around us, and the neighborhood became a strange mix of rural and urban. Our street was actually a main artery going in and out of town, but our house was rather barn-like, with teardrop attic windows like those seen in The Amityville Horror. Just for the fun of it, we used to plant a few rows of corn in our small side yard. As soon as I proved that I was able to look both ways before crossing the street, I was allowed to walk by myself to visit my grandparents. The space between my parents' and my grandparents' houses was like a bubble or corridor of love. I got hugs at both ends of the journey. My grandmother was an archetype of a perhaps vanishing breed: a homemaker, and proud of it. She was always cooking, running errands, or doing projects around the house.
When I appeared, she made me ice-cream cones with little candy surprises embedded in every scoop. My grandfather always wanted to know what I'd learned in school that day. On the walk back home, neighbors would wave or toot their horns.
Idyllic? Sure. And I am only too aware that not every child has the benefit of such a serene and supportive home environment. Those that don't have that benefit have a lot more ground to cover on the path of learning to trust the world.
But the point I'd like to make here is this: The things that allowed me to feel safe and trusting as a kid had nothing to do with money or material advantages.
It didn't matter how big our house was; it mattered that there was love in it. It didn't matter if our neighborhood was wealthy or otherwise; it mattered that neighbors talked to each other, looked out for one another. The kindnesses that allowed me to trust in people and in the basic goodness of the world could not be measured in dollars; they were paid for, rather, in hugs and ice-cream cones and help with homework.
They were kindnesses that every parent and every community should be able to shower on their children.
If trust is the core value that allows us to meet the world in a cheerful stance, then tolerance is the equally important quality that allows us to deal with the realities of differences and conflict. Let's be honest: If people were all more or less the same — if there were no differences in race, religion, sexual orientation, political leanings — life would in some ways be easier. But, boy, would it be dull! Diversity is the spice of life. Our ability to embrace diversity makes our own lives richer.
Conversely, whenever we fall victim to prejudice or unadmitted bias, we make our own lives smaller and poorer. You don't believe that women are the equal of men in the workplace? Well, your world has just shrunk by half. You have a problem with gay people? Well, you just deprived yourself of 10 percent of the population. You're not comfortable with black people? Latinos? You get my drift. Keep giving in to intolerance, and eventually your world contains no one but you and a few people who look like you and think like you; it gets to resemble a small, snooty, and deathly dull country club! Is that a world worth living in?
Tolerance was one of the key values I absorbed at home. I'm proud to say that my parents were actively engaged in the civil rights struggles of the late fifties and early sixties. I was just a child at the time — much too young to understand the complexity and awful history behind the issues of the day. But I didn't need to be lectured about racism and bigotry; all I had to do was keep my eyes open. My mother, who was never shy about letting people know where she stood, had a bumper sticker on her car that said nice people come in all colors. One morning we found that someone had crossed out all colors and scrawled in white. This petty and stupid bit of vandalism was a revelation to me. Racism was something that happened — or so I'd thought — far away, in places like Selma, Alabama, and that we watched on television news reports. But this was Omaha — supposedly a bastion of fair-mindedness and common sense — and racism was here as well.
This was hugely disappointing, but I learned a couple things from it. First, that one should never take tolerance for granted, but work actively to foster it. Second, that the smug belief that prejudice is someone else's failing — in this case, that of the benighted Southerners — is itself a kind of bias. Plenty of us Midwesterners shared the taint. If racism has provided the most dramatic test of tolerance in my lifetime, it certainly isn't the only arena where there is ground to be covered and lessons to be learned.
Reprinted from Life is What You Make It by Peter Buffett. Copyright 2010. Published by Harmony Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group.