Rediscovering the Essence of the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting

When in the past I described my trip to the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting to others, I often found that I contradicted myself.

Rediscovering the Essence of the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting

When in the past I described my trip to the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting to others, I often found that I contradicted myself. I said I was going to see Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger speak, and then I said that their presentation was the least important part of the trip. 

The BRK annual meeting is the main attraction that brings forty thousand people to Omaha; but once the novelty of breathing the same air as Buffett wears off, people keep coming back not because of the annual meeting – they can watch Buffett answering questions (Munger passed away in 2023) from the comfort of their couch at home – but because … 

For three days in May, Omaha turns into a gathering of like-minded people. What do I mean by like-minded? In the past, I’d say they were value investors. But this year, I saw Omaha through the eyes of my 18-year-old daughter, Hannah, and came to a slightly different conclusion. 

It was Hannah’s first pilgrimage and my 22-year-old son Jonah’s fourth. Jonah just graduated from CU Boulder in finance. Hannah is going to be a freshman at the University of Denver and is deciding between psychology and a business degree. She has expressed very little interest in value investing. 

To my surprise, this year in Omaha a number of people came up to me asking for advice unrelated to investing. A friend of mine, who is an accomplished value investor, wanted to talk to Hannah, but she was busy talking to someone else, so he ended up directing his question to me. He had wanted to ask her, “What did your father do to form such a special relationship with you?” He had two young daughters and wanted to make sure he would have such a close relationship with them.

This question stumped me, a little. I am sure this is not the only thing I did, but it’s one that came to mind right away: Spending time with my kids one-on-one was very important. We do plenty of things as a family, but the conversation is different when both my wife and I are with our kids. Our attention shifts to our spouse. 

My wife doesn’t ski, so the kids and I spent a lot of time on ski lifts and ski slopes together. Many times, I’ve traveled with my kids on business trips. I started doing that because I hate travelling alone, but then I realized how much I enjoyed spending time with them when I travel, and the trips became a great excuse for us to be together. 

My wife doesn’t like long drives, so my father and I would take the kids on road trips to Santa Fe. This doesn’t mean you have to travel with your kids to have one-on-one time. When I go for early morning walks, I take my kids with me, too. It comes down to really spending time with them, being present, and being vulnerable as they get older. (I wrote about that here). 

Along the same lines, I was treated to an interesting, somewhat new perspective on my book. A lovely couple came up to me and told me that Soul in the Game was a parenting book. They are both doctors and live in North Dakota. The man said, “I was born in Pakistan. In Pakistan, men go to work. Their job is to make money. The wife’s job is to take care of the kids. Men spend little time with their kids. This was the example my parents set for me. Your book showed me a blueprint for being a better father.” 

A young woman who attended one of Q&A sessions in Omaha, picked up my book at the airport, read it on the plane home, and emailed me: “Your book has made me a kinder person. You also made me realize the importance of focusing on what truly matters in life, and changed my perspective towards having kids. Because of you, I now hope to have kids in the future and learn from them to become a better person!”

I cannot tell you how weird it feels to be turning into Dr. Spock and dispensing parenting advice. Or life advice in general. But she nailed what kids do to us – they transform us into better people. We have ideals for our kids – we want them to grow up to be good, honest, kind-hearted people. We try to instill these values in them, but at the same time we don’t want to be hypocrites; and as a result, we end up changing ourselves towards the ideals we try to infuse in our kids.

Jeffersonian dinners

I get to see my friends who come from all over the US and the world to Omaha. Folks I talk to on a regular basis but see only a few times a year. Hannah and Jonah got to spend time with my friends, too.

Every evening in Omaha we had a dinner, but not a traditional one. Instead, we had Jeffersonian dinners. (This is the only dinner I’d have in a group larger than four.) Matt Stafford, whom I had the pleasure to meet at a conference in Switzerland, wrote a book on Jeffersonian dinners and has turned them into a science.

Thomas Jefferson hosted this type of dinner at the White House when he was the president. The rules are simple: There is one conversation per table, and the group or moderator chooses a topic. If people don’t know each other, you go around the table and do short introductions first. That’s basically it.

I love Jeffersonian meals because they turn dinners or lunches (even breakfasts) from loud, often uncomfortable small talk with someone who is sitting to your left or right into opportunities to have meaningful conversations from which you get to learn. 

You’d think a lot of value investors would get together around the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting – the Woodstock of Capitalism – and talk mostly about money or stocks. Though I had one-on-one stock discussions here or there, most conversations at these dinners were about life. 

Here are the topics we pondered at our dinners this year: (1) If you could meet anyone, dead or alive, who would it be and what would you ask him/her? (2) What is the nicest thing someone did for you? 

Last year, a friend who was a top executive at one of the largest European cosmetics companies gave us an interesting answer to the following question at one of these Jeffersonian dinners in Omaha: What do you know that others don’t? He said, “When you buy face creams and lotions, always choose the cheapest, top-selling, ubiquitous one. Even though it is the cheapest, it brings the highest revenues and profits to these companies, so they pour huge amounts into R&D into it.” 

You never know what you’ll learn at these dinners. 

Since I am on the topic of Jeffersonian dinners, a few days after we came back from Omaha, Jonah graduated from CU Boulder. 

My wife and I hosted a graduation dinner for him at a restaurant in Denver. I’ve gone to many graduations in the past. A lot of people who are friends of the parents and the graduate get together, you hear a toast or two, and then the party turns into a lot of small talk.

This dinner was very different.

We reserved a private room at a restaurant that had one big table. We had close family and six of Jonah’s close friends – a total of twenty-one of us. Half an hour into the dinner, once the food orders were taken, I told folks that we were going to have a Jeffersonian dinner, briefly explained the rules, and picked the topic of the conversation – Jonah. I asked everyone to tell a favorite story about Jonah. 

We learned a lot of interesting things from Jonah’s friends, and Jonah’s friends got to hear a lot of embarrassing stories from his sisters and his parents. It was a very touching, meaningful, and unforgettable event.

Back to Omaha.

When we came home, Hannah announced to my wife that she is going to Omaha again next year. My wife was surprised and said, “Jonah is into finance. You are not. Why?”

Hannah said, “I got to meet so many interesting people and had so many terrific conversations. None of them were about finance. I learned so much. I had conversations I have never had with my friends.”

I’ve been going to Omaha since 2008, but this year I saw the event from a different perspective, through Hannah’s eyes, and I realized the genius of Buffett and Munger.

There are a lot of great investors out there – none of them have an annual event hosted in the middle of nowhere (sorry, Omaha folks), where forty thousand people show up for three days to celebrate… I was going to say “capitalism,” but I think it is much more than that (sorry, capitalism). It’s about learning, self-improvement, becoming better… people. If you go back and listen to past Q&A sessions from the BRK meeting, a very large number of questions were completely unrelated to finance or investing; they were about life. 

So you see, to be a good investor, you have to constantly learn. This creates a learning muscle that cannot help but take you beyond the bounds of finance. As you start learning and reading more widely, you cannot help but try to become a better person (even a better parent). 

This is what has happened to me, except the process was supersized by daily writing, which is a steroid for learning that took me far outside of finance. I guess this is why I (completely!) unintentionally became a person who is dispensing life and parenting advice. 

This is what Hannah saw in Omaha, and this is why she wants to keep coming back – she wants to keep learning about life. And of course, as an added bonus, she’ll get to spend lots of quality time with her brother and her father. 

As value (life) investors say, “Next year in Omaha!” 

One more thing: This year I was going to host a small reader get-together. What started out as a modest event for 75 people turned into three Q&A sessions attended by 300 people, with 200 people on the waiting list (we did not have enough space). 

We have learned from this year’s experience – we are going to book a much larger venue next year. If you are planning to come to Omaha next year and would like to attend our get-together, I suggest you get on the list early (and don’t forget to separately register your friends and family members who want to attend).

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8 thoughts on “Rediscovering the Essence of the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting”

  1. Thanks for the article. Do you know if Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger followed similar parenting philosophies as you?

    Reply
  2. I really enjoyed your essay today. I smiled and was unexpectedly moved by it. By the sheer greatest of both Buffett and Munger. By the reaction of your daughter to the Omaha meeting. And just by the way you shared the story. Thank you!!

    Reply
  3. “We have ideals for our kids – we want them to grow up to be good, honest, kind-hearted people. We try to instill these values in them, but at the same time we don’t want to be hypocrites; and as a result, we end up changing ourselves towards the ideals we try to infuse in our kids.”

    Beautifully put.

    Reply
  4. I find it difficult to reconcile the values you espouse (laudable) and your recent piece on tobacco companies and their latest ways to hook youngsters (warm/heat the tobacco without burning it and infuse lozenges not just with tobacco/nicotine but with micro-abrasives to create micro tears in the mouth that allow rapid entry of nicotine into the bloodstream).

    Reply
  5. I have followed your posts for quite some time and almost all of them are absolutely brilliant. Not only the posts on investing are of exceptional values, but the ones on life such as this write-up are also excellent.

    Always look forward to reading your articles!

    Reply

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