When Charlie thinks about things, he starts by inverting. To understand how to be happy in life, Charlie will study how to make life miserable; to examine how businesses become big and strong, Charlie first studies how businesses decline and die; most people care more about how to succeed in the stock market, Charlie is most concerned about why most have failed in the stock market. His way of thinking comes from the saying in the farmer’s philosophy: All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I will never go there.
Charlie constantly collects and researches the notable failures in each and every type of people, business, government, and academia, and arranges the causes of failures into a decision-making checklist for making the right decisions. Because of this, he has avoided major mistakes in his decision making in his life and in his career. The importance of this on the performance of Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway over the past 50 years cannot be emphasized enough.
Charlie's mind is original and creative, never subject to any restrictions, shackles, or dogmas. He has the curiosity of children and possesses the qualities of top-notch scientists and their scientific research methods. He has a strong thirst for knowledge throughout his life and is interested in practically all areas. To him, with the right approach, any problem can be understood through self-study, building innovations on the foundation laid by those who came earlier. His thinking radiates out to every corner of business, life, and [areas of] knowledge. In his view, everything in the universe is an interactive whole, and all [areas of] human knowledge are just pieces to the study of the comprehensive whole. Only by combining these [areas of] knowledge through a latticework of mental models can they become useful in decision-making and in developing the proper understanding of things. So he advocates studying all the truly important theories in all disciplines, and building on this foundation the so-called “worldly wisdom” as a tool for studying the important issues in business and investments.
Charlie’s way of thinking is based on being honest about knowledge. He believes that in this complex and changing world, there will always be limitations to human cognition and understanding, so you must use all the tools at your disposal. And, at the same time, you must constantly collect new verifiable evidences, correcting and updating your knowledge, and knowing what you know and what you don’t know.
But even so, the true insights a person can get in life is still very limited, so correct decision-making must necessarily be confined to your "circle of competence". A “competence” that has no defined borders cannot be called a true competence. How do you define your own circle of competence? Charlie said, if I want to hold a view, if I cannot refute or disprove this view better than the smartest, most capable, most qualified person on Earth, then I’m not worthy of holding that view. So when Charlie truly holds a certain point of view, his thinking is not only original and unique, but also almost never wrong.
A beautiful lady once insisted that Charlie use one word to sum up the source of his success, Charlie said it was being “rational.” However, he has a more stringent definition of rationality. It is this kind of “rationality” that grants him the sensitive and unique vision and insight. Even in a completely unfamiliar territory, with just one look he could see through to the essence of things. Buffett calls this characteristic of Charlie the “two-minute effect” -- he said Charlie can, in the shortest time possible, unravel the nature of a complex business and understand it better than anyone else can.
What Charlie can’t tolerate is to lose contact with the world because of money and wealth. To isolate yourself in a single room behind a labyrinth of offices, to require layers after layers of approvals to setup meetings, and to hide behind a complicated bureaucracy so you become hard to reach for anyone - that is how you lose touch with the realities of life.
"As long as I have a book in my hand, I don’t feel like I’m wasting time." Charlie always carries a book on him. Even if he’s sitting in the middle seat in economy class, as long as he has a book, he’ll have no complaint. Once he went to Seattle to attend a board meeting, taking the economy class as usual, he sat beside a Chinese girl who was doing her calculus homework throughout the flight. He was impressed with this Chinese girl because he has difficulty imagining American girls of the same age having such power of concentration to ignore noise on the aircraft and concentrate on studying. If he was aboard a private jet, he would have never had the opportunity to come into close contact with these stories of ordinary people.
Though Charlie has very strict self-discipline, he is very generous with others and treats people he cares for and loves really well. He is not stingy with money, always hoping others will benefit more. For his own travels, whether for business trips or for personal trips, he always flies economy class, but when traveling with his wife and family, he would take his own private jet. He explained: my wife brought up so many children in her lifetime and has given me so much.
Charlie spent his lifetime studying the causes of human failures, so he has a profound understanding of the weaknesses of human nature. Because of this, he believes people must be strict and demanding on themselves, continuously improving their discipline in life in order to overcome the innate weaknesses of human nature. This way of life is, to Charlie, a moral requirement. To an outsider, Charlie might seem like a monk; but to Charlie, this process is both rational and pleasant and it allows people to have a successful and happy life.
Charlie can be said to be the best example of "a businessman with a Literati’s soul." First of all, Charlie is extremely successful in business. However, in the deep intimate interactions I’ve had with Charlie, I found Charlie to be essentially a moral philosopher and a scholar. He reads widely, is knowledgeable over a broad range of topics, is truly concerned about his own moral cultivation, and is ultimately concerned about the society. Charlie's value system, from the inside out, promotes self-cultivation and self-development to become the “saints” who help others.
After achieving business success and wealth, Charlie is still committed to charity and to benefiting the people of the world. He was completely dependent on his wisdom in achieving his success, and this is undoubtedly an exciting role model for Chinese scholars. He made full use of his own wisdom and achieved great success in business with the utmost integrity. Today, in the market economy, can the Chinese scholars be filled with the spirit of the Literati and, by improving themselves through learning and self-cultivation, achieve the successes of the secular society while realizing the value of their own ideals?
Charlie very much appreciates Confucius. I sometimes think that if Confucius was reborn in America today, Charlie will probably be the best incarnation. If Confucius returned 2000 years later to the commercialized China, his teaching will probably be: have your heart in the right place, cultivate your moral character, fortify your family, acquire wealth, and help the world!