An interview with Peter Buffett

Peter Buffet
Peter Buffett will join famed feminist Gloria Steinem, Martha Stewart and many others for a series of shows and presentations at 2013 Iowa Women’s Leadership Conference. This event is sold out, barring pre-conference workshops.

Peter Buffett is an Emmy Award-winning composer, philanthropist and New York Times best-selling author. He also happens to be the son of Warren Buffett, famed philanthropist and one of the most successful investors of the 20th century.

Despite his unique upbringing, Buffett often hears the same platitude time and time again.

“For Warren Buffett’s son, you’re so normal.”

This sentiment is meant as a compliment, of course, but it always left Buffett feeling a little disappointed. What is normal? Is it really something we should strive toward?

As a response to these lofty questions, Buffett set out to write what would eventually become the New York Times best-seller Life is What You Make It, a patchwork of stories and lessons that–according to Buffett–embody the only real inheritance his parents ever gave him: The philosophy that, throughout life, one must forge his or her own path.

Buffett will be in Coralville on April 23 with that philosophy in mind, presenting “Life is What You Make It: A Concert and Conversation with Peter Buffett” as part of the 2013 Iowa Women’s Leadership Conference at the Coralville Marriott. Buffett comes to Iowa by virtue of his efforts to empower adolescent girls around the world through the NoVo Foundation–a philanthropic organization he co-chairs alongside his wife Jennifer Buffett.

What initially inspired Buffett to take up such a charge, however, begins with a life lesson from his father.

“When I was a kid, I just watched my dad pore over all of these books,” Buffett said, referring to his father’s meticulous search for undervalued assets. Warren’s knack for identifying these unrealized and undervalued assets–according to Peter–is what would ultimately lead to his success.

“If he invested, and he was patient, he really didn’t have to do anything. He just had to wait, knowing that his analysis would prove correct, or certainly hoping that it would. And then, what he recognized as an undervalued asset in the market would suddenly grow to its full value,” Buffett said.

“That’s where he happened to make his money.”

Taking this lesson into account, Buffett and his wife identified an undervalued asset of their own, and it may be–quite literally–the most ubiquitous one out there: The adolescent female.

“What my wife and I have really learned through our philanthropic work, through talking with a lot of people, is that the girl is the undervalued asset in the sense that if you invest in her, the rest will happen and the world will realize the importance of an empowered girl,” Buffett said.

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Throughout the world, and here in the United States as well, an adolescent girl’s value is viewed differently than that of an adolescent boy’s, Buffett says, citing issues of early pregnancy, adolescent marriage and lack of institutional support. By upholding these social norms, communities around the world constrain not only the adolescent girl, but the growth potential for society as a whole.

“She really is the undervalued asset in the world in terms of what she can become if she’s invested in,” he said. With that philosophy in mind, the NoVo Foundation was created.

Incidentally, Buffett attributes aspects of his father’s success to the very societal norms the NoVo Foundation aims to eliminate.

“Part of the reason he was so successful is because he was born at a time when half the workforce could only be assumed to be teachers or nurses,” he said.

The idea that one can–or even should–erode deep-seated societal norms abroad is a divisive one. Buffet, however, was quick to respond to such sentiment.

“I am extremely sensitive–and this really comes from my work with the American indian culture–to colonialistic thinking,” Buffett said. “I call it ‘philanthropic colonialism,’ this idea that somehow, somebody on the other side of the world can walk into a culture and social system and say, ‘I know what will fix you.’ So it starts there. it starts with the sensitivity that nobody is going to go in and convince someone else that what they say is wrong in some way.”

Buffett says it is a “scary thing” seeing the extent to which people feel the weight of money can somehow outweigh long-standing cultures and traditions.

“You can never go in anywhere as an outsider, no matter how much money you have, especially with money, and try to tell someone else what to do,” he said. “It’s a huge problem, I think, in philanthropy. Just because we think one way doesn’t mean if we were put in a village somewhere we wouldn’t think a different way.”

Buffett went on to explain that shifts in societal norms are usually the result of personal experiences rather than external rhetoric and financial influence.

“You can’t make someone feel something,” he said. “But they can have an experience that changes everything.” Perhaps it is a father who has this gut feeling that–because he loves his child and wants said child to see true opportunity–sending his daughter down a one-track path isn’t okay after all, suggests Buffett.

“And so you go in where it’s already being met with agreement and allow it to take root locally through local people,” Buffett said. “Oftentimes it’s through the clergy, or it’s through politicians. There are existing systems where, again, the people themselves have had the direct experience of saying, ‘You know what, I think you’re right. I think this needs to change. and here’s how I think it can happen.’”

When asked about Facebook activism–or slacktivism as critics have come to call it–the idea that online spaces might be used to rally consensus with the intent of effecting real change, Buffett describes such behavior as being “double-sided.”

“I think it’s amazing that something can spread so fast. The problem is that information can be true or false,” Buffett said, chuckling.

Buffett expressed pleasure at the speed with which engaged internet users can learn about new issues, share personal experiences and encourage others to view new sides of complex issues. Online activism, however, is hardly a means to an end, he says.

“Actually showing up as a human being and doing something real is, ultimately, the only way change is going to happen, because you get the experience,” Buffett said.

“The experience of clicking a like button–it might be valuable–you know, to see 400 million people ‘liking’ something and behind something,” he said. “I think as politicians start to see that these are real constituents and they really will vote differently based on what they’ve learned through the internet–That stuff is valuable. But, there is nothing more valuable than direct experience and showing up, and that has to happen too.”

What gives Buffett hope is the growing trend of using digital spaces to organize action in physical spaces. He sees potential in services like Meetup, which allow for collective action that transcends the computer screen.

“My assumption is that those are the kinds of things that really do work,” he said. “Especially with younger people who want to get out there and get involved and exchange ideas and feel like there’s real action as opposed to the click of a mouse.”

Buffett’s show, “Life is What You Make It: A Concert and Conversation with Peter Buffett” encompasses more than his philanthropic endeavors, of course. The multimedia-rich program features Buffett on piano with a cello accompaniment, though music is just a singular element. Throughout the evening, Buffett tells stories from his upbringing and subsequent career that have led him to pursue his passions and forge his own identity beyond that of his birthright. More importantly, according to Buffett, the show is about fostering a dialogue between himself and the audience.

“You know, it’s called ‘A Concert and Conversation’ for a reason,” he said. “I actually open it up for questions throughout the whole show. People can ask me anything at any time.” Taking the this candor to heart, Buffett says that his father’s junior high report cards also make an appearance.

“I don’t want to give it away, but it’s a great moment,” Buffett said, chuckling.

“That’s the main thing I want to get across. It’s truly a dialogue,” he said. “I open the floor intermittently so there’s a structure to it, but at the same time, people can ask me anything at any time, so if they wanted to literally shout out, they can.”

The idea of lacking an open dialogue with his audience is something Buffett immediately seemed uncomfortable with.

“Well that’s the thing that was always kind of weird for me, like ‘Why am I up here just broadcasting?’” he said. “Why do I want to leave everything for the end with a Q&A? I’d rather, when people are thinking of it, give them an opportunity to ask it.”

So, where’s the rub? As far as Buffett is concerned, there isn’t one.

“We’re all humans. Nobody’s perfect, and I’m just here to have a conversation,” he said. “I think it’s kind of important to put that out there in this world of everyone thinking they’re an expert.”

Although Buffett has released 16 records since 1987, his entrance into the world of live musical performance was not a planned one. After composing the music used in Dances with Wolves’ widely praised fire dance scene, actor Kevin Costner’s wife asked Buffett to perform at the film’s premiere.

Though he lacked crowd experience, when offered the chance to perform at a Hollywood film premiere, Buffett simply said, “Okay, what the heck.”

“I had essentially never played live before, so [Kevin] really pushed me into a whole world that I wasn’t really comfortable in yet,” Buffett said. “I was never in a band in high school. I was never in a band in my 20s or anything.”

Buffett described his younger self as a “pretty singular guy” who loved technology.

“I was sort of this loner guy in the studio, creating stuff for commercials and that sort of thing, and never really thought about performing.”

Even newer for Buffett was the notion of singing in front of a crowd, something he had not pursued until 2005.

“A number of personal things happened to me in my life where I learned what the phrase, ‘sing your heart out’ means,” he said. “I realized I just have to sing for me.”

Buffett’s singing debut took place at a rather small event he had hesitantly agreed to attend.

“I had never sung in front of people before, but I said yes, because the key to all of this is saying yes,” he said, laughing. “After I sang, I sat down at this table … and this woman I didn’t know was also there. She looked at me, tearing up, and said, ‘Would you sing that at this event I’m having next year, in the spring.’”

With one event in the bag, Buffett saw little harm in doing a second. What he didn’t realize at the time was that this woman was Eve Ensler, award-winning author of The Vagina Monologues. The event she had mentioned–the 10th Anniversary V-Day celebration in New Orleans—played host to 15,000 spectators. Buffett reeled only slightly.

“It’s funny because as I tell this story, it is in some sense the story of my life,” Buffett said. “I stick my neck out and say ‘sure, I’ll give that a try’ and then it ends up exploding in a way I could have never imagined.”

“Again, the lesson is really going for it and saying, “Okay I’ll try it.”