15 Lessons from Snowball

My father has a bichon frise and beta fish both named Snowball. The list below is not filled with lessons I learned from his pets, but rather lessons learned from making it through all 830 dense pages of Alice Schroeder's book, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life. Some points were so well stated that I simply quoted them directly. I provided the page number after each lesson, so you can find them quickly and read more about the ones that appeal most to you.

  1. Retail is all about merchandising. Buffett made this realization after buying the department store company Hochschild-Kohn and discovered he couldn't turn it around with finance principles alone. (p. 291)
  2. Know the impact of time. "Time is the friend of the wonderful business, the enemy of the mediocre." (p. 334)
  3. Focus on the big picture. As he coached Katharine Graham in preparing for a presentation, he told her to quit worrying about memorizing facts and concentrate on a theme. (p. 400)
  4. Invest in self-running companies. Buffett owned a savings and loan that was literally run by a manager who had Alzheimer's. (p. 482) Later, he joked that Coke was such a great company that it could be run by a ham sandwich.
  5. Be different. Stay away from commodities. Of his own son's farm he said, "No one goes to the supermarket to buy Howie's corn." (p. 484)
  6. It's okay to be a picky eater. "I follow a very simple rule when it comes to food. If a three-year-old doesn't eat it, I don't eat it." (p. 603)
  7. Act as if anything you do or say could appear on the front page of the local newspaper. How would you feel about your friends and family reading what you did? And just for an extra safety margin, assume the reporter to be informed and critical. (p. 604)
  8. Become a "learning machine." Buffett's love of knowledge and information keeps him learning all the time. (p. 632 and 830)
  9. Buffett's online bridge playing avatar is "tbone." (p. 635) I know, that's not so much a lesson as a trivial tidbit. But I always thought it was George Costanza who came up with the nick name "tbone," so it seemed important to call out that Buffett actually used it first.
  10. Work for those you admire. Don't take jobs because they will look good on your resume. "Do what you love and work for whom you admire the most, and you've given yourself the best chance in life you can." (p. 708)
  11. Uncertainty brings opportunity. "Cash combined with courage in a crisis is priceless." (p. 719)
  12. "Invert, always invert. Turn a situation or problem upside down. Look at it backward." (p. 770)
  13. Plan for the future. "Be long-term greedy, not short-term greedy." (p. 774)
  14. Establish guardians of the culture. His wife and son sat on the board of Berkshire Hathaway to serve that role. They couldn't run the business, but they could reinforce his core values. (p. 792)
  15. Look for new opportunities to present themselves. The best ideas will only take you so far. "Trees don't grow to the sky. But new saplings form." (p. 820)

But the most powerful lesson to learn from this in-depth look at Buffett's remarkable life, is that the principle of compounding not only works with money, but also with relationships and learning.