Getting There and Being There: Warren Buffett and Chance the Gardener on the Myth of Success

( Infinite Staircase  | Alexandre Duret-Lutz)

(Infinite Staircase | Alexandre Duret-Lutz)

"In a garden, things grow... but first, they must wither..."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

People are fascinated with climbing the financial ladder, just as some people are fascinated by the renaissance. It's not just something that would be a nice thing to have, it's something you want to understand on a microscopic level, as if money itself was a thing of beauty. I must admit I fell into this trap in my early days in finance, but now for the life of me I can't remember what my mindset was during that time. I still like money, it allows me many conveniences, but now I can't remember why I was so fascinated with how people made their money. Yet many are, many look to the wealthy as their personal gurus. (I suppose that fills the void when there are no monarchs to admire.)

One person many look up to on the road to success (and success being poetic license for wealth and prestige) is Warren Buffett. Perhaps we are curious to know what it feels like to be a god, and since we can never get direct answers from God, we ask the closest thing, the person who has enough money to be a god. But when you ask Buffett about the road to success, you find that his definition of success is unrelated to wealth, and there isn't much of a journey, more of a perspective.

In Getting There: A Book of Mentors, author Gillian Zoe Segal asks Buffett to share his "secrets to navigating the rocky road to the top." Surprisingly Buffett says of success:

You have lived a successful life if, as you grow older, the people who you hope love you actually do. I have never known anyone who does not feel like a success when they have gotten close to my age and have a lot of people who love them. I know enormously wealthy individuals who have dinners held in their honor, hospital wings named after them, and all that sort of thing, but the truth is that no one thinks much of them. I have to believe that at some point they realize it, and everything gets quite empty after that.

Perhaps this worldview comes from age, that the "successful" are no different from anyone else and play by the same mortal rules. You live, you die, and you hope people genuinely love you. That success is measured by normal everyday things, like love, things we already have an ability to cultivate. That we need look no further than each other. This may be why the world's most wealthiest man is giving all his money away. He knows he can't take it with him but it can still serve others.

Buffett is an avid reader who sets aside several hours each day to read. This is arguably the most valuable habit a human being can have. So I am certain Buffett has come across the works of Leo Tolstoy. In What Men Live By, Tolstoy writes:

And all people live, not by reason of any care they have for themselves, but by the love for them that is in other people.

No matter how often we hear that we can't take it with us, we still never believe it, not completely. Archaeologists regularly find forgotten kings and rulers still buried with their gold. And our thinking hasn't much changed: I can die in peace knowing I have a lot of money in the bank and still have a lot of stuff with my name on it. That is something social scientists have been trying to answer: Why do people who know something to be true, act as if they do not? The consensus has been: If we did, we would be admitting to ourselves that life is finite, and most of us have not gotten to a place to deal with that truth. Yet that is the basis of most philosophy: In the presence of finitude, how should we carry ourselves? What was asked of Buffett was a question about the successful life, but the answer he gave was one on the finite life. That in a finite amount of time, what matters most is gratitude and close human connections.

From the Billionaire to the Gardener

Chance the gardener doing what he knows best

That's from the man who has everything, but what of the man who has nothing? In the satirical novel, Being There by Jerzy Kosiński, we meet a character named Chance, a simple-minded and homeless gardener who is mistaken for a wealthy aristocrat. (He was later brilliantly portrayed by Peter Sellers in a film of the same name. I highly recommend the film.) Chance by chance gets swept up into the world of the elite, and when he introduces himself as Chance the gardener, it does not register and what they hear is Chauncey Gardiner. It eventually leads to his meeting with the President of the United States.

The country is in an economic crisis and the President calls on Chance for advice, believing him to be a "Warren Buffett" type. But is it better to say Warren Buffett is a "Chauncey Gardiner" type, someone the world mistakenly believes has all the answers? That he is more than just a man? The culture that Jerzy Kosiński satirizes still exists and will most likely always exist, which is why these are still important questions to ask. Is it the man that is naive or are we the naive for seeing more than just a man?

In his advice to the President on the state of the economy and the world, Chance having no idea what the President is talking about, answers honestly with what he does know, which is gardening:

Growth has its season. There are spring and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well.

Chance later on continues by saying:

In a garden, things grow... but first, they must wither; trees have to lose their leaves in order to put forth new leaves, and to grow thicker and stronger and taller. Some trees die, but fresh saplings replace them. Gardens need a lot of care. But if you love your garden, you don’t mind working in it, and waiting. Then in the proper season you will surely see it flourish.

If getting there is about the material, then being there is about the temporal. We'll die and fresh saplings will take our place. It's naive to think otherwise. And that is the juxtaposition, that all the complicated talk that surrounds us are just methods to cover up how little we know. And since what we know is so little, rather than charts and graphs, it can only be explained by simple, Chance-like truths.

The character of Chance is similar to Voltaire's Candide, and I suspect Kosiński was inspired by this work. Candide, a simple man like Chance, is disillusioned by the learned world, and resolves to go back to simplicity. In the book, Voltaire writes:

We must tend our garden

The appeal of Chance is, he has cultivated a simple life. Gardening is a tool to teach others how to cultivate their own simpler lives — to tend their own garden. Then perhaps, one can make a similar metaphor for Buffett: Don't worry about my garden, tend to your own.

Don't Make Contentment a Bucket List Thing, Do It Now

We don't know what it feels like to "get there" so we assume it means getting rich and being important, but Buffett says it's about love. Kosiński asks us to think about what it means to be there, to be present, grateful for the things we do have and not fretting over the things we don't. There really is no "there," and if there is, we are already in it. According to Buffett the tycoon and Chance the gardener, we don't need to chase happiness, it's already here if we choose to slow down and look around. If we think "there" is far off, then we will rush towards it, thinking we must accelerate and go faster, and in the meanwhile, miss everything we know to be life.

When we get to a place that others may see as "there," when we get money, we are told we need more money, to set a new goal. When we get to the top of the mountain, all we see is an inscription that reads: "More." When we find love, then find more love or perhaps better love (or to assume love should be better than this, or that it must always feel the same). When we find importance, go find prestige, status, more, more, more. Goals, goals, goals. And keep repeating to yourself the mantras: "You're not there yet." "You're not good enough." "Keep shooting for the stars." But the folly is, if we only look at the stars, we miss everything on earth.

J.D. Salinger writes in The Catcher in the Rye:

People never notice anything.

Jerzy Kosiński writes in Being There:

Life is a state of mind.

We just have to notice.

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