Warren Buffett: The Three Things I Look For in a Person

Source: Georgetown University

Students often go to visit Warren Buffett. And when they do, he often plays a little game with them.

He asks each student to pick a classmate. Not just any classmate, but the classmate you would choose if you could have 10% of their earnings for the rest of their life. Which classmate would you pick and why?

"Are you going to pick the one with the highest IQ?" asks Buffett. "Are you going to pick the guy who can throw a football the farthest? The one with the highest grades? What qualities will cause you to pick them?"

Then he changes things up. Who would you think least likely to succeed? Why?

He asks the students to take out a sheet of paper and list the positive attributes on the left and the negative ones on the right.

Inevitably, the most useful qualities have nothing to do with IQ, grades, or family connections. People pick based on generosity, kindness, and integrity.

He then asks the students which of the qualities they are incapable of having and which they are incapable of stopping?

"To Buffett, the answer is none," writes Michael Eisner in Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed. "These qualities are choices people make. People decide whether or not to be generous, they decide whether or not to take credit for things they didn't do, whether or not to keep score in life, whether or not to be envious."

It's quite simple in the end. Develop qualities from the left side of the paper and attempt to stop doing the ones on the right.

"You're looking for three things, generally, in a person," says Buffett. "Intelligence, energy, and integrity. And if they don't have the last one, don't even bother with the first two. I tell them, 'Everyone here has the intelligence and energy -- you wouldn't be here otherwise. But the integrity is up to you. You weren't born with it, you can't learn it in school."

Buffett and Munger were fortunate. They were both smart and worked hard to improve that advantage. Integrity, however, they chose.

"You decide to be dishonest, stingy, uncharitable, egotistical, all the things people don't like in other people," argues Warren. "They are all choices. Some people think there's a limited little pot of admiration to go around, and anything the other guy takes out of the pot, there's less left for you. But it's just the opposite."

This article originally appeared on the Farnam Street blog.

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  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 5:23 AM, Riggerwo wrote:

    Well that rules out most Bankers, stock brokers...CEO's, politicians...not a grain of integrity between them....

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 10:54 AM, Katsdad wrote:

    So the ONLY reason he backs Obama is it.

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 12:14 PM, co2emitter wrote:

    Define irony:

    The man who supports the most corrupt administration in history, tries to destroy the labor union at every Berkshire Hathaway company, and hired and promoted DAVID SOKOL (look him up) has the gall to lecture us on INTEGRITY.

    He's definitely cultivated the "genial Grandpa" persona. I've experienced it personally.

    But don't be fooled by the "aw, shucks" demeanor. Warren Buffet is a RUTHLESS businessman.

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 3:33 PM, FoolTheRest wrote:


    So, he gets on the good side of powerful politicians, tries to keep low labor costs at subsidiary companies, and forced the resignation of a guy he promoted once the man's integrity was in question?

    Count me in.

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 6:10 PM, BentMike wrote:


    WB is in it for the money, and ethics don't always figure in according to his way of thinking. But, he is not really different than the rest of us.

    I wonder if he will ever divest BH of Coke? Sugar water is possibly as destructive as tobacco. Maybe more so. I own a little BH, and it is wearing on me.

    But, WB is not all good or bad, and he makes a lot of sense, if you are an investor.

    You can get all sorts of different and conflicting views about how to live a life from a given person depending on the topic - abortion, the health of mothers, capital punishment, gun laws, war, charity, taxation, collaboration, competition, profit taking is good, submitting to regulation is bad, multiple millions in pay is defensible for one person, employees deserve no loyalty, money is speech, the more wealthy you, are the better you are.

    In this world where I was born smart, I receive better treatment than someone who is not so fortunate, as if I worked harder in school than the people I worked with trimming trees decades ago (some of whom were very smart, other just trying to get by).

    Living in the world is like a very large multiple choice test. It is very unlikely to find people who are wholly logical and consistent.

    The way it is, it is really hard to take a stand and hold tight to it in the real world.

    I need to invest, and I can't figure out how to do it so it is completely inline with my own beliefs about right and wrong. To deny this is just intellectually dishonest. I can't throw stones at WB. It is up to him to decide, and he will endure the consequences, as do we all (according to my belief system anyway).

    As i understand it WB intends to give away quite a lot of his net worth. You could do worse.

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 6:23 PM, cmalek wrote:

    A prime example of "Do as I say, not as I do"

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 6:53 PM, katyfcolorado wrote:

    I love this article, thanks Shane! It reminds of Ralph Waldo Emerson's description of success. This is hanging up in my cubicle at work:


    To laugh often and much: to

    Win the respect of intelligent people

    And the affection of children; to

    Earn the appreciation of

    Honest critics and endure the betrayal

    Of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find

    The best in others; to leave

    The world a bit better; whether

    By a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed

    Social condition; to know

    Even one life has breathed

    Easier because you lived.

    This is to have succeeded.

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2014, at 8:16 PM, whitebishop21c wrote:

    Duh... Why would he hire anyone without integrity? That would simply mean more competition against himself.

  • Report this Comment On February 04, 2014, at 12:04 AM, PeterPham88 wrote:

    I would choose a partner who cant count money over $1000.00 and dont even remember where s/he left them.

  • Report this Comment On February 04, 2014, at 12:17 AM, jeffhre wrote:

    PeterPham88, clearly Charlie Munger is out of the question in your search.

  • Report this Comment On February 04, 2014, at 1:23 AM, GregTrocchia wrote:

    co2emitter, if you are implying that the current administration is "the most corrupt administration in history", it either means that you don't have a good handle on what constitutes a corrupt administration, that you don't know very much political history, or both of the above.

    I don't even need to invoke such names as Teapot Dome and Credit Mobilier, which have largely, if not completely, passed from living memory. Far more recently you had what has been called the "ur-scandal of American politics", the reason that reporters reflexively attempt to add "-gate" as a suffix to the name of every political scandal- Watergate.

    That was the "don't know much about history" part. The "don't have a good handle on what constitutes a corrupt administration" part is about the fact that not every political scandal arises from corruption. Take Iran-Contra, for example. Whether you regard trying to circumvent the Boland Amendment (which is the main accusation of illegality against the Reagan Administration in Iran-Contra) as an impeachable high crime or not, it lacks the element of self-interest that I would claim is necessary to make it corruption. In like fashion, the biggest scandals that I have seen involving the Obama administration also lack that element of self-interest and would, I contend, not constitute corruption as such.

  • Report this Comment On February 04, 2014, at 6:48 AM, duuude1 wrote:

    The commenters here remind me of Commodus in the movie Gladiator (I quoted this same scene in another article on success but it's even more appropriate here). In Gladiator, when the Emperor Marcus Aurelius tells his son Commodus that he will not be emperor and instead that the general Maximus will be, Commodus whines:

    "You wrote to me once, listing the four chief virtues: Wisdom, justice, fortitude and temperance. As I read the list, I knew I had none of them."

    Then Commodus kills the Emperor.

    Buffet says the most important virtue is integrity.

    Then the commenters here kill the Emperor.


  • Report this Comment On February 04, 2014, at 7:33 AM, diegol wrote:

    so true!

  • Report this Comment On February 04, 2014, at 10:21 AM, GirlsUnder30 wrote:

    The problem here is how we interpret the word. Integrity is defined as being whole and undivided so if your sole existential purpose is the pursuit of wealth and power, then it can be said that you have integrity. Anyone with a logical mind understands freedom and wealth are limited resources, the imbalanced accumulation of either only comes at the expense of others. No one freely wishes to associate with anyone with this kind of 'integrity' but our basest human nature urges us to do just that. The perversity of this is visible when we bring this concept to the logical extremes where so many have so little of either wealth or freedom that we find ourselves making deals giving away greater and greater amounts of both in order to provide for our own but in so doing, power and wealth continue to accumulate to fewer and fewer and the great masses are either subjugated or killed off by their order. In my opinion, the world is in a serious state.of domination where even our sovereign governments are no longer our own. The link below has some ideas on how to combat and reverse this circumstance:

    I have highlighted some stocks that are on both sides of this battle in the link below:

    so you may be informed before you choose.

  • Report this Comment On February 04, 2014, at 10:50 AM, working4aliving wrote:

    Why does a man of such great integrity need to hire illegal aliens to build his construction projects, and leave American workers jobless???

  • Report this Comment On February 07, 2014, at 1:27 PM, Ddenney1 wrote:

    I prefer Jimmy Buffet he's NOT a hypocrite!

  • Report this Comment On February 07, 2014, at 2:51 PM, RSMBeth wrote:

    I see a lot of comments regarding WB's integrity or lack thereof and I find it interesting that y'all talk as if you actually know the man when your opinions are nothing more than reflections of someone else's biased reporting.

    I'm not saying they are inaccurate I'm just saying they could be. I for one have no idea what the man is like however if given the opportunity to spend a day with him picking his brain I would leap at it in a heartbeat. Wouldn't you?

  • Report this Comment On February 07, 2014, at 7:23 PM, tsl539 wrote:

    You don't have to like his politics or the way he conducts business. But you have to admire his work ethic and principles, his humbleness and his relentless love for what he does....

    How many of you are leaving 98% of your money to charity? We should all strive to be so decent!

  • Report this Comment On April 11, 2014, at 4:47 AM, thidmark wrote:

    "Sugar water is possibly as destructive as tobacco."

    That's just asinine.

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Shane Parrish

Shane Parrish writes on decision making, culture, human misjudgment, and other interestingness at Farnam Street.

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