Compounding Interest: What it Takes to Become Warren Buffett

What does it take to become Warren Buffett?

Before watching Becoming Warren Buffett, the recent HBO documentary from directors Brian Oakes and Peter Kunhardt, you might think you know the answer. By the end, you are bound to have changed your mind.

The film takes a traditional approach at the outset, including a memorable scene in which Buffett explains how he chooses his McDonald’s breakfast based on shifts in the stock market. It’s funny, but a clever reminder of how much attention he gives to numbers. Buffet’s life work is a game to him; a game he has taken a thrill in winning since he filed his first tax return at age 13.

It’s not long, however, before Becoming Warren Buffett takes the personal turn that makes it so worth watching. Besides a few interesting and accessible scenes explaining principles that helped Buffett’s business grow, focus remains on how the man himself grew from a social oddity chastised for not giving enough money away to charities into the benefactor of what’s been called the “largest philanthropic gift in history”.

Some of the most critical moments come in the form of archival interviews with Buffett’s late wife Susan. Ultimately, it is her influence as both social activist and the love of his life that lead Buffett to become the man that he is. Charting the highs and lows of their relationship, including her decision to move out of the family home, Susan is still quick to declare that “there’s no finer human being than who he is”.

Undoubtedly, that will leave the more skeptical viewers dismissing the documentary as idolatry, and I think that dismissal will stem from discomfort. At a time when the gap between the wealthy and the rest continues to expand, Becoming Warren Buffett reminds us money does not make the man; especially a man who views money as a side effect of his passion rather than the driver behind it. So some will recoil from the easy empathy that comes from a modest man whose lifelong expenditure will not even total 1% of what he’s worth.

But we should not be so quick to judge. Warren Buffett is a genius. He is rich. He is lucky. But in the end, he is only human, as we all are, and it is that knowledge that has the potential to one day save the world.

Becoming Warren Buffett is available on HBO or Foxtel now.

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