|What Does Dirt Teach Us About Life? Warren Buffett’s Son And Grandson Reply – Forbes

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Victor W. Hwang

Victor W. Hwang, Contributor

My mission: to design ecosystems that nurture innovators & dreamers


What Does Dirt Teach Us About Life? Warren Buffett’s Son And Grandson Reply

Omaha40Chances (c) Tom Mangelsen

Howard W. Buffett and Howard G. Buffett (Photo Credit: Thomas Mangelsen)

About one billion people in the world are chronically hungry, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.  This problem persists, despite giant technological advances in agriculture, investments of billions of dollars by institutions and foundations, and the good intentions of countless people.  Why should such a conundrum be so difficult to solve?  According to Howard G. Buffett and Howard W. Buffett, the son and grandson of Warren Buffett, the answers are not the traditional ones.

In their new book, 40 Chances, they describe how well-intentioned policies often undermine food security for the people they are trying to help.  Giving seeds and fertilizer sounds like a good idea, but when the supplies run out, farmers are right back where they started.  Instead, they say the key is to develop a self-sustaining ecosystem that helps people help themselves, by linking farmers to markets (e.g., roads), speeding the transmission of good ideas (e.g., teaching farming techniques and building agricultural schools), and creating reliable infrastructure (e.g., grain storage systems).

The Buffett approach, I believe, is part of a broader paradigm shift in economic thinking.  It is the notion that we solve our big problems not merely by pushing more inputs into a system.  Instead, we focus on the interconnectivity of the people within the system.  What are the barriers that get in the way of people exchanging ideas, resources, talents, and capital with one another?  How do we reduce those barriers, whether physical or social?  Ecosystems depend on human connectivity across traditional barriers, the power of trust among diverse strangers, and liberating people to reorganize themselves to solve problems.  (Note: These are the themes for our upcoming Global Innovation Summit + Week, which explores how to build and scale ecosystems to transform entire industries and countries.)

I was honored to have this interview with Howard G. Buffett (HGB) and Howard W. Buffett (HWB) about 40 Chances.  The title of their book is based on the fact that each farmer has only forty productive years in which to get their crop right.  It’s a great metaphor for life itself.

Victor Hwang:  You tell an interesting story about “Circles of Competency.”  How has yours influenced where you’ve focused the Foundation’s efforts?

HGB:  It’s something I learned from my Dad, to focus on investing in the things you really understand well. And then he would remind me that my circle of competence is really small! I consider myself a farmer first and foremost. I personally farm 1,500 acres and our Foundation operates three research farms: 1,400 acres in Arizona; 4,000 acres in Illinois; and 9,200 acres in South Africa.  It was natural for me to focus our Foundation on food security and particularly agricultural development since the vast majority of food insecure people in the world are smallholder farmers. Farming is highly specialized and context-specific – I’ve been doing it for over 30 years and I still learn something new every year. Yet it’s amazing to me how much influence non-farmers have on agricultural policy globally. It’s kind of like me going to a doctor who didn’t go to medical school – chances are the outcome is not going to be good.


(Photo Credit: Howard G. Buffett Foundation)

Hwang:  You talk a lot about the need for experimentation in philanthropy, and that you think one of the important roles for philanthropy is to take the risks that investors can’t.  What does that look like when it comes time to write a check?

HGB:  Well I certainly don’t suffer from “analysis paralysis.” We do our due diligence on organizations and ideas but the truth is, I try to find the best people with the best ideas, and given where we work like the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (EDRC), that often means that the odds of success are already pretty low. You can’t really build a business plan for how to use development to end conflict like what we’re trying to do in EDRC – or I should say, you can make a plan, but you will have to make a lot of assumptions and accept that everything will change and a lot will go wrong. So when I write the check, I am not viewing some artificial measure of improved household income as my definition of success. I’m looking at whether I have someone on the ground who I trust, who has great ideas, and who will be flexible and adapt when circumstances change. I write the check knowing that most other philanthropists would not write that check – those are the problems I want our Foundation to work on. My Dad told us when he gave the first big gift in 2006 to pick big problems to work on, to not get caught up trying to bat 1.000, to take risks. I know that when we do have success with an idea, it will be a homerun, not a base hit.

Hwang:  How should success be defined and what role, if any, does “impact” have in that decision?

HWB:  I think for too long one’s personal success was defined in terms of wealth, power, or fame. I am happy to see more and more people, especially young people, demanding a different definition of success, one based on creating positive impact, or positive change in the world. That is certainly something we are seeing affect the definitions of success in philanthropy, particularly among a new generation of philanthropists coming out of the technology space, or by philanthropists like my Dad, who have learned first-hand that the old approach doesn’t offer lasting solutions.

Hwang:  You’re many things, but you’re both farmers: What does dirt have to teach us about life?

HGB: First of all, we don’t farm in dirt, we farm in soil. There’s an important distinction!

HWB: Soil is a living ecosystem, and is a farmer’s most precious asset. A farmer’s productive capacity is directly related to the health of his or her soil. There are more living organisms in a tablespoon of highly organic soil than there are people on the planet.

HGB: There are a lot of problems that technology and progress can solve for, but I have yet to see technology build organic matter in soil. If we don’t start taking care of our soil – and in Africa’s case, rebuilding highly weathered and degraded soil – we will not be able to meet our growing food needs.

HWB: Like most things in life, you get out of it what you put into it.

HGB:  And we each get a limited number of chances to do the best job possible. That’s true for farming – a farmer will have on average 40 crop seasons over a lifetime before turning the farm over to his son or daughter – and that’s true in life more generally.

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