You’re Warren Buffett’s son? But you seem so normal!
Over the course of my life, I have heard many versions of this comment, and I have always taken it as a compliment—a compliment not to me, but to my family.
Why? Because what we mean by “normal” really comes down to this: that a person can function effectively and find acceptance among other human beings. To put it another way, it means that a person has been given the best possible chance to make the most of his or her own life.
There is a very famous quote from the Book of Luke that was taken very seriously in our family: from those to whom much has been given, much is expected. And it was made very clear that the most important gifts of all had nothing to do with money.
There were the gifts of parental love and close community and warm friendship; and of inspiring teachers and mentors who took delight in our development. There were mysterious gifts of talent and competence, capacity for empathy and hard work. These gifts were meant to be respected and repaid.
But how? How do we repay the gifts that came to us unbidden and more or less at random? And not just repay them but amplify them, so that they grow beyond our own small circle to make a difference in the world?
How can we work toward a version of success that we define for ourselves—a success based on values and substance rather than mere dollars and the approval of others?
It is my belief, based on both intuition and observation, that there are many, many people wrestling with these questions.
Making Our Vocation Our Livelihood
Discovering our true vocation is a huge milestone on the way to making our lives what we want them to be. But it’s only a first step.
The big question that remains is this: Once we’ve found our vocation, what do we do with it?
I am enough of a Midwesterner, and enough of my father’s son, to take a very pragmatic view of this question.
If we want our vocations to become our livelihoods—rather than our hobbies or vague dreams of things we’ll get around to someday—then the hard and simple truth is that we have to find a way to make them pay.
I’m talking about how we regard the interplay between what we’d like to do and what we need to do. More precisely, I’m talking about the complex relationship between what we ourselves value, and what the outside world will pay us for.
When times are tough and the future looks murky, there is, I believe, a tendency to see one’s own dreams and preferences as luxuries one can’t afford. The immediate concern is to get a job and keep it. While the attitude is entirely understandable, I don’t think it holds up as a long-term formula for happiness and self-respect.
Let me be clear that I am not advocating a return to “dropping out” or hippiedom. I accept and even celebrate the necessity of earning a living. Earning a living is one of life’s character-defining challenges.
What I am trying to get across is the idea of balance. If we hope to be true to ourselves, to fulfill our vocations while also paying the rent and putting bread on the table, we need to find the sweet spot where our individual abilities and inclinations intersect with the world of commerce.
We need to figure out what it is we’d genuinely like to do…and that the world will value enough to buy.
Breaking Through The Professional Myth
Years ago, I happened upon a remark by the writer Bernard Malamud that has stayed with me all this time. Malamud was one of these fortunate—and extremely talented—people who seemed to have it all. His work was critically praised; his stories were published in prestigious magazines like Esquire and the New Yorker.
Unlike a lot of “literary” writers, he was commercially successful, too. His novels made the best-seller lists; at least two of them, The Natural and The Fixer, were made into major studio films.
In an introduction to one of his short-story collections, he remarked that “no good writer writes exactly as he pleases.” This was such a simple quiet sentence that I read right past—until I reflected on it and realized what a startling comment it really was.
What Malamud was saying is that it’s a myth to imagine that a professional writer, however gifted or experienced, simply sits down at a keyboard and lets the words flow.
No, there’s another step involved, a meditation. There’s the author’s impulse, which is passionate; then there’s a consideration of the potential audience, which is practical; the finished piece of work is the offspring of these two factors.
Aside from what we think of as the purely “creative” aspect, there’s the clarity required to understand the marketplace, and the discipline and skill needed to bring one’s vision to an audience.
Malamud uses all those talents to find his artistic and commercial sweet spot—and, most impressively, he does this while always sounding exactly like himself and no one else.
I happen to believe that Malamud’s statement holds an important lesson for all of us—or certainly anyone who hopes to turn a passionately held vocation into a livelihood.
The lesson, put simply, is this: When we do something for pay, whether it’s writing a story or digging a ditch, we need to please the person paying us; but that doesn’t make the work any less our own.
The paradox is that the finished product, whatever it happens to be, belongs to us as much as to the buyer. We’ve put our stamp on it; we’ve brought our uniqueness to it.
Accepting this paradox—of selling something and yet still possessing it—is part of how we become professional. It’s part of how we segue from finding our bliss to doing our bliss.
Adapted from Life Is What You Make It: Find Your Own Path to Fulfillment by Peter Buffett. Copyright © 2011 by Three Rivers Press.