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How Warren Buffett Turned his Harvard Rejection into Opportunity

In HBO's Becoming Warren Buffett documentary, the self-made billionaire investor talks about turning his Harvard rejection into an opportunity.
BY BrainGain Magazine Staff Writer |   19-08-2019

BrainGain Magazine

It’s easy for students to have a mentor-crush on legendary investor Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett. He started out as an ambitious, numbers-obsessed boy from Nebraska and ended up becoming one of the richest and most respected men in corporate America.

In HBO’s 90-minute documentary, Becoming Warren Buffett, the self-made billionaire investor shares some wonderful advice:

Turn rejection into opportunity

After graduating from the University of Nebraska in three years, Buffett applied to Harvard Business School. He took the train from Omaha to Chicago, where he'd have his Harvard interview.

It felt like a sure thing — Buffett had already told a friend, "Join me at Harvard."

“They told me I was to get interviewed in a place near Chicago,” the iconic investor recounts in the HBO documentary. “I got there and they interviewed me for about 10 minutes and said: ‘Forget it. You’re not going to Harvard.’”

Buffett’s first thought was, “What do I tell my dad? This is terrible.” But, he says, “it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.”

The rejection opened the door to Columbia. Later that summer, while looking through a catalog for Columbia Business School, Buffett recognized the names of two professors: Benjamin Graham, the father of value investing, and David Dodd.

“I had read this book [Security Analysis] by the two of them, so I wrote them a letter in mid-August,” said Buffett. “I said, ‘Dear Professor Dodd. I thought you guys were dead, but now that I found out that you’re alive and teaching at Columbia, I would really like to come.’

“And he admitted me.”

“Ben was this incredible teacher. He was a natural and he drew us all in,” Buffett says of Graham. “It was like learning baseball from a fellow who was batting .400. It shaped my professional life.”

The two golden rules

Columbia Professor Benjamin Graham taught Buffett “the two rules of investing” that Buffett has lived by throughout his massively successful career.

“Rule number one: Never lose money,” Buffett says. “Rule number two: Never forget rule number one.”

Professor Graham wrote two of the founding texts in neoclassical investing Security Analysis with David Dodd, and The Intelligent Investor. His investment philosophy stressed investor psychology, minimal debt, buy-and-hold investing, fundamental analysis, concentrated diversification, buying within the margin of safety, activist investing, and contrarian mindsets.


Treat yourself well

In the opening scene, Buffett gives an analogy to a group of school students: “Imagine you’re going to be given a new car. Any car that you want is yours. It will be at the front of your house with a bow on it when you get home. There’s one catch. That’s the only car you’re ever going to have in your life. So you better take care of it.”

Buffet then relates this analogy to the mind and the body.

“You’re only going to get one body and one mind in your life, so you better take care of it.”

Secret to success is who you marry

There have been “two turning points” in his life: “One when I came out of the womb and one when I met Susie,” Buffett says of his first wife, who died in 2004. “What happened with me would not have happened without her.”

Buffett addressed the topic during a 2017 conversation with Bill Gates at Columbia University, too. “You want to associate with people who are the kind of person you’d like to be. You’ll move in that direction,” he said. “And the most important person by far in that respect is your spouse. I can’t overemphasize how important that is.”

“Marry the right person. I’m serious about that. It will make more difference in your life. It will change your aspirations, all kinds of things,” Buffett once pronounced at a Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting.



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