Warren Buffett’s deputy says a million people want to be as successful as his boss—but the vast majority fall short because they get complacent

Countless people dream of achieving as much success as Warren Buffett, according to one of the Oracle of Omaha’s top lieutenants—but he says they never get close because they stop trying when they get comfortable.

In a recently released episode of the Art of Investing podcast, Todd Combs—an investment officer at Buffett’s conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway—took part in a wide-ranging interview that covered career advice, investment strategy, and his mom’s high expectations.

During the conversation, Combs, who is also CEO and President of insurance giant GEICO and serves on JPMorgan Chase’s board of directors, said there are “a million people that want to be” like tennis ace Novak Djokovic, NFL star Tom Brady, basketballer Steph Curry, or Warren Buffett—but he noted that passion was a vital ingredient for following in any of their footsteps.

“Grit and pushing yourself can go a long way,” he said. “But in a world where 1 million people are trying to do this, if 0.1% of them just absolutely love it so passionately that they’re going to bed thinking about it, they’re waking up thinking about it, you’re never going to be able to compete with that if you don’t love it to your core.”

Combs added that for many, contentment is the biggest obstruction to achieving greatness.

“People usually rise to their level of complacency,” he argued. “If your dream is to make it to the manager and you’re perfectly fine there, that’s pretty much where you’re going to stop. That doesn’t mean if you’ve got 10,000 people who all want to be CEO or whatever that they’re all going to achieve it, but people create their own limiting factors.”

For young people starting to think about their futures, Combs added, now was the time to embrace risk.

“It’s super, super important to take a lot of risk when you’re young,” he advised. “As you get older, you’ve got more downside risk. You’ve got nothing to lose at your age, you take the risk and you can massively screw up, and nobody’s going to really hold it against you unless it’s fraud or something like that.”

But he added: “Take intelligent risk, don’t take stupid risk.”

“Society [doesn’t] tell anyone that. They want you to take the safe path,” Combs added. “But if you’ve got a million mistakes to make in your life, what would you do? You’d pull them all forward, get them all out of the way when you’re 19, 20, 21.”

Team Buffett

Combs isn’t the only person close to Buffett who has shared advice in the past for those hoping to come close to the 93-year-old’s level of professional success.

Billionaire Charlie Munger—the 99-year-old who has been Buffett’s right-hand man for almost five decades—shared his own thoughts on the matter in a 2007 commencement speech at the University of Southern California, touting Buffett’s dedication to broadening his own mind.

“Without Warren Buffett being a learning machine—a continuous learning machine—[Berkshire Hathaway’s] record would have been absolutely impossible,” he noted.

Expanding on that point in a 2018 edition of his book Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Munger said: “Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Step by step you get ahead, but not necessarily in fast spurts. But you build discipline by preparing for fast spurts.”

Buffett, who is the chairman and largest shareholder of Berkshire Hathaway, has a net worth of $116 billion, according to Bloomberg. His investment firm—which owns GEICO and Dairy Queen and holds stakes in Coca-Cola and American Express—says it has delivered a 19.8% compounded annual gain in market value since 1965.

In last year’s letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, Buffett spoke about the importance of identifying and pursuing a passion—advising those starting out to seek out the job they would do “if they had no need for money.”

“Economic realities, I acknowledge, may interfere with that kind of search,” he conceded, but he added: “Even so, I urge the students never to give up the quest, for when they find that sort of job, they will no longer be “working.”

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