Go slower, go farther
Just sit quietly and think once in a while
In a throwaway remark during his "Person of the Year" interview with Time Magazine, Elon Musk remarked "I'm not Warren Buffett's biggest fan, frankly, but -- he sits there, and he reads all these annual reports, which are super-boring -- does anybody want that job? It think most people do not. I don't want that job." While the words directly taken are dismissive, Musk defends Buffett's work: "Sure, he's got a high net worth, but he's doing a useful job for the economy and he's very skilled at it, and should probably keep doing it."
■ Musk's point was actually about Buffett's aggregation of a tremendous net worth, and how a large net worth on paper isn't the same as being a conspicuous consumer. And it's a fair point, even if Musk himself (with an estimated net worth of a quarter-trillion dollars) has a vested interest in making it.
■ But it is the "super-boring" part that deserves a second look. Buffett has offered variations on the same advice for decades: "I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit and think." In his 2013 letter to shareholders, Buffett noted that "Those people who can sit quietly for decades when they own a farm or apartment house too often become frenetic when they are exposed to a stream of stock quotations and accompanying commentators delivering an implied message of 'Don't just sit there, do something.'"
■ "Frenetic" may be a loaded word, but Musk makes it clear he doesn't like to sit still. He's come around to seeing the value of getting six hours of sleep a night, but he's at least sometimes claimed to work 120 hours a week in the midst of a titanic project. That much work seems indicative of a management system with too little delegation: Musk doesn't seem like he's adopted the Eisenhower Matrix, adapted from Dwight Eisenhower's adage, "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent."
■ Americans notoriously work a lot more hours than many of our peers in other wealthy countries. We're also inconsistent about reading: 23% of American adults said in a 2021 Pew survey that they hadn't "read a book in whole or in part in the past year". It's a suboptimal combination.
■ If we were taking Buffett's advice to heart, average daily reading time would be high especially for people of ordinary working age, instead of taking a dramatic upward spike after retirement (as it does now). We'd see it not just as recreation, but as a vital part of work productivity, too.
■ The real thrust of Buffett's case isn't that sitting idly is itself especially productive, but rather that a person who sits and thinks can avoid big mistakes. In that sense, he channels Benjamin Franklin's advice that "Well done, is twice done." Twitter feeds, listicles, and the choppy syntax of "smart brevity" give the impression of making us smarter, but an endless torrent of information unaccompanied by at least some periodic deep thinking is like a decision-making placebo.
■ Elon Musk can afford to make pretty big mistakes because he's starting from a net worth that is second to one (and, depending on the day, not even that). He's obviously smart, but he also has some obvious problems with impulsiveness whose resulting errors are easier to fix with a giant net worth. For everyone else, perhaps it's better to envy Warren Buffett's job and working style after all.
[Originally published in the Evening Post & Mail on December 19, 2021]