Many successes start with luck.
“Having the good luck to win the ‘ovarian lottery’ is a major determinant in success in life in general — and in business in particular,” Professor David Kass told CNBC. The clinical professor of finance for the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland was the first to publish the Buffett “ovarian lottery” comments, based on notes he took at a 2013 graduate student event where Buffett spoke.
Luck may seem like the least tangible, least controllable success factor. After all, what can one do about luck? But there’s a perfect example from Buffett’s business history that Kass shared with CNBC, showing how those who believe in luck are also on the lookout for luck when it delivers an opportunity into their lap:
When Buffett was a 20-year-old MBA student at Columbia University, he learned that the investor who was his role model and hero, Professor Benjamin Graham, was the Chairman of the Board of GEICO. Since Buffett was interested in anything that Graham was interested in, he took a train to Washington from New York (1950), arriving on a Saturday morning. Without calling or writing ahead of time, Buffett was very lucky that one employee was there, Lorimar Davidson, who spent four hours explaining both insurance and GEICO to Buffett. Buffett immediately grasped that GEICO would have an enduring competitive advantage. (Davidson subsequently became CEO of GEICO.) Insurance later became the primary business and building block of Berkshire Hathaway.
“Warren Buffett has stressed the importance of luck in his life, focusing not only on where he was born but also when. His primary skill of allocation of capital has worked well for him in the United States and in his lifetime,” Kass said.
Buffett’s view of his own lucky draw is reflected in this key section from Professor Kass’ notes:
“Just imagine that it is 24 hours before you are born. A genie comes and says to you in the womb, ’You look like an extraordinarily responsible, intelligent, potential human being. [You’re] going to emerge in 24 hours and it is an enormous responsibility I am going to assign to you — determination of the political, economic and social system into which you are going to emerge. You set the rules, any political system, democracy, parliamentary, anything you wish — you can set the economic structure, communistic, capitalistic, set anything in motion, and I guarantee you that when you emerge, this world will exist for you, your children and grandchildren. What’s the catch? One catch — just before you emerge, you have to go through a huge bucket with 7 billion slips, one for each human. Dip your hand in and that is what you get …”
For entrepreneurs who hope to have as much luck for as long as Buffett has had it, Kass said the lesson is to be humble about your own contributions and the contributions from others upon which you depend. “Appreciating the contributions of the teachers we have had and the people before us who have assisted us is a critical attribute of luck and lasting business success,” he said.
That’s a practical philosophy wrapped in an overlooked birthday gift worth practicing every day of the year for those seeking success in either of Buffett’s sweet spots — running businesses or making stock investments — or any walk of life.