Warren Buffett on the lottery of birth

One of the reasons J.D. asked me to join his merry band of GRS writers was so that I could add the occasional investing lesson to the line-up. Today, I’m going to hand that duty off very quickly to someone else, and then get to a life lesson from a great investor.

Today’s lesson comes from fund manager and former Motley Fool writer Whitney Tilson, whose Tilson Focus Fund (TILFX) has the best one-year return in Lipper’s multicap core category, according to Barron’s. In a recent interview on GuruFocus, Tilson said he began his investing career by reading all of Warren Buffett’s letters. If that sounds like good advice to you, every Berkshire Hathaway annual report since 1977 — which include Buffett’s letters — can be found at the Berkshire website.

The Luck of the Draw

But if you’d like some other kind of wisdom from Buffett, here’s a scenario that he often describes in speeches and interviews. (We’ve now moved into the “life lesson” part of this show.)

It’s 24 hours before your birth, and a genie appears to you. He tells you that you can set the rules for the world you’re about to enter — economic, social, political — the whole enchilada. Sounds great, right? What’s the catch?

Before you enter the world, you will pick one ball from a barrel of 6.8 billion (the number of people on the planet). That ball will determine your gender, race, nationality, natural abilities, and health — whether you are born rich or poor, sick or able-bodied, brilliant or below average, American or Zimbabwean.

This is what Buffett calls the ovarian lottery. As he explained to a group of University of Florida students, “You’re going to get one ball out of there, and that is the most important thing that’s ever going to happen to you in your life.”

According to the world’s third-richest man, that’s a good perspective to have when setting the rules for our world. We should be designing a society that, as Buffett says, “doesn’t leave behind someone who accidentally got the wrong ball and is not well-wired for this particular system.” He points out that he is designed for the American system — and he was lucky to be born into it. He can allocate capital, and he lives in a place and at a time when those skills are well rewarded. (His pal Bill Gates is quick to point out that if Buffett had been born in an earlier time, he’d be some animal’s lunch because the Oracle of Omaha can’t run fast or climb trees.)

When Buffett talks about this lottery, he often concludes by asking:

If you could put your ball back, and they took out, at random, a hundred other balls, and you had to pick one of those, would you put your ball back in? Now, of those hundred balls … roughly five of them will be American. … Half of them are going to be below-average intelligence, half will be above. Do you want to put your ball back? Most of you, I think, will not. … What you’re saying is, “I’m in the luckiest 1% of the world right now.”

A Matter of Perspective

This is a good perspective to keep in mind as we bemoan our smaller 401(k)s and shriveled home equity. Chances are, you’re not worth as much as you were a few years ago, but you’re still much, much richer than the vast majority of people in the world. We live better than most people, and even better than Americans from 20 years ago, who didn’t have the Internet, email, cell phones, iPods, GPS devices, and SpongeBob, not to mention scores of medical and pharmaceutical advances.

This is not to minimize the difficulties of the past couple of years, or to say that some Americans don’t live wretched lives due to tragedy or severe health issues. But as J.D. has written before, research indicates that gratitude is a key ingredient to happiness. If you wouldn’t be inclined to turn your ball back in for another draw at the ovarian lottery, then thank your lucky stars. I sure I do.

J.D.’s note: One of my goals for the next few weeks is to sit down and read all of Buffett’s shareholder letters. Even before Robert submitted this article, I downloaded them all, and I’m waiting to plop them on my iPad this Saturday so I can read them on my flight to Chicago. As I’ve mentioned before, Buffett is one of my financial heroes, and I admire his philosophy.

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