Warren Buffett could never stand school.
He was a pain to teachers in grade school, and just as bad in high school.
As a teen, he was already a hustling businessman, raking in $US53,000 by age 16. So, while he didn’t see the need to go to college and study business, he dutifully attended the University of Pennsylvania when his parents told him to.
But in the spring of 1950, when he was just a few credits away from graduating, he found something to love about formal education.
Her name was Harvard Business School, minter of tycoons, US presidents, and oligarchs.
By this time, Buffett already knew what he wanted to do with his life: become ridiculously wealthy, ridiculously quick. He wanted to be a millionaire by age 35, with all the security and freedom that comes with that kind of dough.
Alice Schroeder writes in her biography, “Snowball,” that HBS offered Buffett things he couldn’t get by teaching himself: connections and prestige.
So 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.”
But the certainty was, in Schroeder’s account, misplaced. She writes:
Warren was relying on his knowledge of stocks to make a good impression in the interview. So far his epicureans had been that whenever he started talking about stocks, people could not help but listen. His relatives, his teachers, his fellow students — all wanted to hear him discourse on this subject.
But he had misunderstood Harvard’s mission, which was to turn out leaders.
Buffett, a 19-year-old whiz kid obsessed with a single subject, was not ready to be one.
“I looked about 16 and and emotionally was about nine,” Buffett recalled. “I spent 10 minutes with the Harvard alumnus who was doing the interview, and he assessed my capabilities and turned me down.”
Yet this might have been the most helpful spurning in business school history. Schroeder says that Buffett would “later come to consider his rejection by Harvard as the pivotal episode of his life.”
Barred from Cambridge, he was forced to look elsewhere.
Leafing through the catalogue for Columbia University, his eyes fell upon a life-changing name: Benjamin Graham.
“I had just read Graham’s book,” Buffett recalled.
That book was the “Intelligent Investor,” a guide to stocks analysis. Buffett would later say that finding that book at age 19 was one of the luckiest moments of his life, since it gave him the framework for his investing.
All of a sudden, Buffett could go meet the teacher whose insights had already changed his life. If he went to Columbia, he could surely convince Graham to become his mentor.
“It was like [Warren] had found a god,” said his housemate at the time.
So he applied to Columbia.
Thankfully for Buffett, it was a written application, allowing him to tailor his impression.
Even better, Columbia wasn’t trying to create mature leaders of society; Graham and his colleagues taught the craft of investing. And Buffett was a young craftsman of exceptional ability.
He got in.
Now he’s worth an estimated $US74 billion, making him the second richest man in America.
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