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Warren Buffett’s Antidote To Failure


“I like to study failure,” Warren Buffett said at a shareholders meeting for Coca-Cola

years ago. “The biggest thing that kills [businesses] is complacency.” The solution, he suggests, is restlessness.

How might we apply this recipe for success in our own lives, work, and personal finances? How can we make healthy restlessness a habit?

1)   Acknowledge our own imperfection. No, I’m neither affirming condescension nor recommending self-flagellation, but I do believe there’s a downside to the “You deserve everything,” “You can do anything,” and the “You’re perfect just how you are” messages that seem pervasive these days. In reality, none of us is perfect, we can’t do anything we want to do, and we don’t deserve nearly as much as marketers would have us believe. Furthermore, these falsehoods can lead us to complacency, while humility acts as a foundation for personal improvement and a welcome catalyst for restlessness.

2)   Expand our learning through intellectual curiosity. Once we’ve acknowledged our need for perpetual growth as humans—once we admit that we don’t know everything—this admission of individual insufficiency calls us to expand our purview through learning and the cultivation of intellectual curiosity. The beauty of this practice is that it is inherently compounding. The more we learn, the more we realize how much more we have to learn.

3)   Limit our scope of influence. Now here’s the ironic twist. After we’ve catalyzed a spirit of restlessness through humility and deepened our knowledge by expanding our learnings, we activate the wisdom gained on behalf of others by limiting our scope of influence. It seems that one of our most prominent imperfections as humans is to overestimate our capabilities while underestimating the tasks at hand. Therefore, we really can accomplish more by asking less of ourselves.

I’ll never forget the advice that a friend, former All-Pro NFL lineman, and present coach to professional coaches, Joe Ehrmann, gave me many years ago. I had been confronted with my own ignorance regarding the plight of poverty in my home town of Baltimore. Joe had spent years in service of this cause after hanging up his cleats as a Baltimore Colt, and he was teaching a class I was taking in preparation for a service partnership in the Sandtown neighborhood, the real-life setting for much of the hit show, The Wire.

Having been humbled by my ignorance and educated enough to see a way I could be part of the solution, Joe was kind enough to accept my invitation to breakfast, to further expand my horizons. But then he shocked me when I asked him how to balance this demanding project with raising my young children and growing in my profession. “You can’t,” he told me. “The time will come for you to serve more directly, but you’ll do more to impact the world and our community if—for now—you focus your efforts almost entirely on your vocation and raising those two boys to be fine young men.”  

I’ve found this personal lesson of scope reduction to be helpful in business as well. In fact, the Entrepreneurial Operating System®, or EOS®, that our firm is among many to apply, insists that the very foundation of the method is less is more. After acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses as a firm, and exploring your opportunities broadly, you insist on setting forth to accomplish only a handful of “Big Rocks” as a firm, restricting your time horizon to the achievable 90 days.

This mentality is universal—equally applicable in the family room as the board room, in our personal budgets and our corporate cash flow statements. And none of this—the acknowledgement of our shortcomings and the call for restlessness—should be seen as negative or punitive. It’s a “get to” perspective, not a “have to.” Or as Buffett put it, it’s a “…belief that tomorrow is more exciting than today.”

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