By now most living beings are familiar with the great Warren Buffett. His investment track record is unparalleled. For those unfamiliar with him, a $1,000 investment in Buffett’s holding company (Berkshire Hathaway) in 1964 would be worth over $12 million today. Buffett's genius is otherworldly.
Ok, but what if sports were the only path to success in the world today? Buffett himself asked that very question in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece a few years ago. If the economy were sports-based, Buffett acknowledged that he “would be a flop. You could supply me with the world’s best instruction, and I could endlessly strive to improve my skills. But, alas, on the gridiron or basketball court I would never command even a minimum wage.”
Buffett’s statement of the obvious is a reminder of how silly is the focus on “grit” as the path to achievement. The latter has sold books in “bestseller” quantities, and that’s too bad. Readers were shortchanged. “Grit” doesn’t mean much at all.
No doubt it’s necessary for those merely trying to survive, but in a developed economy the willingness to grit one’s teeth in pursuit of something better down the line is just silly. Better yet, it’s the path to failure. If Buffett had gritted his teeth in order to learn basketball or football, we would never have heard of him. He would be a failed Nebraskan who’d failed because he wasted his life working hard at something that had nothing to do with his skills.
Buffett was thankfully too wise to pursue what he wasn’t good at. Instead, he pursued investing. The rest is history. This isn’t to say that what Buffett did was easy. But it was relevant to his skills. Just as Buffett couldn’t do what basketball savants Larry Bird and Michael Jordan once did on the hardwood, it’s a fair bet that neither can allocate capital like Buffett can. Bird and Jordan pursued what amplified their talents, and Buffett did (and does) the same. Bird and Jordan worked endless hours perfecting their craft. Buffett does to this day.
Crucial here is that grit didn’t make Bird or Jordan, nor does it continue to make Buffett. Nor will it make the reader. There are lots of things we could do while gritting our proverbial teeth, but most often we’d be wasting our time. True success springs from the pursuit of that which doesn’t require grit.
To be fair, none of what’s just been written should give the impression that work isn’t required in order to achieve. Work, and lots of it, is unquestionably necessary to thrive.
But there’s a big difference. So often we’re told a variation of “work hard, grit your teeth, and you’ll prosper.” Ok, but how would that have helped readers 150 years ago when work generally took place on the family farm? No doubt many gritted their teeth back then simply because a failure to was the path to starvation. Still, this was hardly a life. Consider it through the prism of Buffett. He wrote about how a sports-based economy would have rendered him an object of pity. That in mind, how many readers would be a superstar if farming were their only work option?
If it were, pride would cause many of you to reveal true grit. You’d make it, but oh the misery. No wonder death by starvation was much more common back then. Imagine if your only source of sustenance was endless work in the fields each day…All of your life.
Fast forward to the present, and thankfully very few of us have to work on a farm. Thanks to early “robots” like the tractor, hundreds of millions were spared work that required grit. Due to exponentially greater food production with fewer hands, more and more of us were able to pursue work that did not require grit.
Important here is that the avoidance of backbreaking work in the fields didn’t mean we avoided toil altogether, nor does it. Automation doesn’t put us out of work as much as it expands the ways in which we can work.
To be clear, disdain for grit is not disdain for work. It says here that work, and lots of it, is essential for happiness. Buffett could doubtless write a huge check to every reader of this piece such that all of us would never have to work again. Yet Buffett’s checks wouldn’t bring us happiness. The latter comes from accomplishment, of purpose, and work brings both.
The crucial point is that the path to sustained and energetic effort in the workplace is an effect of the robots and automation that some of us needlessly fear. As opposed to putting us into breadlines, these erasers of the kind of work that requires “grit” will enable our specialization. And when we can specialize our efforts, work becomes much more about passion. It’s something we can’t wait to do, and something we don’t mind doing, precisely because the specialization of it means that we’re reinforcing our unique skills and intelligence.
To be happily blunt, the path to success is one paved with a lack of grit. In the past there was too much of it, and talented people like Warren Buffett had it suffocated by an economy that rewarded too few skills. Robots and other forms of automation promise smoother paths free of grit, and as a result, exponentially more Birds, Buffetts and Jordans.