Early in the new HBO documentary Becoming Warren Buffett, we watch Buffett pull his car up to a McDonald’s drive-through, as he does every morning on his way to the office. Buffett is behind the wheel–no driver for him.
How does he choose his order? “I tell my wife as I shave in the morning, either $2.61, $2.95, or $3.17,” he explains. “And she puts that amount in the little cup by me here and that determines which of three breakfasts I get. When I’m not feeling quite so prosperous, I might go with the $2.61 and that’s two sausage patties and I put them together. $3.17 is a Bacon, Egg & Cheese Biscuit, but the market’s down this morning, so I think I’ll pass up the $3.17 and go for the $2.95.” (That $2.95 buys him a Sausage McMuffin with egg and cheese.)
Seems pretty silly, right? Buffett is one of the three richest people on the planet. He could buy a Bacon, Egg & Cheese Biscuit for every person in Omaha for much less than he makes on his investments in a single day. And as Buffett explains in the film, he doesn’t need–or even have much use for–most of his money. In fact, he has already started the process of giving 99 percent of it to charity.
What’s going on here? (Besides the surprising fact that a man who eats McDonald’s for breakfast every morning and then drinks multiple Cokes throughout the day is still in great health at age 86?) Some observers dismiss Buffett’s breakfast habit as a personal peculiarity–odd, and of little significance. Or they assume it’s a vestige of the frugality that helped him build his fortune. But there’s something much more important going on here.
His father’s son.
Buffett, we learn in the movie, learned a lot about business and life from his father. After losing his job in the Depression, Howard Buffett took his savings and started an investment company. Despite the bad times, he did well. Surprisingly, according to Warren Buffett, his father didn’t care about money at all. But he liked to win. “He believed in having an inner scorecard and never worry about what other people are thinking about you. As long as you knew why you were doing what you were doing.”
That’s what keeps Buffett heading to the office every day–“tap dancing to work” as he puts it–decades after most of his contemporaries have retired to go have fun. He’s already having fun because he has his own inner scorecard. He describes it this way: “The game that I’m in gets more interesting all the time. It’s a competitive game, it’s a big game, and I enjoy the game a lot.” And, just like Dad, he loves to win.
Look at it in that context and Buffett’s frugality over breakfast suddenly starts making sense. He has the Bacon, Egg & Cheese Biscuit to reward himself when he’s winning. He has the sausage patties when he’s losing. Winning and losing thus have consequences, and he can motivate himself with his desire to savor the delights of the bacon rather than just munch on the sausage. It’s all part of his wonderful game.
Gamification is a well-known way to motivate people in all kinds of jobs that’s gained a lot of popularity in recent years. People compete to be employee of the month, or raise more funds for charity than their co-workers, or do any number of things for prizes, or for bragging rights, or simply because, like Buffett, we all love to win.
So next time you want to motivate yourself to greatness, ask yourself how you could mentally turn your job into a game, and what prizes you could award yourself if you do well at it. You might not wind up a multi-billionaire. But then again, you might.
Becoming Warren Buffett premiers Monday January 30 at 10 p.m. Eastern on HBO.