Author/Musician Peter Buffett MAG

September 14, 2010

Peter Buffett wears many hats. He is a musician/composer, runs a philanthropic foundation and is the son of Warren Buffett - one of richest men in the world. Teen Ink wanted to interview him because he recently wrote his autobiographical journey Life Is What You Make It. A group of writers from the Teen Ink Summer Writing Program interviewed him.

What inspired you to write Life Is What You Make It? Can you talk a little bit about the process you went through to write and publish it?

What inspired me to write it was a process, like everything. It made sense because for a lot of my adult life, as my father became more well-known, people would say, "Why, you're Warren Buffett's son! You're so normal!" And I thought, Why wouldn't I be normal? I took it as a compliment, but then I realized that it's kind of sad, actually. So I thought about people's assumptions about who he is and how I must have grown up and what privileges and successes Imust have had. And I thought the real story might benefit others.

Then I began doing a stage show called "A Concert and Conversation," which was the outline of my story. This was a result of speaking to wealthy clients at Citigroup who were basically wealthy parents saying, "Boy, I sure don't want my kids to be messed up, or without a value system, so explain how you grew up." As I talked about my life, somebody said, "That's a book!" and I realized I had never thought of that.

In terms of the process, I didn't know anything about what it took to write a book, so I was introduced to an agent who agreed it would make a good book. He explained I needed to write a proposal, which is the introduction and a paragraph for each chapter. Then it took a year to actually do.

You seem to have lived a very out-of-the-box kind of life and have become your own individual. What advice would you give to teenagers trying to follow their own lifestyle?

That's such an important question, I want to give the right answer. What is in your heart or gut is unique to you. During these years, I liken it to you trying to find your tribe. Where do I belong? Whether it's heavy metal, or vegan, there are different versions of what a tribe means, which are all potentially legitimate. People sometimes have to try a bunch out.

But you can lose your compass in there somewhere, because some of these people can have strong personalities, or you can want to hang out with somebody for their approval.

You have to try different things out. But the scary part is losing yourself in that process. And there are so many forces out there saying you should be like this, or that, or, this is important, this isn't important. And again, when you're 14, 15, 16, whom do you listen to?

Obviously, having great parents is helpful, but you may also want to rebel against them. They should be (and often are) a strong force. Then when you're a teenager you're trying to create your own identity. So I guess the biggest point is, it's hard to find your own path, but it is inside of you.

Has there been a situation where your fame or father's success has been a disadvantage?

Yes, I had a big idea for this American Indian show, "Spirit the Seventh Fire." It was too big to make it happen myself, so I got a lot of people involved. And I had to raise money.

I found my last name was wonderful in terms of meeting interested people, but when it came to raising money, everyone practically laughed me out of the room. Look at who your dad is. Why doesn't he just pay for it? Or, don't you have enough money? So, it was very hard to raise money. That was the biggest negative, for sure.

The only other negative is that the more well-known he gets, the harder it is to know what people's motivations are in getting to know me.

Your foundation, the NoVo Foundation, empowers women. Why did you create it?
My wife, Jennifer, and I spent a couple of years talking and learning from people about a lot of different issues. We felt that the world was out of balance because so many people were trying to dominate or exploit others. While some have a lot, most people didn't. And that, the way we look at it, is very masculine behavior.

So we thought what would help is supporting what you might consider feminine behavior: collaborating, partnership, nurturing. If you give a dollar to a woman in a developing world, she will spend it on her children, education and her community and things that will ultimately nurture and create a better world.<

You obviously grew up in a wealthy family. Is there anything about the lifestyle of the rich and famous that people might find surprising?
The fact is I actually didn't grow up in a wealthy family. That's probably what's most surprising. It was wealthy in surprising ways. It's funny how that's a very easy and understandable assumption. My father's father wasn't wealthy. He was born in a typical family in Omaha, Nebraska. My dad had a gift for numbers, to say the least, so when he was very young, he would buy a six-pack of soda for twenty-five cents from his grandfather who ran a grocery store and then sell each for a nickel. So, on every six, he made a nickel. He was thinking like that at seven. I think he filed his first tax return at thirteen.

But when we were growing up, he sold stocks door-to-door. When I was two years old, we were driving around in a Volkswagen and running out of gas, but over time he made a lot of money. Since he loved doing it, it never showed up in our life. We never had giant cars or houses.

My father still lives in the same house that I grew up in. I go home and sleep in my bedroom. Even today there's no fence around the house. So one of the things I think I can dispel in terms of the rich and famous lifestyle is that that's not really what it's about. If you need a lot of money or fame to fill some personal hole (like I'm not a worthy unless I have 20 houses and yachts), then you're probably going to grow up in a house with lots of problems.

But if you grow up with somebody who loves what he does and is fanatical about it, you see that passion in a good way. So that's what I learned growing up.

I just want to say, I am a big fan. I actually have your songs on my iPod.
Oh my god! I've been waiting to meet someone like you.

And so I said I have to interview you. Actually the first song I heard was "Anything" with Akon. What was it like working with him?
Akon has introduced me to a different audience, which is wonderful. Our collaboration was great and happened organically. A mutual friend said, "You guys have got to meet." I thought, Why? I didn't know who he was. But, we had this great, long amazing dinner and talked about all sorts of stuff. I thought, This is one cool guy.

Months passed and my friend explained that Akon was in New York again. Akon, at the time, was realizing that his life was too much about bling, and he had started a foundation. So he came by our foundation offices and we talked a bit.

Then I said, "Let me play you 'Anything,'" which was written because of my experience in Sierra Leone and Liberia. He could feel the authenticity in the music and said, "Send me these tracks. I want to play around with them." Nothing happened immediately but I knew he was a busy guy. So, months later - this is all a lesson in how much time it can take for anything to happen - I get an email from him that says, "Hey, check it out" with the song, and I listen and say, "Oh my god." He didn't just twiddle around, he completely redid it. Added a verse.

And so we did another song together, which was very cool. He was generous with his time and talent. I felt that whatever ups and downs his life and career had had, I think he was growing up.

What challenges do you think my generation is going to have to work to overcome?
I think that relates to the nature of our society and the fact that it's built on the fear of not having enough. So controlling and domination and fear-based behavior creates a few people having a lot and lot of people not having enough. Then there's a lot of desire: I want this, and I want that, and I have to be like this, or that.

So, it all comes down to fear, desire and trying to fit into social norms. The news is all about fear and the commercials are all about desire. I think the biggest challenge is realizing there's enough for everyone. We can work together to create a world that's in balance. That's a huge order that isn't going to happen easily or overnight. I know it's very idealistic.

And how do you not succumb to the behavior that's run the place for thousands of years. It comes down to, how do you meet another human being on their ground and say, "You're worthy. I'm worthy. Let's work together to make a world that can allow both of us to live," which is played out in a million ways. You can walk into Times Square and see it all there. Girls wearing next to nothing on posters. And you think, how does that make me feel? A bunch of ways, and none of it good.

That's why I like talking to you, because you're what's going to be the difference. Every next generation holds the power to say, "Okay, we have got to behave differently." But it takes a lot of work.

I like writing inspirational realistic fiction about choosing your own path, like your book. Do you have any advice for me or others who are trying, in a small way, to follow your book's footsteps to make a difference?
Well, do it. That's my first advice. Every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Every little step is valuable, and that's the only thing I wished you hadn't said: "In a small way." Because it could be in a huge way, you never know.

What you're doing is so important. I think as long as what you write is authentic and vulnerable. Even fiction still comes from inside you. The closer you can get to real, the more it will actually resonate.

I don't know what is more effective than authenticity and vulnerability. These are the key to almost everything. If you can be real and open, it allows others to be, too. I've been doing this show since the book and I'm realizing that all I have to do is show up, be present and open and it's amazing what happens. It allows everybody to open up, even if just a bit. Even if you just get a little crack, they'll start to see themselves in your stories. A lot can happen.

Most teenagers don't have any idea what they want to be yet. What advice would you give them to find what they love?
When I was a teenager I was sure I was going to be a photographer. For four years, I practically lived in a darkroom and my fingers were funny colors. I lived and breathed it. I was going to get a job on a newspaper and not go to college. But I went because I thought I should go (and my parents were paying, which was wonderful).

I realized college was a great opportunity and took every intro course. I was still into photography, but I started to realize that it wasn't quite doing it for me. Then I heard this guy play guitar on the dorm floor, it just changed my life. I realized I've been playing music all my life and I never paid attention to it.

I thought I knew myself when I was a teenager, but I went a completely different way. I think trying things out and seeing how it resonates for you is critical. And committing long enough to get the feeling back. That's the last chapter of my book.

Your father has been very supportive of your dreams. Was there anything you did that he didn't support?
The only thing I can think of is I got married really young. He probably wasn't crazy about that, but he would never say he didn't support it. He knew I would learn from it.

Yes, he's seen me do dumb things. I talk about this house I bought in the book. It was huge and was completely idiotic. But would he say, "I support you in that"? Rather, he'd say, "This seems idiotic to me, but go for it. You'll figure it out." He was more that kind of person who knew it would work out, one way or another. And in terms of my career, some might say, "Gee, you went into music. Isn't that a little disappointing?" Or "How did he feel about that?" But we really do the same thing: he does what he loves and I do what I love. So that's never been an issue.

How would you define the word success?
I would define success as getting up in the morning and being excited about it. Or wanting to get to bed so you can hurry up and get up the next day. And I think that that's success.

What themes do you hope come through in your music and albums?
That has changed with time since I've had multiple careers musically. During the 90s and some of this decade, it was rooted in American Indian culture. And what I hoped came from that music still does. It's somewhat related to what I'm doing now: the depth of intelligence and wisdom and knowledge, which are words for the same thing. And to show how much knowledge indigenous cultures have.

I think a lot of our environmental, social and health issues wouldn't be what they are if we actually had incorporated the knowledge that has been out there for thousands of years. So that music was a form of activism, too. I was saying, "Look, we are blind to those who have been here and have a lot to teach us. And, in fact, we all come from a tribe at some point."

Now the music is more mainstream, pop-oriented. And the messages are in some ways the same. I'm trying to bring light into some area that I may have been unaware of, like the song with Akon.
If I can sing about it, or show a video, maybe somebody will say, "I didn't know this. And I want to help" or "I feel like I'm a bigger part of the world so I may behave differently or be more informed."

Are there any people in your life who inspire your composing?
Almost everybody, in some way. So, whether I'm taking a trip for the foundation and I'm in Sierra Leone, or I'm talking to a 15-year-old girl in Bangladesh who has been brought out of prostitution, (which you can't conceive of until you sit and talk to them) - all those things influence me. My song "Plastic Tomb"(about the environment) evolved after I had been out in nature for weeks and then I had to go to a Walmart. I went, "Oh my god, this is so not real. This is not what it's about." So almost everything is potential for song writing.

What has been your proudest moment?
Right now. I mean, I try and actually live up to that. Where now is the proudest moment. It doesn't always work, of course. But I don't have a better answer than that. I could say that a particular accomplishment was my proudest moment (and I've had some that I'm proud of, for sure). But I don't want to sit in that place and say, there it is. Rather it's all part of this journey.

So, right now it's led me to sitting here, talking to you writers, with all these amazing questions. If I say something that's valuable and might change somebody's life, then that's what I'm most proud of. It's all leading up to now and then tomorrow, and I don't know where from there.

Many charities say that one person can change the world. Do you believe that the average person can really do that?
Yes, I do, but I also realize that sounds kind of crazy, since the world is so big. And we're just little dots. But, at the same time, if you weren't here, the world wouldn't be, either - for you. So you kind of are the whole world. And what can you do to shift whatever is in your world, one person to another, does start to shift things because it ripples out.

You've done a lot of different kinds of composing - movie scores and commercials and your own music. Which do you like most?
Well, I most enjoy my own music. It's fun to do commercials or films, because you're challenged, against a deadline, trying to serve another, or sell a product.

The most rewarding, really, is being able to have some form of self-expression perfectly encapsulated in a three-and-a-half minute piece that you've created from start to finish. That feels really good.

There is a quote, "The things that you do for yourself in your life die with you. The things that you do for the world and others live forever." If you could make one change that would live past your life, what would it be?
The first thing I think of is writing Life Is What You Make It. The fact that I have something that exists beyond me and encapsulates so much of what I think is important in terms of values and relationships and my work helping girls and women. There's a lot in the book that's really me. It's odd because I've put out a lot of records, and records last forever, too. So that feels really good.<

But the book seems totally different because it is much more concrete in terms of my experiences and what I feel is important.

Is there anything you wish you had done as a teenager?
I wish I had read more, taken the time to take more in. Because you can't do enough of that. The one thing, when you look back on your life, you wish you had known that there's plenty of time. So take in as much as possible. Because now is the time for that.

What is the most important life lesson that you've learned from your father?
Well, I've learned a lot, but the most important? It would be easy to say follow your passion and do what is most true to you. But I think not being attached to the outcome might actually be even more important, because then you're in the present of what you're doing.

Our society seems based around money, and athletes and entertainers hit the top of the list of high earners while doctors, teachers, and social workers are near the bottom.

Do you think this gap will ever change?
I sure hope so. I think it will. I think that if it's gotten this bad - and it has - that there has to be some sort of societal reaction some way, somehow. Things are way out of balance. I can't tell you how it's going to change.

I hope that we start to place value on different things, which gets back to the question: what can we do in the world? What are the big problems? And the problem is the world is just completely out of whack. And we are not putting value in the places that hold true value.

I think that's true whether it's the relationship between rich and poor or understanding where our food comes from or understanding where our plastic goes. And it gets really magnified when you see some basketball player making a gazillion dollars and a teacher, who is shaping lives every day, having to pay for supplies.

Was there a page or a sentence or any part of the book that your father disagreed with or didn't really like?
No. And you know, it's funny because there was this big book that came out about my dad. And while he didn't help write that book, he opened up a lot of his files and told his friends to go ahead and talk to the writer, so it was almost a definitive book about him, but he wasn't crazy about it. And after that, this opportunity came for me. to write my own experiences. I wasn't concerned what he thought about the book because my dad and I have a good relationship. I wrote what my experience was and how I felt. Of course I did want him to like it. I didn't want to put something out there that he wasn't happy with, so I sent him an early version of it and he liked it a lot.

In terms of our personal life growing up, it was so much more reflective of the reality of it, of course because I was there, as opposed to the writer who wrote this big book about him who was taking bits and pieces of things from different people and not giving the kind of reporting that I was able to do because I was there and able to reflect on my mother and father and their values. So no, there wasn't anything. So many people say not to live with regrets. However, in a way, I believe that regrets are sort of what makes us who we are, in a way. Do you have any real regrets in your life?

No. I talk about it in the book, and I do, and they're mostly regrets of omission. I regret having not acted in certain ways more quickly or forcefully or in a caring way. But in terms of mistakes I've made or dumb things I've done, no. Because I agree, they're like little scars and they make you who you are. The only regrets I have are I could have defended that person better or I could have acted a little differently on behalf of someone or something else.

When you started your career, did you ever worry that you would always be living in the shadow of your father?
No. Mainly because we did such different things. If I had gone into the finance industry, then yes. I think that would potentially be a problem. If I was Sean Lennon, and I was trying to write songs. Then how do you get out from underneath John Lennon's shadow? Or any other famous artist? In fact, most people thought I was related to Jimmy Buffett, frankly. They didn't even make the connection. So it was really never an issue, thank goodness.

So now that you've written a book, what's your opinion of the writing process? What surprised you about it? What obstacles were there?
I have no problem saying that there was a guy who was very helpful with writing the book because I'm not an author. So the agent, when he saw the proposal, said, “Look, you can write this book. But since you haven't written before, do you want a guy to help and work with you?” And I said, “Great.” I would write a ton of stuff and send it to him and then he'd rework it, and then I'd flesh out a story.

But with a book, I was very open to the idea of having help and working with somebody. And I think that's critical in general. It's like, if you hang on too tight to something and nobody sees it because you were so adamant about it being all yours, that's too bad. This is really an example of that. I really learned so much, and the book was so much better because I was working with somebody.

Over the course of my lifetime I've learned the craft of songwriting. I've written for commercials and all these different things. So there's the art, somewhere out there, but then there's the craft of just sitting down every day and getting it done. And that's what this writer had. He had the craft of it. So while I would spit out all this stuff, every day he'd come back to me with three or four pages and say, “Check this out. Check this out.” And that was incredibly helpful.

What has life taught you that you wish you had known when you were younger?
There's no question that most people, as they get older, wish they had known things when they were younger. The weird thing about that, though, is that you wouldn't have made the mistakes that got you where you are.

When you're young you want to rush to the next thing. You don't take as much time to learn and understand and grow more slowly because you so want to get results and want to get somewhere in your life. I look back on the mistakes and realize how much I learned. All the times you didn't follow what was truly in your heart, what you knew was right for you, those are the things you wish you'd known when you were younger. Those are the things in your life, later in your life, you go, “Man, why didn't I listen to myself?” Because what they usually do when you get older, you learn about yourself and go, “Oh, rats. Why didn't I know that ten years ago?”

You've obviously achieved a lot, but what was one of your biggest disappointments and how did you deal with it?
I may have to get back to you on that. But it's crazy that I can't think of something. I can think of personal things that are disappointments. I've adopted twin daughters, and there was a period of time when I wished I was a better dad to them. There are things I wish I could have done a better job at. But those are personal failings where I think I've learned.

In terms of disappointments: In “Dances With Wolves,” I was asked to score the whole film but didn't get it because I wasn't ready for it and didn't really know how to do it. While that could have been a huge disappointment, I ended up getting a small scene that I excelled at and it worked really well. So it turned into this great thing.

I grew up in a house where there were posters all over. If life gives you lemons make lemonade, all those classic things. So I have a hard time feeling like there are too many things that are truly disappointments. They might be readjustments of expectations. But I usually look at something that surprised me in terms of the outcome not being what I had hoped for and going, okay, what about that was my doing?

Was it a disappointment because I was expecting something that didn't happen? Or because I did something that wasn't fully what it could have been? Maybe I analyze things so much that I work the disappointment out it. I'll keep thinking about that one, though. That's bothering me. Go ahead.Can you think of any book in particular that you read in high school?
Well, I had an great, great older friend named Kent, who was about eight years older. I always wanted to live up to his intellectual capacity, which was way beyond me. But I read, I remember specifically Carl Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections, which was very intense for a high school kid, but it was fascinating and got me into ideas of the subconscious. When I got out of college I remember reading Ram Dass and these various things about finding yourself. And that kind of thing was also really valuable at the time.

You write and talk about choosing your own path in life and finding your own way to fulfillment, but if you could switch lives with anyone in the world today, would you?
No, I don't think so. That gets back to getting up every day. That's what success is: not wanting to switch lives with anybody.

What recommendation would you give to young people who want to make a difference but aren't sure how to go about it?
Well, I might actually recommend you go to Do Something has a very clear mandate: it allows you to engage in things where you don't need your parents, a car, or money.

Of all the charitable causes there are, what's the best way to find a cause to support?
Find the thing that appeals to you. Find the melody or the song that really resonates with you and support that. I don't think it matters. If it matters to you, it's something.

There are so many great things going on in the world, and there are so many important causes and things that need support. So I think it gets back down to your own passion. What feels right to you.

Similar Articles


This article has 0 comments.


MacMillan Books

Aspiring Writer? Take Our Online Course!