Warren Buffett: the secret to conquering fear

It’s called the Woodstock for capitalists! 40,000 people fly down to Omaha to hear Warren Buffett speak every year. His investment company Berkshire Hathway’s annual meeting attracts more people than many sports events!

In those meetings, Buffett is asked questions that he answers for 5 or 6 hours! He delights huge crowds with his homely common sense wisdom. But did you know that once upon a time he was deadly afraid of public speaking?

When Buffett was young and in college, he would get terrified with the thought of getting up and speaking in front of an audience. He selected his courses based on those which didn’t require him to get in front of the class. He could not do presentations. The idea of public speaking made him physically ill. He would literally puke his guts out with the thought of going in front of a crowd of any size.

So what changed? How did he manage to get over his fear of public speaking?

Warren Buffett’s proudest accomplishment

If you see Buffett’s office wall – it’s not adorned by his college certificates and degrees. Instead, it showcases a certificate of the $100 Dale Carnegie public speaking course he took after graduation!

Buffett had studied under the legendary value investor Benjamin Graham in college. After graduation, he had moved back to Omaha and had started selling investment securities to people – a field he understood very well. But he was not a very good salesman. He was afraid of pitching to people.

One day, with a bolt of clarity, he realized: fear was holding him back. If he could not communicate effectively, his potential would remain stunted. He could have the best of investment ideas and it wouldn’t help. His career would stall. He would live a mediocre unfulfilled life.

This fear of not being successful was finally bigger than the fear of getting in front of strangers! And so, he signed up for the Dale Carnegie public speaking course where they taught people psychological tricks to get over their fear of speaking. And got them to practise every week.

Right after the course was done, Buffett went to the University of Omaha and asked if he could start teaching there! He knew that without real world practice, he would fall back to his old introvert habits. And that’s where he lost his fear and became confident while speaking in front of crowds!

Fear conquers fear!

Fear of not being successful allowed Buffett to conquer his fear of public speaking! And that’s what you have to do: cultivate a new fear that allows you to conquer your fear! But how?

  1. You have to take a step back and focus on the bigger picture. 
  2. Focus on the implications of failure due to your current fear. How is your current fear holding you back?
  3. And then pluck a deeper fear from that higher viewpoint that can motivate you to conquer your current fear.

Because fear conquers fear. There is no better motivator.

The Japanese that saved the Jews

Chiune Sugihara defied his Japanese government orders. Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat stationed in Lithuania during WW2. He is known to save 6000 Jewish lives.

The Japanese had allied with Nazi Germany. The Jews from Poland were escaping to Lithuania and trying to get transit visas to Japan. The Japanese government had given clear directives prohibiting such visas except to very rich people. Sugihara knew that defying direct orders could mean risking his career, and maybe even his life.

A lot of other diplomats in his situation would not have stuck their necks out. But yet, Sugihara gave the transit visa permits to any Jew that asked for it. During his final days in Lithuania, he was handwriting as many as 300 permits a day! He continued to hand out visas from the train – until the last minute it departed!

Long after the war, he was asked: wasn’t he afraid of defying the government? What motivated him? His answer conveys a deeper moral fear he had cultivated and decided to focus on: “I may have to disobey the government, but if I don’t, I would be disobeying God!”

He took a step back and looked at the bigger picture. And found a fear that motivated him to do the right and scary thing!

The tragedy of conquering fear

Saigo Takamuri was another honour bound Japanese hero. He was a samurai who was one of the main proponents of Emperor Meiji. He helped overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate.

But when the new Meiji government was getting influenced by western forces, he rebelled. Because their modernization policies were threatening the Samurai way of life.

To save the Samurai class, he led the Satsuma rebellion. But unfortunately, he was wounded in the final battle.

Takamuri is known as one of the last true Samurais. On the battlefield, he followed the Samurai tradition of Seppuku. He committed suicide by disemboweling himself! Because the fear of dishonour was stronger than the fear of death for him!

While fear is a great motivator, it’s a double edged sword!

Your fear should lead you to growth, not to harm. The objective is to replace a limiting fear with a motivating fear. What’s the difference? Limiting fear makes you avoid situations. Motivating fear makes you overcome them. Growth comes from facing and overcoming barriers. 

A check is required. Audit the action. Are your actions reactive or proactive? Fear leading to reaction is harmful. 

Are you moving in a positive direction because of your fear? Fear is just the fuel. The output matters more than the fuel you are using.

Action Summary:

  • Audit the first fear you recognize that’s limiting you. Take a step back. And find a deeper underlying fear to motivate you in conquering your limiting fear.
  • Change your focus from short term to long term vision for your life.