Despite his father’s billions, Musician Peter Buffett lived a modest childhood that shaped his future
Peter Buffett has enjoyed a successful music career. He has released 16 records, and composed the song played during the iconic fire dance scene in the 1990 Oscar winner Dances with Wolves. Buffett recently authored a book about his life called Life Is What You Make It. Despite his outstanding résumé, however, Buffett still may be more well-known as the son of famous billionaire Warren Buffett. Nevertheless, Buffett forged his own identity. In advance of his Sept. 8 Concert & Conversation appearance in Kirkland, Buffett spoke with 425 Business about his upbringing, music, and philanthropy.
Q: What careers interested you when you were growing up?
A: I always played piano and loved music, but I never thought I’d actually be a musician. So that was, strangely enough, the thing that was right in front of my nose, but it wasn’t really something I thought I could do. When I was a teenager and all through high school, I was really into photography, and I thought that was what I was going to make a living at. I had summer jobs at the local newspaper, and I was editor of the yearbook, and I really thought photography was going to be my life.
Q: What made you end up pursuing a career in music?
A: I went off to college, and I took everything that ended in “101” or “ology” when I got there, because I had no idea what I wanted to do. After about a year and a half, I was struggling to figure out what I was really going to end up doing. Luckily, that was when I heard a guy playing guitar in a friend’s dorm. It was so beautiful and so simple. I always thought I could never be a musician because I wasn’t technically Superman in terms of being able to play everything. When I heard this guy play, I realized it’s not all about being great; it is about being connected to the instrument and feeling something when you play. I was so caught up in my own version of what I thought being a musician was until I heard this guy. It truly changed my life.
Q: How did you break into the music industry?
A: I got pretty lucky. My neighbor asked me what I did, and I told him that I write music. He told me his son-in-law created these little animated things, and they were always looking for music. I got paid $1,000 to write 10 seconds of score. It turned out that I was doing the music for MTV interstitials, those little animations between the videos. This was 1981, so nobody had heard of MTV. I didn’t think anything about it, but then it was the next big thing, and I was a part of it. That launched my whole commercial career. Those are the kind of breaks that you don’t know you are getting. I just did it because it was a job.
Q: What is the best business advice you’ve ever received?
A: Well, I would say it’s life advice, because if we separate business from the rest of our life, we can end up disconnecting ourselves from our actions. It’s probably no surprise that I got this advice from my dad. He said, “Stay within your circle of competence.” To me, that means understanding what you’re capable of and doing it. It means checking your ego — and your fear — at the door, and sticking to what you know. Of course, stretching yourself and trying new things is encouraged, but not out of hubris. It also requires honest self-reflection.
Q: How did you end up writing a book and starting the accompanying concert and conversation series?
A: It has often been said to me: “You’re Warren Buffett’s son? You’re so normal.” I take that as a compliment, but I also thought, why is that? So I gave talks on the subject (to banks and wealth-management groups), and someone in the talks said, “You know, that’s a book.” So the book was born out of that.
Q: What is your book about?
A: The book is my story and other people’s stories about what privilege and wealth really is: growing up in a house where you are loved and nurtured, where you are in a neighborhood where people care about you. So it is not the material stuff; it is something obviously much deeper.
Q: You’ve said that you had no idea about your father’s wealth when you were growing up. When did you first learn of his business empire?
A: Strangely enough — this seems unbelievable, even to me — it probably was when I was in my 20s. In the 1980s, I think the Forbes 400 List started, and my dad was on it — near the top of it. (Warren Buffett was tied for the No. 92 spot on Forbes’ original list.) It was a surprise. Back when I was growing up, I had no idea we were any different than anyone else on the block. When I got a little older, I only knew because other people were telling me. My dad famously still lives the way he lived when I was 5 years old. There is really very little difference.
Q: Is it safe to assume you have been to the Seattle area before?
A: I have, but not often. I love the fact that I am able to get there because I’ve only been there a couple of times, and I am really looking forward to it.
Q: What can our readers and our guests expect from your concert and conversation event on Sept. 8 in Kirkland?
A: It is me on piano, and I have a cellist with me who is worth the price of admission alone — he is amazing to experience. But it is called a concert and conversation because it is not just me up on stage talking. I take questions throughout the whole show. People can ask me anything at any time, and that makes it a little more, hopefully, interesting. Also, it shows that I am willing to put myself right out there. Whatever anyone wants to ask, I’ll try to answer.
Q: What is the one question that stood out to you during this series?
A: It is such a good question, and so funny because I get asked it quite a few times. (But) I am so in the experience, that I always forget the question afterwards.
Q: Is your show kid-friendly?
A: There is a lot (in the show) around growing up. I get questions from kids like, “Did you get an allowance, and how much?” and, “Did your mom make you practice (the piano)?” One of the things that I do that parents and kids love is show my dad’s report card. I won’t give it away, but I will say that it is fairly mind-blowing, and so that is fun.
Q: What do you hope the audience will take away from your conversation?
A: I hope they really see that your internal beliefs should be what is driving you, and not all these expectations that you think you should live up to or the projections of what is going to make you happy. People look at me and think, “Well, easy for you to say,” and that is sort of the point of the show. Also, because I do talk about the philanthropic work and how we approach it, I hope it also opens a window on a bigger world of complexity we all live inside of. It seems now more than ever, people are aware of the fact of there’s a lot of dysfunction in our system. How did we get here? What is it about our nature that puts up walls and calls people names? And so I really do get into those kinds of things, so it goes from the very personal to a much wider — not overtly political — take on the world.
Q: Tells us about your nonprofit experience.
A: In 2006, my dad made the big decision: He was going to give (85 percent of) his money away, and we — myself and my siblings — were going to be responsible for our own billion-dollar foundations. There’s no other way to say that; it’s just big. You are responsible for a lot of money being put out into the world. So that certainly makes you think: What are my values? How do I decide where this money goes? And it is way more complicated or difficult than it might first appear.
Q: What has running a foundation taught you?
A: It has taught me a ton, and it (constitutes) a lot of what I bring into the show. It took my wife and I places we never would have gone otherwise. Whether it was Liberia, Bangladesh, parts of India, other countries in Africa, we saw things that most people, thankfully, don’t see. I already had a certain kind of worldview because I worked in the Native American culture quite a bit doing various musical projects, so I had a feeling around oppression and exploitation, and systems that really put one culture over another.
Q: How do you approach philanthropic giving?
A: It is a little bit overwhelming, but you do want to try to get to the systemic stuff. It is very easy to give money to things that will make people feel better, but we were asking why this is happening in the first place. How far upstream can we go to really change the system and make it so that it really does what it is supposed to do, so that more people have agency over their own lives?