Ben Stein: More from my dinner with Warren

By Ben Stein, contributor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Man doth not live by financial capital alone but also by human capital. And, of course, Warren Buffett had a lot to say about that, too, when he took Phil DeMuth and me to dinner a couple of weeks ago in bitterly cold, snowy Omaha.

"It's vital to be able to communicate well," he said. "Just being able to communicate with others on the job adds at least 50% to your value." Apt words indeed from the man whose annual report (I would guess) is read by more people than all of the other annual reports in the world combined, and whose words have probably saved more lives than any book except the Bible.

Ben Stein

"It's also incredibly important to get along with people," Buffett also said. He talked at length about his early days working with Ben Graham's firm and how he made it a point to not only work very hard but to get along well with everyone he worked with, and still makes it a point. He spoke highly of an old standard, Dale Carnegie's "How To Win Friends and Influence People" -- a book that still teaches me and one that I consult almost every day.

I asked him about the problems of having a significant part of the labor force that has little intellectual aptitude and learns very little in schools. "For some of them," he said, "there will be better and better tools, tools that allow even people with modest skills to do useful work."

But when I pressed him about the segment of the population that does not really care to learn at all, such as members of violent gangs or others who just refused to learn, he sighed and said that the government would have to come up with some make-work projects for them, projects that paid a modest wage and allowed such people to have some feeling of self-esteem. (I wonder whether they would rather do those jobs than what they are doing....)

But what about people who refused to learn how to do work that is a way to convert human capital into financial capital, i.e., people who refuse to learn to do value investing? He threw up his hands. "I learned it right away when Ben Graham said it," he said. "It was like a vaccination that just took right away. Some people can get the same shot and it doesn't take at all. Some do get it right away." (I am paraphrasing.)

He was kind enough to sign a copy of his famous article, "The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville," about value investing compared with other forms of investment, "To Ben Stein, who understood this a long time ago," and I only wish it were true.

In my case, the vaccination only works sporadically. (Buffett has also famously said that in any card game there's always one sucker and if you don't know who it is, it's probably you. I do know who it is, and it's definitely usually little me...except when it isn't.)

The overall vibe I get from Warren Buffett, besides his astonishing kindness, mind-boggling intelligence, and perfect, self-deprecating humor, is a reminiscence of something once said by a childhood neighbor who knew Ted Williams. The great baseball player, said my neighbor, had vision so good he could see the stitches on a fastball zooming towards him. No matter how much he might try to explain to you how to do it, if you did not have the natural talent to do it, you couldn't do it.

But what if you could have made a wager on how many home runs Williams would hit? Or what if, for a few dollars, you could have gotten a share of Ted Williams endorsements? That's what astute people could have done with Buffett, and it was a rare opportunity.

In the meantime, value investing starts at home, with building up your own value as an earner, enough so that you can some day be a Superinvestor of your ownville. To top of page

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