Buffett's Filing Cabinet


Having thoroughly enjoyed my time in Omaha a few weeks back, I found a recent illuminating post by John Huber of Saber Capital Management discussing his own key takeaways from this year's Berkshire meeting. Huber referenced an observation made in a speech on Buffett by Alice Schroeder, who wrote Buffett's authorised biography, 'The Snowball.' One of the most interesting points raised by Schroeder was how Buffett didn't use a computer to store information, he kept it all in his head.

“He’s created this immense, vertical filing cabinet in his brain of layers and layers and layers of files with information that he can draw back on from more than 70 years of data. He’s like a human computer. He’s wonderful at math. He can recall phone numbers from his childhood, and populations of cities from his childhood. He can do square roots in his head. He does present values and compound interest in his head… The biggest thing he’s done is to learn and create this cumulative base of knowledge in his head. So one reason he doesn’t use a computer is because, in a sense, he is one.”

It's well recognised that Buffett is a lifelong learner, or as Charlie puts it, 'a learning machine'. And Buffett started early. In that same speech, Schroeder explains... 

"Starting at the age of no later than six, he's read everything that he could find about business; the subject that interests him. He's read newspapers, biographies, trade press. He went over to his grandfather's who was a grocer and read the Progressive Grocer magazine and he read articles on how to stock a meat department. He's gone to visit every company that he could find that was even slightly interesting to him. He went down to visit a barrel maker and spent hours talking about how to make barrels. He went to American Express and he spent hours talking about that business. He went to Geico and talked about the insurance business. He has stacks of reports on his desk from the companies he owns - stalls, jewellery, boat winches - everything you can imagine. He reads hundreds of annual reports every year from companies that he doesn't own yet because he just wants to understand their business and when the opportunity arises then he's ready and he can make a decision."

It's likely that Alice Schroeder knows Buffett as well as anyone. After meeting Buffett as an insurance analyst on Wall Street, he encouraged her to write the book about himself that he would never write. Schroeder was given almost unlimited access to Buffett, his friends and colleagues, in the process spending around 2,000 hours with him.

Here are some great insights on Buffett from a 2010 interview with Schroeder.. 

"His knowledge of business history, politics, and macroeconomics is both encyclopedic and detailed, which informs everything he does. If candy sales are up in a particular zip code in California, he knows what it means because he knows the demographics of that zip code and what’s going on in the California economy. When cotton prices fluctuate, he knows how that affects all sorts of businesses. And so on."

"You’re sitting there talking about something like: “Isn’t it amazing that after Jack Welch left GE, the company started having all these problems because of buried accounting issues?” and he will say, “Yes, that’s like …” and pull a company from 30 years prior and start spouting numbers.  Then he will pick another more recent company, and another."

"He has accumulated a filing cabinet of knowledge about companies, and it's very big."

"Through this vast network of connections that he's built, he's created a sort of database of information about business and the economy that's probably irreplaceable."

"[He is] able to pull elaborate modules out of his memory bank. He has thought about so many things over the years that there are polished nuggets prepared to respond to almost any question."

"If there is new information the old version gets overwritten. It’s gone. He remembers stories and certain facts, and the rest is discarded as if for efficiency or comfort."

"His way of articulating ideas is very original. He is a great synthesizer and especially strong at pattern recognition."

"Pattern recognition is one of his primary skills and perhaps his greatest skill. So in terms of data points, unlike many people who learn by seeking information on an as-needed basis, Warren is always looking for fuel for pattern recognition before he needs it."

"If you look at the dotcom stocks, the meta-message of that era was world-changing innovation. He went back and looked for more patterns of history when there was a similar meta-message, great bursts of technological innovation in canals, airplanes, steamboats, automobiles, television, and radio. Then he looked for sub-patterns and asked what the outcome was in terms of financial results.

With the dotcoms, people were looking to see what was different and unique about them. Warren is always thinking what’s the same between this specific situation and every other situation.

That is the nature of pattern recognition, asking: “What can I infer about this situation based on similarities to what I already know and trust that I understand?” Pattern recognition is his default way of thinking. It creates an impulse always to connect new knowledge to old and to primarily be interested in new knowledge that genuinely builds on the old…"

"I don’t want to dispel any notion of his intuition. But he has internalized so much information over the years and uses so many mental models (to quote a Mungerism) that they have coalesced into an almost visceral reaction to an investing situation. And this is what you strive for. It’s not mystical, even if you can’t verbalize your analysis. Much of his decision-making has sunk to almost the unconscious realm, it is so refined."

"Well, I think there are things you can do to improve recall. But there is something to be said about being born with a prodigious memory. It seems to me that there are 3 qualities of great investors that are rarely discussed:

1. They have a strong memory;

2. They are extremely numerate;

3. They have what Warren calls a “money mind;” an instinctive commercial sense.

Warren is all of these."

John Huber noted as much on his trip to Omaha:"Last week I was in Omaha for the Berkshire annual meeting, and while I sat there in the CenturyLink arena, I was thinking about Schroeder’s description while listening to Buffett rattle off trade deficit data from 1970 off the top of his head in response to a question. His mind is an incredible machine, and it appears to be working as well as ever."

Buffett draws on his extensive experience in both investing and managing businesses to help formulate his investment decisions. In an interview with Buffett post the Berkshire meeting, CNBC's Becky Quick made the point that the combination of Warren and Charlie have 181 years of experience! And in investing, all experience is cumulative - provided you learn from the experiences.

Becky Quick noted how easy Buffett and Charlie made it look up on stage and wondered how much longer they could do it. Buffett responded..

"It is easy, actually, at this point. At some point it won't be. But, no, I would say it's as easy now as ever. I mean, you didn't see me enter the [Berkshire fun run] race that took place or anything of the sort. This job doesn't really require hand-eye coordination or stamina or anything. You know, you just sit at a desk and you apply things that you learned 60 or 70 years ago and they come in a little different form now, maybe-- this way or that way. But-- it's the perfect job for somebody that wants to be working at 80 or 90."

We know that Buffett spends his days learning - reading, observing, and thinking. He talks to businesspeople and he collects facts; the resource from which he draws investment wisdom. It's the same approach adopted by Charles Darwin and Leonardi Da Vinci which we learnt about in recent posts.

"Look, my job is essentially just corralling more and more and more facts and information, and occasionally seeing whether that leads to some action." Warren Buffett

"The beauty of — to some extent — of evaluating businesses — large businesses — is that it is all cumulative. If you started doing it 40 or so years ago, you really have got a working knowledge of an awful lot of businesses. But there aren’t that many, to start with, that you can get a fix. You know, how many — what are there? Seventy-five, maybe, or so important industries. And you’ll get to understand how they operate. And you don’t have to start over again every day. And you don’t have to consult a computer for it or anything like that, it. So it has the advantage of accumulation of useful information over time. And, you know, you just add the incremental bit at some point. You know, why did we decide to buy Coca-Cola in 1988? Well, it may have been, you know, just a couple small incremental bits of information. But that came into a mass that had been accumulated over decades." Warren Buffett

“Things we learned 40 years ago, though, will help [us] recognize the next big idea.” Warren Buffett

And Buffett remembers. The more he learns and the more he reads, the better he gets.

"Investing is kind of a game of connecting the dots. The nice thing about it is the longer you are in the business, as long as you are intellectually curious, your collection of data points of dots gets bigger and bigger. That is where someone like Warren is just incredible. He has had a passion for investing for well over 70 years. He started by the age of 10 or 12. He keeps building that library of data, the ability to recognize patterns in data." Ted Weschler

Coincidentally, I took up the twenty hours travel time getting to Omaha this year re-reading an old favourite book of mine; 'Moonwalking with Einstein - the Art and Science of Remembering Everything,' by Josh Foerr I was prompted to re-read it by a recent short post by Chris Pavese of Broyhill Capital on the book highlighting the link between memory, information and creativity.

The book tells the true story of how a rookie journalist's coverage of the US memory competition one year spurred his fascination with memory that led to a journey which culminated in entering and winning the US Memory competition the following year. It's an illuminating story showcasing how an average person can empower the mind to do extraordinary things.

Bill Gates described the book as absolutely phenomenal, and noted "Part of the beauty of this book is that it makes clear how memory and understanding are not two different things. Building up the ability to reason and the ability to retain information go hand in hand."

In the book, Foerr takes the opportunity to delve into the history of memory and the relationship between memory, learning and creativity.  It's uncanny, the commonalities with Buffett's skillsets. Take note of some extracts from the book below ...

"The brain is a muscle .. memory training is a form of mental workout. Over time, like any form of exercise, it's make the brain fitter, quicker, and more nimble. Roman orators argued that the art of memory - the proper retention and ordering of knowledge - was a vital instrument for the invention of new ideas."

"The nonlinear associative nature of our brains makes it impossible for us to consciously search our memories in an orderly way. A memory only pops directly into consciousness if it is cued by some other thought or perception - some other node in the nearly limitless interconnected web."

"What makes the brain such an incredible tool is not just the sheer volume of information it contains, but the ease and efficiency with which it can find that information. It uses the greatest random-access indexing system ever invented - one that computer scientists haven't come even close to replicating." 

"Experts see the world differently. They notice things that non-experts don't see. They home in on information that matters most, and have an almost automatic sense of what to do with it. And most important, experts process the enormous amounts of information flowing through their senses in more sophisticated ways."

"What we call expertise is really just 'vast amounts of knowledge, pattern based retrieval, and planning mechanisms acquired over many years of experience in the associated domain.' In other words, a great memory isn't just a by-product of expertise; it is the essence of expertise."

"Memory is primarily an imaginative process. In fact, learning, memory, and creativity are the same fundamental process directed with a different focus. The art and science of memory is about developing the capacity to quickly create images that link disparate ideas. Creativity is the ability to form similar connections between disparate images and to create something new and hurl it into the future so it becomes a poem, or a building, or a dance, or a novel. Creativity is, in a sense, future memory.

"If the essence of creativity is linking disparate facts and ideas, then the more facility you have making associations, and the more facts and ideas you have at your disposal, the better you'll be at coming up with new ideas."

"The notion that memory and creativity are two sides of the same coin sounds counter-intuitive. Remembering and creativity seem like opposite, not complimentary processes. But the idea that they are one and the same is actually quite old, and was once even taken for granted. The Latin root 'inventio' is the basis of two words in our modern English vocabulary: inventory and invention. Where do new ideas come from if not some alchemical blending of old ideas? In order to invent, one first needed a proper inventory, a bank of existing ideas to draw on. Not just an inventory, but an indexed inventory. One needed a way of finding just the right piece of information at just the right moment. This is what the art of memory was ultimately most useful for. It was not merely a tool for recording but also a tool of invention and composition.

"You can't have understanding without facts. And crucially, the more you know, the easier it is to know more. Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches."

"People who have more associations to hang their memories on are more likely to remember new things, which in turn means they will know more, and be able to learn more."

You can see how Buffett has, over the years, accumulated vast sums of information that, because he is always learning and reading and absorbing new data, he can recall fairly easily when he most needs. It's an incredible skill and one that is invariably available to us all. As I understand it, we tend to remember the things that most interest us, and if investing and business are high on that list, our ability to store and then recall relevant information should be relatively easy. Buffett succeeds because he relies on his physical memory rather than an artificial one stored in a computer. We too can utilise our natural gift of memory, but it will only work if information is stored in our own vertical filing cabinet in the first place. So we need to learn. Every day. And we do that by listening, and reading and talking and only then we will have something worth remembering.




Further Reading:
Investment Masters Class Post - 'Connecting the Dots'
Interview with Alice Schroeder [Microsoft Research]
Interview with Alice Schroeder 2010 [SimoleonSense]
Josh Foerr,
'Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything'

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