August Turak

Author Consultant Speaker

Warren Buffett and Cardinal Lamberto: The Two Best Kept Secrets to Success

These secrets are so powerful that they could almost be considered pure grace. But though we have been surrounded by them for centuries, we rarely take them to heart.

As a huge fan of the first two Godfather movies, like many people I was disappointed by Godfather III. But I found one scene both profound and compelling. Michael Corleone has turned for advice to Cardinal Lamberto. Reading Michael’s unspoken guilt over the murder of his brother, the Cardinal extracts a stone from a fountain.

“Look at this stone,” he says. "It has been lying in the water for a very long time. But the water has not penetrated it.” He breaks the stone open on the fountain. “Look, perfectly dry.” Michael reaches into his pockets, then indecisively keeps them out, unsteady. “The same thing has happened with men in Europe. For centuries, they have been surrounded by Christianity. But Christ has not penetrated it. Christ does not live within them.”

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Whether you are religious or not there is a lot of wisdom in the Cardinal’s allegory. There are two magical secrets to success; truths so powerful that they could almost be considered pure grace. But though we have been surrounded by them for centuries, we rarely take them to heart.

The first miracle is compound interest and the second I call service and selflessness.

My grandfather was 19 when he arrived in this country in 1908. He came alone with a sixth grade education, the shirt on his back, and without a word of English. Migrating to Pittsburgh, he worked 12 hour days in a steel mill for 10 cents an hour. But by the time I came along, my immigrant grandparents owned their house and an apartment building free and clear. They had accumulated a tidy stock portfolio and sent two of their three children to college.

One day I asked this retired steel worker for the secret to his success. He began stacking one hand over the other and said, “Percent on top of percent.” His English was still broken but his knowledge of compound interest was not.

Even though the miracle of compound interest comes with the benefit of mathematical certainty, as Shakespeare said, it is honored more in the breach than the observance. The water of this heady truth soaks through to very few hearts. Sadly most of us prefer to pay compound interest leaving our lenders flush and our bank accounts as dry as Cardinal Lamberto’s stone.

The second sacred truth, service and selflessness, is just a variation on the age old Golden Rule: It is in your own self-interest to forget your self-interest. Every great sales rep knows that the more she forgets her product, quota, and commissions and fanatically focuses on selflessly serving her customer, the more product she moves and the more commissions she makes. Similarly every great corporate leader knows that the more they forget profits in favor of selflessly serving customers the more profit they make. Warren Buffett, for example, has not been successful despite his honesty, integrity, and a willingness to sacrifice short term profits but because of it. For 40 years Buffett has used the bully pulpit of Berkshire’s annual report to rail against various forms of corporate selfishness, but though millions eagerly await the Oracle of Omaha's letter each year, very few take his message to heart. His magical message goes in one ear and out the other as we eagerly search for stock tips.

This perennial gap between what we all know but fail to take to heart reminds me of a story from Alexander the Great’s general and biographer, Ptolemy. While rampaging through India, Alexander encountered a Yogic saint and his followers. Always curious, Alexander invited the holy man to travel with him and explain his beliefs. While taking his leave the guru boldly asked the world’s conqueror a pointed question, “What possible good are you producing by ceaselessly travelling the world causing pain and destruction?” To which Ptolemy drily remarked, “Alexander was moved and very much impressed by the wisdom of this holy man. But he went right back to doing what he was doing.”

When we concentrate on giving rather than receiving, on treating others the way we would like to be treated, we not only get back what we give but, like compound interest, we get back far more than our original investment. Yet despite the fact that we are all as familiar with this formula as we are with compound interest, very little of this intellectual water ever reaches our stone dry hearts. Like Alexander, we stubbornly go right back to doing what we were doing.

As an optimist and inveterate people lover, I refuse to accept the cynical explanation that people are just venal hypocrites. Most selfishly destructive behavior doesn't arise from bad people doing bad things, but from good people doing bad things from fear, insecurity, ignorance, and a lack of self-awareness. Most rude and selfish behavior isn’t symptomatic of evil intentions, but merely the lamentable result of habitual thoughtlessness as we sleep walk our way through life.

Our cardinal mistake is in not making service and selflessness our top priority. Every child starts out selfishly screaming, “MINE!” Changing this mindset is a life’s work. Sam Johnson said that common sense is the only thing in oversupply since everyone assumes they have more than they need. The same might be said of selflessness: we're all "nice guys" surrounded by "jerks."

Taking service and selflessness to heart means a change of heart that can only arise from T.S Eliot’s “one long purification of motive.” Service and selflessness isn’t something we pick up somewhere along the way through osmosis. In fact selfless service requires the constant vigilance of conscious effort as we resist the osmosis of selfishness that surrounds us.

Service and selflessness is also not a formula we can game for our own selfish ends. Our life’s mission must be to become a person who gives naturally,  spontaneously, and without any desire for reward. And the closer we come to accomplishing this mission the more we will get in return. It’s also not about the "other guy" who needs to change. Service and selflessness starts with personal accountability: none of us are as selfless as we'd like to think, and changing the world starts with changing that guy or gal in the mirror.

Most importantly, bringing service and selflessness into our hearts means having the humility to reach out to others for help. When your zipper is down you are always the last to know, and this applies to our unconscious selfish habits as well. I was introduced to the term service and selflessness by my Zen teacher back in college, and he often only half humorously described our collective efforts as Ignoramuses Anonymous. We were bound together by our humility, our willingness to acknowledge our selfishness, and our commitment to helping each other overcome it.

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not a choice but a habit.” Soaking our hearts in the spirit of service and selflessness means working at it every day until one day we truly understand what it means to say, “It is better to give than to receive.” And paradoxically when that day comes we discover that we have already been given the greatest gift we could ever hope to receive.


Follow me on Twitter @augustturak, Facebook, or check out my Forbes blog for more tips and strategies for becoming a great leader – and to discover how service and selflessness is the secret to success in business and in life.