This is a story about  Warren Buffett and some good advice for young people. It's short and sweet, and it could easily fit in one of my two of my free e-books: Warren Buffett Predicts the Future, and How to Raise Successful Kids, which you can download here and here.

In fact, Buffett repeated this advice in his annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letters twice, 16 years apart. Perhaps he'd forgotten what was in the 1987 letter when he wrote the 2003 version? Or else, maybe he really, really believes in it. 

Anyway, here's the pithy advice. It's actually a quote that Buffett shared from the late advertising pioneer David Ogilvy, and the part that we care about is just five words: "Develop your eccentricities when young."

That's the 2003 version; it's quoted slightly differently in 1987, but instead of getting hung up on the minor stylistic differences, let's instead explore why this is such good advice. 

We should begin by making sure we understand the definition of "eccentricities," which is related to the word "eccentric," a word that I think some people assume they know, but don't understand precisely.

It doesn't just mean strange or unusual, but instead, using Merriam-Webster, "deviating from conventional or accepted usage or conduct especially in odd or whimsical ways." 

So, why learn to deviate from the norm as a young person? Even to the extent of being "odd or whimsical"? Well, since it's Buffett's advice, let's look at his childhood, and how things worked out.

'Virtually memorized'

Buffett is himself a fount of youthful eccentricities, brought to culmination in adulthood (and even late adulthood, given that he's now 90 years old). If you know a bit of his history, it's easy to point to a few relevant milestones of his own telling. Among them:

  • At age 7, he "virtually memorized" a 1936 book called One Thousand Ways to Make $1,000. I've found this book and read it; the best modern example I can come up with now would be if you came home to find your second-grader reading--oh, I don't know: I Will Teach You to Be Rich, or The Intelligent Entrepreneur
  • At age 13, he filed his first-ever tax return. It was such a memorable experience for him that he can still recite for you what was on it: his income from a newspaper delivery route, itemized deductions including $35 for a bicycle," and ultimately, a $7 tax bill.
  • At age 20, after learning that his mentor, teacher, and near-hero Benjamin Graham was chairman of Geico, Buffett took a train to Washington, persuaded a janitor to let him into the insurance company's headquarters during the weekend, and spent four hours chatting impromptu with the assistant to the company president (who later became CEO).

Decades later, what have these eccentricities led to? Well, go right down the list: 

Never mind $1,000; Buffett is one of the world's richest people (made a lot more than $1,000). His more recent tax returns stack seven feet tall (and Berkshire Hathaway is one of the country's biggest taxpayers). As for Geico? It's now 100 percent owned by Berkshire.

Two sides of a coin

Of course we are not suggesting that your kids can replicate Buffett's financial success simply by being odd or whimsical as kids. But, I think there are some good takeaways here.

For Buffett, these kinds of quirky quotes are often coupled with something more serious. With Ogilvy's, for example, he actually included a bit of a deflating quip afterward, but he cited it twice to make two serious points:

  • In 1987, to explain his determination to hold onto shares in well-managed companies, even if he begins to think the share prices exceed their actual worth.
  • And in 2003, in the context of describing the main duty of Berkshire's board of directors: "to select my successor, either upon my death or disability, or when I begin to lose my marbles."

I look at this also in the context of another bit of pithy advice that Buffett quoted in one of these letters--from the French philosopher Comte: "The intellect should be the servant of the heart, but not its slave."

Whether you define success in terms of finances, or professional achievement, or art, or invention--or even just growing up to be an honorable, trustworthy person--this all comes down to two sides of the same coin:

  • Encourage young people to explore broadly and embrace the things that speak to their interests, passions--and, yes, their eccentricities.
  • But also encourage them to learn how the world works; to not blindly follow their passions, but instead to learn to find things that work in practice, and narrow their possible pursuits down to the few among them that can inspire their passions.

It's a lot harder to develop your quirky eccentricities--especially if you want to figure out how to leverage them--when you're older, and time starts to run out, and the world watches your moves with a more judgmental eye.