To say that Warren Buffett is a wealth of wisdom is an understatement.
A few years ago, I got the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interview him for my book, "Getting There: A Book of Mentors," which features essays and interviews from the some of the world's most successful people, as well as their indispensable career and life lessons.
In getting to know "The Oracle of Omaha," I learned something incredibly surprising: Up until the age of 20, he had a fear of public speaking. "Just the thought of it made me physically ill," the billionaire shares in his "Getting There" essay. "I would literally throw up."
Who would have thought that one of the most successful investors in the world once had a fear of public speaking?
The Berkshire Hathaway CEO divulges that he purposely selected courses in college where he didn't have to stand up in front of the class and arranged his life so that he would never find himself in front of a crowd. If he somehow found himself in that situation, he admits that he could 'hardly even say' his own name.
During Buffett's time at Columbia Business School, he saw an ad in the paper for a Dale Carnegie public speaking course for college students. "I figured it would serve me well," he recalls. "I went to Midtown, signed up and gave them a check. But after I left, I swiftly stopped payment. I just couldn't do it. I was that terrified."
After he graduated, Buffett returned to Omaha and got a job as a salesman of securities. But the problem still lingered: "I knew that I had to be able to speak in front of people," he writes. "So again, I saw the ad in the paper and went down to sign up; but this time, I handed the instructor $100 in cash. I knew if I gave him the cash I'd show up."
And he did show up.
"There were about 30 other people in the class and we all had trouble saying our own names. We met once a week for a dozen or so weeks. They would give us different types of speeches to practice and taught us psychological tricks to overcome our fears," explains Buffett. "There was that communal feeling that we were all in the same boat and really helped one another get through the class."
When the course was over, Buffett went to the University of Omaha and announced that he wanted to start teaching. He knew that if he didn't speak in front of people quickly, he would lapse right back to where he started.
"I just kept doing it, and now you can't stop me from talking," he jokes.
Buffett credits much of his success to the class, and his office shows more than enough proof. "I don't have my diploma from the University of Nebraska hanging on my office wall, and I don't have my diploma from Columbia up there either — but I do have my Dale Carnegie graduation certificate proudly displayed," he says.
"That $100 course gave me the most important degree I have. It's certainly had the biggest impact in terms of my subsequent success," he says.
The lesson here is that it doesn't matter what career path you take — whatever you end up doing in life, the basic skill of public speaking is crucial to your success. "In graduate school, you learn all this complicated stuff, but what's really essential is being able to get others to follow your ideas," Buffett reminds us.
"If you're a salesperson, you want people to follow your advice. If you're a management leader, you want them to follow you in business. Whatever you do, good communication skills are incredibly important and something that almost anybody can improve upon, both in writing and speaking."
Gillian Zoe Segal is the author of "Getting There: A Book of Mentors" and "New York Characters." She received a B.A. from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. She lives in New York City. Follow her on twitter @GillianZoeSegal.
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