Focusing like a Buffett


Dear Artist,

About halfway through the HBO documentary, “Becoming Warren Buffett,” a scene shows Warren Buffett and Bill Gates sitting at a table, each painting a picture — apparently a first for both. “He doesn’t know much about art,” says Bill in a voiceover. “I can’t tell you the colour of the walls in my bedroom or my living room,” says Warren. “I don’t have a mind that relates to the physical universe well.” For a moment, I thought I detected the slack-jawed bewilderment of a guy on the precipice of failure.


“The Embassy of Chromatic Delegates” 2016
20th Biennale of Sydney, Australia
installation by Sheila Hicks (b.1934)

While our interests may diverge, I nevertheless can’t help adopting a few of Warren’s Buffettisms. Shortly after meeting and becoming friends, Bill and Warren were asked by Bill’s dad to write down on a piece of paper one word that best described what had helped them the most. Without collaborating, they each wrote the word, “focus.” Warren calls it his “circle of competence.” “I don’t worry about things that are outside that circle,” he says. “Defining what your game is — where you’re going to have an edge — is enormously important.”


corn husks and thread
by Sheila Hicks

Warren suggests writing a list of two-dozen or so goals within a set time period. Next, circle the five most important. Now, you have two lists. The first, the longer one, is renamed: “Avoid At All Costs.” Do you see where he’s going? “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

As part of living out a mandate of consistency and focus, Warren spends five or six hours daily reading up on his favourite subject, investments. “I like to sit and think,” he says. “In the world of business, the people who are most successful are those who are doing what they love.”


“May I Have This Dance?” 2002-03
Mint Museum of Craft and Design, Charlotte, NC
by Sheila Hicks



PS: “Intensity is the price of excellence.” (Warren Buffett)

Esoterica: Warren Buffett was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1930. By the time he was eleven, he was selling chewing gum, Coca-Cola and newspapers door to door and buying his first stock market shares, including shares for his sister. Obsessed with numbers, he fell in love with the magic of compound interest accumulation and discovered that, through research he enjoyed, he could make educated decisions about which companies to buy or short. With a current net worth hovering around $77 billion, Warren has become the most successful investor in history. He also continues to build upon the largest philanthropic gift in history, pledging 83% of his wealth to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. At 86, he still lives in the Omaha house he bought for $31,500 with his ex-wife, Susie in 1957. “Life is like a snowball. The important thing is finding wet snow and a really long hill.” (Warren Buffett)

Becoming Warren Buffet

Sheila Hicks 1970

Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“It’s exactly the life I like. And it’s not work, it’s just a form of play, basically.” (Warren Buffett)



    • My favorite Warren Buffett quote is, “But I do buy expensive suits. They just look cheap on me!” I drove by his house many times in Omaha, and it was comfy looking but not a mansion. He has his priorities.

    • J. McSporran on

      hmm… Focus! is this another word for ignore what is happening to your marriage, your kids, parents, friends, approaching danger, balance? Define success.. If Warren can find only one thing he is good at and focus only on that, good for him. If he doesn’t care about the consequences of his focus, fine for him. But that single minded focus is not for everyone. Not all brains are the same. I do suffer from “dry spells” art wise and even need to get a kick start sometimes for sure. That happens when I am too focused for too long on other aspects of my life. Sometimes I need to repair the rotten stairs so as to avoid a serious accident. Sometimes I need to create from the imagination in order to stay sane, balanced, escape the mundane. I am unlikely to become very very rich from painting. I don’t think I could ever maintain single minded focus on anything for a very long time, just until I finish what I am doing and move on the the next focus.

      • I think what is meant, is that to feel success, one can’t just kick stuff around too long! It would be for me at least,.. to Focus, long enough to know where I left off. Yeah, my mind tends to wander, but those detours can serve the main focus.

      • I’m with you, McSporran. I have often thought it would be great to have a wife (I am a married female!) to manage my house, children and entertaining so I could paint, but I see you need a husband even more urgently. Sometimes making art is lower down on the list of priorities.

      • FOCUS on what’s most important to you, and that can be several things. Painting,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, your marriage,your children and your friends. That means you might have to give up tennis, golf bowling and a few other things. But realize what’s most important to you .

        Mary Wilbanks, painter ,teacher, wife, mother, and happy person

      • Joey Stewart on

        I like your attitude – it works if you have a wife that looks after everything else. I wish I had a wife…..and I’m a married woman!

        • another very accomplished person( wrote the musical score for the stage show Matilda among many other things), Tim Minchin, advocates a series of mini-goals and micro ambition. Here’s a connecting URL to a commencement speech he gave a few years ago. Very entertaining. But here’s a warning, you might get addicted to his videos, and you will almost certainly be annoyed with some
 I dont know how to make it an active link.)

        • Gwen Ethelbah on

          That “wish I had a wife” theme is very recurrent here, although it could be rephrased, “wish I had a helper, easy to get along with that could do all the things that drag me away from what I want to focus on.” I know someone who does – a man who does both housework and outside work and helps the artist in projects from time to time. Full time work for him, and unfortunately he doesn’t have a brother…the lady he works for has become a wonderful artist, partially because she doesn’t have to do the housework, the cooking, the mending, fixing stairs, etc. I stayed with her for a few days last year and it opened my eyes. Now to begin with twice a week (as opposed to twice a month)and see how it progresses from here…

  1. Warren Buffet is at the top of my role model list. Each New Year, I like to pick a word that is going to be a light house for me. This year it’s “Focus”. As a multi passionate person, and New York City resident, that’s easier said than done. It’s still something I strive for. Thanks so much for this post.
    PS, I love all of Sheila Hicks works you posted above. Excellent.

    • Artists like Matisse asked this question every time he stepped in front of an empty canvas, “What do I mean?” Matisse needed to be unfocused to find his way to the subconscious, the source of his inspirations. This is the art of non-attachment, akin to meditation, and Zen. Buffett’s view is narrow, good for money making, but not the nuanced notions necessary for artistic development.
      When Jackson Pollock exclaimed (in class) “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing,” his instructor, Piet Mondrian said, “Keep up the good work.”
      Do you really think Rembrandt was driven for cash and compounding interest? How about Gauguin? Perhaps van Gogh?
      Still, Buffett lives in the same old house in Omaha. He has heart: a man with good intentions. But good intentions never produced a masterpiece. In art it’s not focus that counts. As Picasso said, “I don’t seek, I find.”

  2. Thank you for this post Sara. Just what I need to hear “FOCUS”. I’ve been playing and having fun with creativity and imagination and doing experimental projects. But I think it’s time for me to focus on something, one thing that I love most and start making it. It shouldn’t be too hard, should it? Pick one idea that I am passionate about and start drawing it! Wish me luck! :-)

    • You do things when the opportunities come along. I’ve had periods in my life when I’ve had a bundle of ideas come along, and I’ve had long dry spells. If I get an idea next week, I’ll do something. If not, I won’t do a damn thing. (Warren Buffett)

  3. Mary Manning on

    Focus: In the past two years, I learned something extremely important. Start art in any way shape or form, but then, after the first layers dry, focus. This summer, after a dry spell of sketching, sketching, sketching, and hardly painting anything larger than and 8X10, I’ve taken off again, soaring across canvases.

    Now it is time to focus, and this column says it all, Sara. Thank you!

  4. I’m a “learning” artist, trying to get past the How To and on to the Why. Ah, “Focus”. Such a simple concept, so difficult to achieve. We live in a very distracting world. I’m old enough to have experienced the transition. We used to have to go see art, now it is readily available in our hands. Then there are all the other things that are readily available in our hands and on our screens. When I was young I drew for my entertainment or made my own music. My big take away from the article though is the idea of the two list. Worth a try.

  5. Thank you Sara for posting this perfect example of how each of us human beings are endowed with the genius of creativity, but sadly, many are mislead into thinking that “creativity” resides only those who pursue the arts. Warren Buffet’s creative genius is in how he interprets numbers and the “magic of compound interest”. His work ethic is how he focuses his genius. We each are unique bundles of energy and creativity. Our life challenge of getting in touch with our rhythms, quirks and needs is what moves us forward.


    • Maryanita, you certainly got the point. Commenting on the wives thing would just demonstrate that I need to go focus on my priorities. I liked your comment.

  6. Warren, how you inspire me. Artists fly highest when they are allowed to grow a brain for numbers growth, stock, bonds, and where that path can lead, but I ask you, “Why does that become forgotten when I lose myself in the fragrance of a flower as it caresses my senses in a breeze, or as a butterfly lights closely to me demanding my full attention?” These things make me wonder why I want to understand and follow your path. Knowing fully that finances are important in supporting my perceived needs, I know my greatest joys and desires of my heart are bestowed upon me with no yearning and only in recognizing them am I fulfilled. Three large military helicopters just flew overhead. Music is playing softly. A bird is chirping in the garden. A gentle breeze is blowing on this hot summer day. Another painting is waiting for me to return to my easel of artistic devotion. Thank you, Mr. Buffet for another dream.

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Featured Workshop

Travel Sketching with Watercolours in Italy
April 7, 2018 to April 14, 2018

joanne-hastie_workshop-1Join Vancouver artist Joanne Hastie to sketch the landscapes of Italy. Joanne will share her art process during this 7 day adventure.

Highlights: See all 6 Mosaic’d churches in Ravenna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Visit & sketch the places where Michelangelo sketched in the late 1490’s in Bologna; Wander the house where Renaissance artist Rafael’s grew up; Tour the castle that inspired a chapter in Dante’s Divine Comedy; Paint while watching the sunset over a cliff-top castle; Ride a bicycle along the beach to a Roman Bridge built in 10AD that is still in use today!; Sketch alongside Canadian artist Joanne Hastie & experience how the Italian countryside inspires her art.
Included:  7 nights accommodations, 7 gourmet breakfasts, 7 gourmet dinners (wine included) at Hotel Belvedere in Riccione;  transportation to and from Riccione to each location; watercolor sketchbook, plein-air starter kit (watercolor), ink pen, eraser

$3325 CAD per person
Click here to learn more. series #1
Oil on canvas with pyrite and amethyst
48 x 48"/122x122cm

Featured Artist

Candace studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Angers, France but it is her travels in the deserts of Africa and Oman, Antarctica and the Arctic, and sacred sights of Machu Picchu and Petra that serve as her true place of learning. A desire to combine these experiences with a deeper understanding of her own spirituality has provided the underlying focus and inspiration for her paintings.


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