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Did You Win The Ovarian Lottery?

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Did you win the ovarian lottery?Warren Buffett said much of his success is due to winning the “ovarian lottery.” He was born white, male, and in the United States at the right time. When I first heard this, years ago, I thought – sure I agree. You have more opportunities to become successful in the US than almost anywhere else on earth. However, I’m reading The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life and I learned that it’s not just being born in the US that made Warren Buffett one of the richest men in the world. If being born in the USA* is all that’s required, why are so many American struggling with their finances? Yes, they won the ovarian lottery by being born in the US, but did they win $4 or the jackpot like Warren Buffet?

*I consider being born in Canada, Australia, and most countries in Europe winning the ovarian lottery, too.

Powerball

Let’s look at Powerball, the biggest lottery in the US. You select five numbers from a set of 69 white balls and one number from 26 red balls. If your picks match the drawing, then you win. Here is the payout chart.

powerball payout chart

The overall odds of winning any prize are 1 in 24.87.

The odds of winning the jackpot is 1 in 292,201,338.

So it’s not that difficult to win something, but the jackpot is really tough to hit.

Warren Buffet’s red Powerball

Warren Buffett is a special individual. His red Powerball is being born to the right family, at the right time, with the right anatomical bit. His dad, Howard Buffett, owned a small brokerage and encouraged his son to learn about investing. He had a headstart with investing.

Warren Buffett has 2 sisters and he said they are just as smart and ambitious as he is. However, opportunities for females were limited at that time. “They could be teachers or secretaries or nurses, and that was about it.” Lastly, Warren Buffett is Caucasian. It’s not hard to imagine that Oprah Winfrey had a tougher road to becoming a billionaire than he did.

Anyway, Warren Buffett got the red Powerball, but it takes more than that to win the jackpot. From Snowball, I learned that he got the right balls with his other traits, too. As you can see from the payout chart above, getting the white balls right is just as important as getting the red Powerball. Here are the other traits that made Warren Buffett successful.

Thriftiness

Warren Buffett is naturally frugal. He has simple tastes and dislikes spending money on himself. He could eat a hamburger and cherry coke for the rest of his life and be satisfied. His clothes, cars, and homes are modest (for a billionaire). Not many people are like that. I’m frugal, but I enjoy the complexity of life. I like trying new foods, driving nice cars, traveling to new places, and playing with cool toys. If I was a billionaire, I’d live it up. For me, it’s a constant battle to stay frugal. For Warren Buffett, it’s easy.

Also, Warren Buffet’s view on saving is pretty unique. Since he is such a fantastic investor, he could multiply the money he saves. So if he saved $100,000 by using a budget car, those savings will turn into a million dollars in a few years. You and I can’t say that with conviction. For regular people, the compounding factor is much lower. It’d take me 30+ years to turn $100,000 to a million dollars. For regular people, it is much simpler to spend now and work to make money later. Our investment compounds at a much slower rate.

Passion for making money

Warren Buffett has a single-minded obsession with making money. He often said he wouldn’t be where he is if he didn’t win the ovarian lottery, but I disagree. If he was born in India to a middle-class family, his passion for making money would still make him successful.

His teenage years and early 20s were fascinating. He sold gum, delivered the paper, started a golf ball reselling business, set up pinball machines in barber shops, and had a tenant farmer working for him. He was making more money from delivering newspapers than his high school teachers. His paper route was quite lucrative and he had to hustle his way into it. Warren Buffett was a serial entrepreneur and he saved up $5,000 by the time he was 17. That’s more than many people have in the bank today and that’s not even counting inflation. His stash would be worth about $55,000 today. Anyone hustled and saved up that much when they were 17?

This was my favorite part of the book. It shows me that Warren Buffett would have been successful no matter where he was born. He is a hustler and he is good at building businesses.

Talent for valuing a business

Warren Buffett’s greatest talent is the ability to value a business and swoop in at the right moment. He can analyze the numbers and see if it makes sense to invest in a business or not. Of course, he wasn’t always right, but his scorecard is much better than anybody else. This talent might not have been useful a thousand years ago, but it was perfect timing for Warren Buffett. In the 60s and 70s, many companies were mispriced and he was able to capitalize on them at the beginning of his career. He has passion for making money and the talent. That’s an unbeatable combination.

Magnetic personality

Warren Buffett has a knack for attracting successful friends and mentors. He read The Intelligent Investor when he was 19 and later enrolled at Columbia to learn from Benjamin Graham, the father of value investing. Warren Buffett made a big impression on Graham and eventually went to work for Graham’s investment company. Buffett chose the right mentor and it paid off.

In Snowball, I learned Buffett made a lasting impression on many successful people throughout his life. When he was 20, he wrangled a meeting with the CEO of Geico, Lorimer Davidson. Mr. Davidson was going to give him 5 minutes, but spent 4 hours talking to Buffett about the insurance business. That’s amazing.

Since then, Buffett made many more successful friends. Bill Gates, Charles Munger, Don Keough (Coca-Cola), Katherine Graham (Washington Post), and more. When he meets someone successful he is able to build a lasting relationship with them. His philosophy is to hang out with people better than him and their friendships elevated him.

Focus

Bill Gates, Sr. asked Warren Buffett and Bill Gates what’s their secret to success and they both answered, “Focus.” Buffett’s passion is to make money and he focused 100% on that. He isn’t distracted by family, spending money, having fun, traveling, and all the other stuff regular people have in their lives. He delegated the responsibility of raising the kids to his wife and focused on what he’s best at – making money.

Most of us don’t have that kind of focus. We need to relax after a long day of work and goof off a bit. I like to travel, go out to eat, browse the internet, and spend time with my wife and kid. To become successful, you need to be able to shut these distractions out and focus on what you’re good at. Warren Buffett isn’t a well-rounded person, but he is the best at what he does.

Did you win the ovarian lottery?

It took me more than a week to finish The Snowball, but I enjoyed it tremendously. It showed me a different meaning of ovarian lottery. Winning the jackpot requires more than being a white male American. It’s much more complicated than that.

I wasn’t born in the United States, but I won the ovarian lottery, too. My parents were college educated and knew the US represented opportunities. They immigrated here when I was 12 and handed me the red Powerball. I also got lucky with a couple of other things as well. I’m pretty frugal and I was smart enough to complete the engineering program in college. These few winning numbers gave me the foundation to build on.

I know I’ll never be a billionaire, but I’m very happy with my $7 winnings and how far it got me.

What about you? Did you win the ovarian lottery? How many winning numbers did you get?

Other books I enjoyed.

Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story by Arnold Schwarzenegger

Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts by Annie Duke

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Joe started Retire by 40 in 2010 to figure out how to retire early. He spent 16 years working in computer design and enjoyed the technical work immensely. However, he couldn't stomach the corporate BS.

Joe left his engineering career behind to become a stay-at-home dad/blogger at 38. Today, he blogs about financial independence, early retirement, investing, and living a frugal lifestyle. See how he generates Passive Income here.

Joe highly recommends Personal Capital for DIY investors. He logs on to Personal Capital almost daily to check his cash flow and net worth. They have many useful tools that will help DIY investors analyze their portfolio and plan for retirement.
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{ 36 comments… add one }
  • Mr. Tako June 10, 2019, 12:41 am

    Warren Buffett may have won the ovarian lottery, but his focus and hard work puts most investors to shame. He used to read through entire Moody’s manuals of stocks to find something that interested him. That’s a lot of work!

    Your average investor wouldn’t have that kind of dedication and patience to find a diamond in the rough. Most investors buy something they know and just hope for the best.

    The difference with Buffett is that he *knew* when he was buying value. Most people don’t.

    • retirebyforty June 10, 2019, 7:16 am

      I think the focus is part of the ovarian winning too. Most people don’t have the capability to focus like that. It’s probably mostly nature (genetic.)
      Yeap, buying value is Graham’s school of thought. Buffett was lucky and persistent enough to get Benjamin Graham as a mentor. It was the perfect match. From what I understand, that’s very difficult to replicate now. The stock price is rarely worth more than the company’s intrinsic value nowadays.

  • Bob June 10, 2019, 1:10 am

    You bring up a topic I’ve been interested in for a long time, namely would someone be better served with moving to a developed country to be a successful investor or will they have as much success in their own country if they have the right temperament. We could live anywhere but are based and invested in Africa. Relative to most here we’re one of the wealthiest people, but relative to the OECD countries our liquid $1m makes us probably upper middle income. I’m sure if we had lived in the US we’d have succeeded too since it was just a high income salary and aggressive savings that got us here, but I’ve often wondered whether its better to do so in a high income country rather than low income because of exchange rates and low cost of living making incomes relatively lower. Hindsight is a perfect science, but do you think its always better to move to the developed world to work hard and save, even if you could make a $100k-$200k income in the developing world/vs $400k in the US?

    • retirebyforty June 10, 2019, 8:51 am

      From what I read, it seems like a better bet to move to a “happier” country. Apparently, people tend to adapt to the average. If you could make $400k in the US, I’d say moving to the US is a good move. But if you make less, I wouldn’t do it. Who knows? It looks like you’ve done very well so you should just enjoy it.
      https://retireby40.org/how-do-you-measure-happiness/

    • jim June 10, 2019, 10:47 am

      “relative to the OECD countries our liquid $1m makes us probably upper middle income.”

      $1m in wealth makes you in the top 0.5%. Thats not ‘upper middle’. Thats solidly ‘upper’.

  • Pennypincher June 10, 2019, 3:13 am

    Motivation.
    Ambition.
    Hustle.
    Being in the right place at the right time in business-luck-helps too.

    • retirebyforty June 10, 2019, 8:52 am

      Are these nature or nurture? I’m guessing 80% nature and 20% nurtured. What do you think?

      • Pennypincher June 10, 2019, 1:35 pm

        Wow, Joe. Never thought of that. I do know that a school principle (principal?) once told us, motivation is key. Then a school superintendent once said, that if the majority of students are motivated, then the rest usually follow. They all rise.
        I think kids watch what their parents do as well. Work ethic, motivation, they watch all of this from us. Hopefully they follow suit, or eventually “get it” before it’s too late.

        • Pennypincher June 10, 2019, 1:37 pm

          Oh, and thanks. Reading the Buffet book right now. Interesting!

  • MandyBrooks June 10, 2019, 4:20 am

    Buffet may have won the Ovarian lottery but he hit life’s true jackpot because of his drive, focus and will to succeed. He knew what he wanted and set out to get it. Looking forward to reading the book. Thanks for another great post!

    • retirebyforty June 10, 2019, 8:53 am

      The book is excellent. I skipped a few parts, but I really enjoyed it overall. It’s in the top 3 biographical books for me. Disclosure: I very rarely read a biography. 🙂

  • Kevin @ WhenImRetired June 10, 2019, 5:33 am

    “but it takes more than that to win the jackpot. From Snowball, I learned that he got the right balls with his other traits, too.”

    This stuck with me from the article most. It’s no doubt that plenty of people could be born with the Powerball, but it takes the right combination of other traits to really make the Powerball reach its highest potential.

    It’s no surprise, with that context, that eventually one-third of actual lottery winners go bankrupt or when you hear of ex-football players going broke after having such high income streams. You can be dealt all the cards, but if you don’t play them correctly, you’re going to lose the best opportunities!

    • retirebyforty June 10, 2019, 8:55 am

      Exactly! That’s why there are only a few people like Warren Buffett. These hyper successful people were born in the right place at the right time AND have many good traits.

  • Tom @ Dividends Diversify June 10, 2019, 5:33 am

    Great book review Joe. Nowadays, there little to do with luck when it comes to thriftiness, the drive to make money and focus. And I really think focus gets lost. It’s so important to do one or two things well than a whole lot of things so, so. Tom

    • retirebyforty June 10, 2019, 9:00 am

      I think it’s partly luck of the genes. These traits are probably 80% nature and 20% nurture. It sounds like Buffett was thrifty since he was very small for no particular reason. Focus is very important and that one you can nurture more. Kids these days are so distracted. I worry for my son. He has no focus at all.

  • Financial Samurai June 10, 2019, 7:14 am

    For sure. I feel so lucky to be born an Asian male and getting to go to school and work in America.

    Despite some racial discrimination growing up, I feel like some people give me some benefit of the doubt in terms of intelligence due to my race, even though I didn’t do that well on my SAT etc.

    Asian stereotypes have been good for my career, my site, and my overall happiness.

    Sam

    • retirebyforty June 11, 2019, 7:32 am

      You also have a lot of drive and energy. That’s genetic too, right?

  • freddy smidlap June 10, 2019, 7:34 am

    i was born white and male in the u.s. but was given up for adoption. i had to learn a lot of the money/investing stuff on my own being adopted by just a couple of regular country folks. you won’t hear me whining about it as we always had everything we needed.

    i would like to hear more about the possibility of making a better return on investment. people act like it’s impossible to pick winning investments. i don’t think it is, but, like anything else, it takes some practice and discipline. a little extra risk tolerance doesn’t hurt either. i might have to read that one.

    • retirebyforty June 11, 2019, 7:34 am

      The book is good, but probably won’t help with your investment. The Graham philosophy is to invest in stocks that are worth less than the business’ intrinsic value. Those are value stocks. They avoid tech with their sky-high valuation.

  • Xrayvsn June 10, 2019, 7:35 am

    Buffet truly is a remarkable individual and this post was a great review of him Joe.

    What is the most fascinating thing is despite all the zeroes he has in his net worth he lives incredibly frugal (even for a regular guy not just a billionaire). He lives in the same average home he has had for decades which is saying a lot.

    I know I hit the ovarian lottery as well even though I am foreign born. My dad was a doctor and inspired me to become one myself. I grew up upper middle class and excelled in academics because of genetics and environment. I came to the US when I was less than a year old and was granted access to a lot of things the majority of the world does not have.

    If I had to guess I got to the level of hitting all the numbers except the red ball.

    • retirebyforty June 11, 2019, 7:37 am

      His average home is huge and is probably worth over $2 million. 🙂 Not so average, but very frugal for one of the richest man in the world.
      You’re very lucky. I think you got the jackpot. The divorce just derailed you for a while, but you’re doing really well now.

  • The Frugal Engineers June 10, 2019, 8:11 am

    No lottery winner here. Looking back, my success could be attributed to having strong negative role models and not wanting to turn out the same way. I dislike the privilege discussion since it discounts hard work and implies that privilege is enough on it’s own. If that’s the case, then my three sisters born to the same parents raised in the same household should also be successful, but they’re all still on government assistance.

    • retirebyforty June 11, 2019, 7:38 am

      Sorry to hear that. Some people have to make do with no winning balls. But it sounds like you’re doing much better now. That’s hard work. Keep at it!

  • Jonathan June 10, 2019, 8:46 am

    Definitely won something, not the jackpot but probably the $1 million pull. My parents raised me with all the tools I needed to build wealth, and helped me out in modest ways when they could so I wouldn’t be saddled with tons of debt in my life. They read to me as a kid and instilled in me a lifelong love of learning, they would never cook me breakfast or lunch teaching me to cook for my own food. They didn’t buy me the hot toys for Christmas but never told me how to spend my allowance letting me stock up on Magic the Gathering cards and classic video games (which have all appreciated in value, though it’s hardly an investment vehicle!)

    • retirebyforty June 11, 2019, 7:42 am

      Your parent did a great job. I didn’t understand how hard it is to raise a kid until we have one. It’s not easy.

  • Abigail @ipickuppennies June 10, 2019, 9:43 am

    I grew up in a middle class American family — one that lived in Alaska and collected the Permanent Fund Dividend — so I definitely won the lottery there. Alas, my parents knew nothing about investing, so they didn’t even put my substantial savings (hooray Permanent Fund!) into CDs. So it grew almost not at all. I shudder to think about the gains we lost out on in the 13 years I collected the Permanent Fund. Oh well.

    Even so, I obviously got lucky in being taught good money habits by my mom. I don’t follow them as religiously as she does, frugality-wise, but I like to think I still live pretty carefully.

    So I’d say I got one or two of the white balls.

  • Reynolds June 10, 2019, 3:00 pm

    This that US represent opportunity is overrated and way in the past. With China and Russia becoming the new world leaders, be born there is the new lottery winning..but of course I know that half of the world disagrees and still thinks USofA is still the big thing..it will take about 30yrs in the future for people to realize what’m saying

    • retirebyforty June 11, 2019, 10:30 am

      It was way better in the 1930s, for sure. But the US still has a lot of opportunities today. It’s a lot more difficult in China. There are so many people there. You have to fight like crazy to get ahead. It’s tough over there. I’m not sure about Russia, I don’t know much about that region. I still think the US is better for the next 30 years. In China and Russia, powerful people can squash you if you don’t follow their rules. In the US, we have more freedom to innovate, for now anyway.

    • Marco Demaio June 15, 2019, 2:40 am

      You don’t know what you are talking about. Most people in US are hard workers and very business focused, in most US businesses meritocracy is top, they take no crap. At the same time they are open minded and optimistic people, often inclined to give an opportunity to the new one or to the latest idea that came in.
      And they work as a real team.
      Never underestimate Americans, in 1982 many people believed the same for Japan, it was the China/Russia of those days.

  • Jim @ Route To Retire June 10, 2019, 3:56 pm

    I still believe that while your background can make it much easier or harder to reach success, each of us still has the ability to make our own luck. If Buffet was a lazy guy with no ambition, we may never have even heard of him… that’s weird to just even think about. 🙂

    I’m excited to check out the books you’ve mentioned. For some reason, the Schwarzenegger book piques my interest a lot. Seems like it would be really interesting.

    — Jim

    • retirebyforty June 11, 2019, 10:32 am

      The Schwarzenegger book is really good. His early history is fascinating. He struggled hard to succeed. It’s a very inspiring story.

  • Little Seeds of Wealth June 10, 2019, 8:53 pm

    I think I won the lottery as well. I was foreign-born and struggled quite a bit in the U.S. due to being a foreigner but I have highly educated parents who gave me a great education and taught me frugal ways growing up.

  • David @iretiredyoung June 11, 2019, 6:03 am

    Where, when, and to whom you were born isn’t something that we can control. What is in our control is whether we apply the focus, effort and diligence into whatever we decide to do. Success is a relative term, and if we do put in that effort, we will most likely be much more successful than would otherwise be the case.

  • [email protected] June 11, 2019, 9:10 pm

    Sounds like a good book to read. I really enjoy listening to Warren Buffett when interviewed on CNBC, and his letters to shareholders are also a great read.

  • Lily June 17, 2019, 2:40 pm

    My case is a little tricky – I wasn’t born in this country or to good parents or to wealth, but I know I’m very lucky. I can’t…I don’t know O_O! It is what you make of it I guess haha.

    • retirebyforty June 17, 2019, 5:53 pm

      Ahh… You’re lucky, but not due to the ovarian lottery.
      It shows that it’s possible to win even with a bad hand at the start of the game. 🙂

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