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I Applied Warren Buffett’s 25-5 Rule to My Career – And It Totally Worked.

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Alternate Headline: “I Applied Warren Buffett’s 25-5 Rule – and Now I Am Trying to Date Jessica Alba.”

Warren Buffett’s 25-5 rule came out of advice he gave to his airline pilot Mike Flint. The story (which may not be 100% accurate) is that he advised Mike to make a list of his 25 career goals. And then to circle his 5 biggest ones.

However, the point of the exercise was not really to identify the top five. It was to identify the other 20. Because these are your real problem. These are the things you like enough that you will get drawn into them. These are the things that will pull focus and time away from your top 5. These are your biggest professional distractions.

The goal of the 25-5 rule is to focus more on your top 5 goals by saying “no” to the other 20.

So I did the exercise and it really worked. And then I took the exercise a bit too far because I tend to do that. Here is my final list.

Goal 1: Become a top global healthcare investor.

This is my biggest professional goal. It’s pretty ambitious but I typically spend 6-8 hours a day doing nothing but reading healthcare (and consumer product) annual reports. I have been slowly working my way through the financials of every public healthcare company on the planet.

Goal 2: Create a competition research institute.

I’m working on this right now. It’s basically a much bigger version of my current research and writing. I’ve published three books and +100 articles thus far but want to scale up to 20 full time staff.

Goal 3: Speak at Davos / World Economic Forum

I’m not really sure how I’m going to pull this one off. But it’s a one-time goal. So if I can achieve it, it will also free up a spot in my top five.

Goal 4: Exercise 3x a week – forever.

I’m at the age where I need to exercise perpetually. So this is really a goal about consistency. However, I do notice that when I exercise regularly, I become much more disciplined in other parts of my life, especially work. Per Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habits, exercising is my keystone habit.

Goal 5: Avoid the common, catastrophic screw-ups.

This goal is pretty easy to achieve as it’s just stuff not to do. I keep a list of the most common catastrophic mistakes smart people seem to make. These are the mistakes that seem to frequently wreck otherwise successful people’s lives.

My current “avoid at all costs” list includes doing drugs, gambling, having significant and/or short-term debt, going to jail, and doing overly dangerous activities (hang gliding, etc.).

***

Ok. Now on to the other 20 goals, which is really the point of the article.

Goal 6: Practice medicine.

I went into business right after medical school and I still think about going back to clinical practice in some form. I feel the pull of this all the time.

But practicing medicine would require a ton of time and focus. And dabbling in clinical practice is a pretty bad idea in terms of quality care. So being a doctor is now my biggest “no, don’t do it” goal.

Goal 7: Launch a CalTech-type math and engineering school.

This is another long-time, big dream. I spent time at Harvey Mudd College and loved it. Ever since, I have thought about developing a college that is 100% dedicated to math and the hard sciences. This is my top contender for moving up into the top five. But for now, it’s on the “no” list.

Goal 8: Sit on company boards.

I like being on Boards. It’s fun and you meet great people so saying “no” here is disappointing. But it’s probably smart as Board members seem to get sued all the time.

Goal 9: Write a TV show

.

I have written and pitched several TV shows. No idea why I do this as business writing doesn’t make very good entertainment. Putting this on the “no” list is long overdue.

Goal 10: Politics.

I used to follow political stuff and go to Washington DC for meetings and such. It was pretty fun. Lots of lunches and great steak houses. Plus healthcare tends to be government-infused.

But looking back, I think it was a waste of time and emotionally unhealthy for me. So I’m now completely out of this world. I don’t follow political news, events, or elections. To quote the American philosopher William Joel, “I’ve passed the age of consciousness and righteous rage.”

***

Ok, thus far this exercise has been pretty logical. And it was pretty helpful. I finally said no to things that had been lingering in my mind for years.

However, I am now also out of big goals. So I started just looking at activities in my life that could be cut out.

Goal or Activity 11: Doing intro meetings.

This is more of an activity than a goal. But I have really stopped doing casual hello meetings (professional, not personal). These meetings do add up in terms of time. I now usually say no (politely) unless there is a project on the table.

Goal or Activity 12: Following the news.

News and current events used to be the first thing I checked in the morning. But I think this soaks up too much time so I’ve cut it out. Plus I’m not convinced reading the news doesn’t make you kinda stupid. So now, outside of the financial press, I’ve stopped following the news entirely. I find I don’t miss it at all.

Goal or Activity 13: Expensive meals and nice hotels.

As I’m just randomly cutting stuff out of my life, I decided nice hotels and restaurants should go as well. Simple living really suits me better. And I’ve had enough pricey wine and dinners for one lifetime. I am now a contented patron of Motel 6 and Denny’s.

Activity 14: Social media.

I’ve mostly stopped WeChat, WhatsApp, Line, Twitter, Facebook and all the rest. This has freed up a lot of time. I now really only use LinkedIn, which I think is awesome for writing.

Activity 15: Unscheduled phone calls.

I’m also avoiding unscheduled phone calls and it has made a significant difference in my schedule. I schedule most calls in advance – and they need a purpose.

Activity 16: Television.

Being able to flip through +500 channels is just too tempting for me. I don’t own a TV anymore.

Activity 17: Video games and web surfing.

Same as 16. Although I find I really miss Call of Duty.

***

Ok, I kinda morphed an exercise in goal prioritization into a self-righteous purge. And unfortunately, I’m still 7 goals short of 25. So to end the article, I thought I should dream up a few new goals for my life. They can be alternates for the top five.

Goal 18: Start a healthcare PE fund in Africa. I think it’s too early in the development of African healthcare for this. But I just really like the idea. I’m saving this goal for my next life.

Goal 19: Get an apartment in Leblon, Rio de Janeiro. When I’m depressed, I look at real estate listings in this little Rio neighborhood. It’s my favorite place.

Goal 20: Date Jessica Alba. Ok, now I’m in fantasy land. But it’s the end of the article and I’m tired.

Goal 21: Hang out with Conor McGregor in Dublin. Same but for some reason I think this one is actually doable.

Goal 22-25: I’m completely out of ideas.

Overall, Buffett’s 25-5 rule has been a big help. Especially in forcing me to let go of some long-standing dreams. The top 10 list was pretty helpful. I’m not sure the rest of the list helped that much. It was mostly just me being maniacal.

I recommend giving 25-5 a try, but maybe stop at 15.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back on my normal China stuff next week. Cheers, -jeff

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I write and speak about “how rising Chinese consumers are disrupting global markets – with a special focus on digital China”.

  • Photo by Stefan Krasowski, Creative Commons license with link here.
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