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Change Our Story

Composer, author and philanthropist Peter Buffett on finding your own path to life fulfillment.

From East to West

Peter Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett, is an Emmy Award-winning composer, NY Times best-selling author and noted philanthropist. Currently, he is releasing socially-conscious music and touring his "Concert & Conversation" series in support of his book Life Is What You Make It.
be yourself  

I’ve just returned from China. And now that I have a small outlet for my thoughts, I might as well write them down and see if they make sense.

As many readers know, I’ve worked on musical projects that include many expressions of my deep feelings regarding American Indian—as well as any indigenous—culture. 

We all came from a tribe at some point in our past. But there are few people in the world that survive in the manner that we were once all accustomed to. As you might expect, I believe that our previous way of life had a lot of valuable components to it. But please don’t accuse me of romanticizing the past. I just wish we could have retained some of the important parts, specifically the parts around us being just a part of a larger world, a world that we were meant to live in relationship to—not in control of.

On my first trip to China, my “aha” moment was realizing that the country is, indeed, quite full of the same feeling that I had when I got to know people in “Indian Country.” I recognized a soul in China that I didn’t expect. And then it became obvious: the Chinese people are nearly all indigenous; the land they live on was inhabited by their ancestors for millennia.

What I was seeing was that same way of being that Columbus saw when he first landed. I quoted him in an earlier blog. But the upshot is that he met people with their hearts open. Ready and willing to listen, learn, share, have fun, believe in things, and connect.

I don’t go to China for commerce. I go there to share my story if it’s at all helpful. 

My book, has been met with great success in China. There are a couple of reasons for that, none probably more obvious than the fact that I am Warren Buffett’s son. But that’s absolutely fine with me. It gives me a key into a world I would have never seen. Now that I’m in, I’m having a look around.

I won’t lie: it takes a lot of energy. But it’s an interesting kind of effort. And I think that’s what happens when any two cultures meet.

Think of it as a pan of water. In its liquid state it’s very stable. And the same is true when it’s frozen. Those are like two different cultures. When the two states of being—with all the meanings and customs that they’re used to—meet, that’s where the energy of worlds colliding is released.

Here’s the tricky part about this exchange: When that relationship is forged with either side trying to get the better deal, as opposed to the better understanding, things can get a little ugly. Obviously, this can easily happen in any market driven relationship. And of course, whoever sets the measuring stick usually gets an advantage.

So here’s what I’m so struck by.

In China my book is entitled Be Yourself. And at first, I was thinking it was mostly written for the young adults in China that would be curious about the fact that I followed a very surprising—and, to them, inspiring—life path.

When I spent more time there, I was so struck by how much Western advertising for high end products I saw. And as I stepped further back and also got a little deeper into the experience of being there, I saw how the measuring stick of Western values was slowly being superimposed everywhere.

It starts simply enough with things like the Gregorian calendar. China still uses the Lunar Calendar for important dates. But otherwise, the gridlines of the West have been put to use on a daily basis.

But I love that the whole country has one time zone (even though it straddles five). I’ll bet in most of China they still say, “time to get up ... time to have lunch ...” etc. As opposed to “6:45” or “12:30.”

But when you start to see metrics in fashion, economics, real estate that all look pretty Western, it feels like putting a square peg in a round hole.

So I’ve come to learn that my Chinese book, Be Yourself, actually applies to the country at large. The development of a social system for mankind (I’m including all elements anyone can think of—politics, markets, medicine, education, etc.) is a work in progress. Sure China can learn things from other societies. But clearly, it must Be Itself. If it loses the centuries upon centuries of soul, the world loses. If the West insists on addicting the East to its version of growth and prosperity, I call this no different than the Opium Wars of the past.

I’m really not sure what to do about this other than say it out loud. Many of the Chinese people I speak to seem to be deeply concerned that China will lose something extremely rare and valuable in the rush towards a very confounding version of growth and happiness. And it’s not just the older people.

I know the culture still holds a deep sense of balance. It’s the heartbeat of any indigenous culture. If it stays strong, I believe there will be a better future for us all.

What do you think? Share your story at changeourstory.com. Visit www.peterbuffett.com to learn more and Change Our Story to join the conversation on how we all can become active participants in shaping our future.