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Speaking Truth to Power: An Interview With Peter Buffett

The philanthropist musician talks about the antidote to greed.

Peter Buffett is living proof that compassion and power can go hand in hand. The youngest son of investor Warren Buffett, Peter is an Emmy Award-winning musician and author who cares far more about healing the planet—particularly addressing the plight of women and girls—than he does about ego, status, or wealth. He is the co-chairman of the NoVo Foundation, an organization dedicated to catalyzing transformation in global society by moving from a culture of domination and exploitation to one of equality and partnership. Along with his wife Jennifer, Peter helps guide NoVo’s vision, strategic mission and program development. His first book, Life is What You Make It: Find Your Own Path to Fulfillment was a New York Times bestseller published in 2010 and translated into 15 languages. In the wake of the presidential election, I caught up with Peter to talk about the enigma of Donald J. Trump and the importance of speaking truth to power.

Mark Matousek: Somebody recently said that today, influence is the new paradigm of power. Would you agree?

Peter Buffett: I think influence is one way to exercise power and that the challenge is whether it is power over or power with. That’s the essential shift that I hope can happen in the world. Power over seems to be driving our very young species into a ditch because it’s from an old competitive, "there may not be enough" kind of framework of scarcity. Power with is thinking abundantly as opposed to fearfully. Power with is hopefully where we’re going—and where we need to go as a species in order to survive.

MM: You're talking about a paradigm of power that isn’t about 'us versus them', but is more connective, empathic, and global?

PB: Yes and no. True collaborative, nurturing, and safe power is a combining of forces that can only happen on a pretty small scale. Things today have become too big, too centralized, and too disassociated to be in relationship to each other. We don’t know where our food comes from. We don’t know a lot of things about what is happening financially. This creates the "power over" kind of feeling. Whatever shift is necessary is dependent on the scale on which it can be implemented, which is to say in your local community and family. Thinking that everything must be bigger to matter is a problem. Small power emanates and disseminates in a very different way.

MM: When you look at what took place with this presidential campaign, how does it relate to your feelings about power?

PB: My gut sense is there’s something necessary going on and if I’m too fearful or angry, I feel like I’m feeding it. [This election] has gotten everybody to sit up a lot straighter and ask, where has this come from and how did we miss that much anger and frustration and fear in a sector of the population that we kind of thought was okay? America comes from a flawed but wonderful idea. Many great things have sprung forth over the past few hundred years but there were deep issues in the beginning that now are starting to show up.

MM: Are you saying the anomaly of Trump is having an empowering effect on the left and on the consciousness movement?

PB: I hate to give it too much credit. It’s too bad that it takes egregious behavior or some kind of crisis to get people to take notice and get clearer about things that were just below the surface. But if that’s what it takes, well here we are. It’s time to do something about it.

MM: Is there an antidote to greed, do you think?

PB: I think the antidote to any symptom borne of fear and scarcity is love. Compassion, understanding, respect, honor: all the things we need to help the world heal begin there. Patriarchy is connected to greed, a symptom of a larger force that can only be dispelled through kindness and love. It’s basic Buddhism. We have to be in abundance and recognize that we’re just a small piece of this big thing that’s moving along the biosphere, earth, evolution and consciousness and we’d better humble ourselves and start loving each other.

MM: What can men learn from women about power?

PB: Our individual wholeness includes a masculine and a feminine side, which are slowly (or not so slowly) wrung out of us, depending on which gender you are. Men at an earlier age, get the feminine aspects of them wrung out in a variety of ways. Women have a connection to life force and nurturing. They have a connection that men don’t have. It doesn’t mean one’s better or more important, it’s just a difference. I've seen women essentially martyr themselves for the good of the future and the good of their children and, again, the good of love. That shouldn't be happening but it shows you the strength and power of it, and the fact that it will take over a woman's sense of her own survival. Men have taken advantage of that for hundreds and probably thousands of years. So, men can learn a lot about the importance of nurturing and being in relation to the life force versus having power over.

MM: I've heard you say that men need to dominate women because they fear the power of female intuition. What’s the connection between intuition and power?

PB: Again I'm generalizing, but women, being so connected to life, tend to have stronger intuition is stronger because they are trained to be on the look-out and protect. Men do that too, but there's a different quality to women. If you can intuit well, you're essentially meeting the future faster. All of us were tuned in during our early development but we lose our connection to intuition over time as other things come into play. It's very powerful if you can home in on, and really trust, intuition and its strength. Most men have shunned that in so many ways that they end up squaring off the circle of life. So yes, I do think men fear female intuition.

Two hundred years ago, we were all busy farming and we all had a role to play. The home was a unit of production. We made food and all the things we needed, we took care of our kids and were connected to purpose in our evolution. When the Industrial Revolution came along, it took away a lot of the work the men had done. Suddenly, in the early 20th century, there were thousands of men with essentially nothing to do. The farm work, as well as other work, was being handled by machines.

It's no surprise that if you look at the development of the economy, of consumerism, of all these things that have gotten out of hand over the last hundred years, it happened when men were purposeless, when they didn't actually have a legitimate reason to be moving the species forward because the machines were doing all the hard work. Things like science and technology still leave some gaps, so it's not as if everybody was sitting around doing nothing, but the bureaucracy and the whole structure of our culture is basically built out of men trying to be legitimate and making things up so they look important.

MM: That's fascinating.

PB: It feels somewhat undeniable. The more history I read, the more everything seems to point to the same thing. It seems inevitable that you'd end up getting someone like Trump telling us all how important and amazing he is.

MM: One last question. Since your father endowed you and your siblings with a billion dollars each to use for your philanthropies, have you ever struggled with figuring out whom to help, with so much need in the world?

PB: It's incredibly difficult because there are so many people in the communities in need and so many organizations in need. People are doing amazing, beautiful things just to keep the world from not hurting more today than yesterday. We’ve tried to create an organization that reflects the world we want to make better and grow conditions necessary for change. Our staff has a deeply felt knowledge and understanding of some of the communities we're trying to support.

Start from the bottom up. Don't walk in with a colonial mindset and say, "We know your problem and we're going to fix it." Shift the dynamic as much as you can, so you hear the truth from people that have lived experience. Listen intently and honor their experience. What may be on the surface looks like one thing but it's often a much larger problem. Can we get to that? Can we shift the leverage there? Then try and identify where the money can go to create conditions for true systemic change. We're constantly learning and trying to get better at that. One day at a time.

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