A banker casts a shadow as he walks in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photographer: Michele Limina/Bloomberg)

Never Mind the Millionaires. Here’s Advice From Billionaires.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Last month, I described an email that promised vast riches if I would adopt “The Millionaire Mindset.”

This is the sort of silly wishful thinking I hate:

Consider, instead, the Cartesian pitch as applied to self-help being sold today: Just think it and it will happen. This stuff, along with crystals and horoscopes, joins a long list of things that have never been proven to have much value beyond a placebo effect.

Wishful thinking alone is insufficient to get any job done. “All you need is a dollar and a dream” is typical of the mindset of those who visualize themselves as wealthy. Rather, a lottery ticket allows you to to imagine yourself as rich for a few minutes, but statistically speaking, neither the lottery nor the visualizations are likely to work.

Some misread my attitude as a challenge to their favorite self-help gurus.  It was not my intention to disparage those who aim to help people with their personal philosophies. I did not mention any guru by name except Napoleon Hill, and he was discussed with approval.  Nonetheless, I clearly touched a nerve.

What follows are some suggestions for success I pulled from conversations with billionaires. Note that I do not study billionaires for a living, and have recommended that people shouldn’t invest like them.

However, I have been fortunate to have sat down for two hours at a time with lots of people in the three-comma club: Mark CubanRay DalioHoward MarksLeon CoopermanJeff GundlachBill GrossEd Thorp, Jeremy Grantham, Ken FisherMario Gabelli, as well as many more near-billionaires.

When successful, intelligent, accomplished people tell their life story, you listen very carefully. When did their philosophy develop? Who were their mentors? What mistakes did they make and what did they learn from them? The people listed above each took a different route to success. But they were happy to pass on their experiences and wisdom. And they also had some traits in common. Here is what these billionaires taught:

  1. Be reality-based: Ray Dalio writes this explicitly in his "Principles," published in 2011. Every member of my billionaire sample discussed the importance of discerning reality that others have missed or misunderstood. Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital explained why you need to do more than simply grasp reality. Failing to understand the world as it is will prevent you from achieving long-term, sustainable success.
  2. Work Hard: No one on my list inherited great wealth -- all of the billionaires were self-made and male (I have not yet interviewed any of the world’s 256 female billionaires). They discussed working long and hard, especially in the early days of their careers. Many of them outworked, out-hustled and outsmarted their competitors to achieve their success.
  3. Focus on Process: No one in this group is outcome-focused. They are all process-oriented investors. Understanding probabilistic outcomes, learning from errors, failing well were qualities frequently cited by members of this group.
  4. Read widely: This is another trait almost all members of the group shared. They didn't just read finance-related books, but a huge variety of works of history, biography and philosophy. The billionaires sought to get smarter, learn more and have a deeper understanding of the world.
  5. Be Lucky: The consistent acknowledgement of the role of serendipity played in their lives was perhaps the most surprising of all the sentiments shared among this crew. Every person mentioned how much random good fortune had come their way.
  6. Opportunity Knocks: Combine hard work with luck and you create opportunity. Lucky, yes, but ready to act when fortune smiles. If you are lucky but fail to rise to the occasion, then the luck is meaningless. Being well-prepared to capitalize on what providence provides was a consistent theme.
  7. Be humble: Success in the market requires humility. At times, it can be humbling. But the humility of these uber-successful, ultra-wealthy men was another surprise.

So read all the self-help books you want, but avoid wishful thinking. The virtue of being reality-based, process-oriented, hard-working, well-read and humble are evident ways to work to achieve success in any field.

Instead of the “millionaire mindset,” adopt a “billionaire behavior.” You will be glad you did.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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