I’ve known lots of rich and famous people. Hundreds. No, I’m not talking about celebrated actors, sports figures, or socialites. I’m certainly not talking about the power brokers in Washington or Manhattan’s upper east side.
I seriously doubt if you’d recognize a single one of these folks if you saw them walking down the street.
I’m talking about business people. They’re not billionaires, but they’ve done pretty well for themselves. I’m talking about CEOs, VCs, entrepreneurs, executives, business owners, and early employees of high-tech startups that made it.
There are so many myths about wealth disparity in America, what it takes to make it in this world, and what really successful people are like, I’m not entirely sure where to start. So let’s just take it one myth at a time, shall we?
They set out to be wealthy and powerful. Nobody I know, and I mean nobody, set out to be rolling in dough and see their pixilated picture in the Wall Street Journal. They just put one foot in front of the other, worked their tails off, and got things done. The rewards came later. They came with the territory. Come to think of it, the one way to be sure you never become rich and famous is to make that your goal.
They have all the answers. I’ve never known a really successful person who thought he had all the answers. Who didn’t know what he doesn’t know. They tend to have an awful lot more questions than answers. And they listen more than they talk. Sure, they’re pretty confident in what they do, but that’s usually a pretty narrow field. Frankly, it’s all the wannabes and self-proclaimed gurus that act like know-it-alls.
They’re on easy street. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, they have just as many problems as everyone else. Their loved ones get sick, they have bad marriages that end in divorce, they deal with stress and depression. Because they take risks, they make mistakes. Sometimes they make big ones that affect a lot of lives. And they’re just as confused about life and what it’s all about as the rest of us.
They’re ruthless, egotistical jerks. Indeed, some are. They treat everyday people like they’re beneath them. But here’s the thing. Some are truly caring, giving, folks who help many in all sorts of ways. And then there’s everything in between. There’s a bell curve for human behavior. It’s the same for successful people as it is for anyone else. They’re no more likely to act like jerks than you or me.
They’re the privileged few. You hear a lot of talk about wealth disparity and privilege these days. The wealthy have advantages average people don’t have. They don’t pay their fair share in taxes. What a load of crap. Most of the successful people I know started with nothing and worked for decades to get where they are. Two-thirds of the millionaires in America are self-employed. The vast majority are small business owners who live well below their means, live on budgets, invest their money, and never received any kind of inheritance, according to The Millionaire Next Door. And get this: the top 10% of income earners pay about 70% of all federal income tax.
They love all the glamorous travel. Sure, some do, but for the vast majority who fly hundreds of thousands of miles a year, spend half their lives away from home, and wake up in the middle of the night without a clue what city they’re in, not so much. The image of the glamorous jet setter thing couldn’t be further from the truth. I flew over 3 million miles in about 10 years and, to tell you the truth, I’d just as soon never get on another plane.
They live lavish lifestyles. We all read about Larry Ellison’s Hawaiian Island and Marissa Mayer’s wardrobe and lavish parties. What can I say, the mega-rich have to do something with their money. Still, the successful people I know lead relatively normal lives. Sure, they may have an extra home somewhere, but servants, limos, and private jets? Not a chance. One wealthy guy who comes to mind has a Porsche -- but he’s had it for 14 years.
They’re very political. Sure, I’ve known a few with strong political views, but for the most part, they’re no different than anyone else. In my experience, those who are politically active tend to be more interested in fighting for good causes like small business America and helping those less fortunate. In other words, they won’t be throwing fundraising galas for Barack Obama anytime soon.
They were just lucky. In the right place at the right time. All the folks I know probably would have made it no matter what. They’re all remarkably smart, intuitive, driven, passionate, hard-working people. Granted, luck is always part of the equation, but I think successful people make their own luck by being open to opportunity and willing to take personal risks.
Fame and fortune go together. It’s fascinating how the words fame and fortune are often found in the same sentence. In reality, they don’t usually go together. The vast majority of wealthy people I know are entirely unknown outside of their narrow sphere of influence. And the ones who somehow become famous would rather not be.
There’s an old Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times.” For those who have, we know it to be more of a curse than a blessing. That’s for sure.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.