With the US elections only days away, a few thoughts today about success, wealth and power. It’s more than enough to leave out Obama and Romney, so much has been written about them and their apparent successes that little else can reasonably be added, except that the pitiless media hordes mercilessly invading every detail of their lives is one high price to be paid for the bright lights. Let the cards fall where they may on November 6th. I sometimes wonder whether human beings are hard-wired for adulation, genetically programmed to chase the rainbows of wealth, success and privilege that surround the iconic personality. We like to try to measure people’s value – or ‘net worth’ – as if one human being was necessarily worth more than another because of the size of their tax bill; the richer, the smaller. How much money is easy – the Forbes rich list, the catalogue of the wealthiest on the planet, crunches the numbers for us. But, it does not tell us much else. It gives us no information about the kind of people – if such exists – that have amassed more of the world’s goods than any of the others. So, our question today looks below the surface of mere wealth and expensive clothes to the personalities and motivations of such people that most of the rest of us will never ever meet or come into contact with. The media, in their rapacity for facts, tell us what they do, not what they are.
So, by way of example, I have selected a few people and tried to gauge what factors, if any, have made them the successes that they have become. Perhaps we ought to leave Bill Gates out since everybody knows about the geeky university dropout who built computers in his father’s garage and went on to found the most successful software house in the world. First, then, Michael Bloomberg. America’s richest politician makes Mitt Romney look almost poverty-stricken. He continues to juggle leading New York City and his $20 billion media empire. Boston-born Bloomberg is the son of an accountant, took an engineering degree from Johns Hopkins and an MBA from Harvard. He became a trader at Salomon Brothers in the 1970’s, finally leaving with $10 million in stock. He created financial information services firm Innovative Market Systems in 1982 to sell financial data and analytic tools to Wall Street; the company was renamed Bloomberg LP in 1987. Later, he added a news service, a magazine, cable network, and a radio station. He has given away $1.6 billion to charities which fund the arts and public health. Innovative and visionary, his latest initiative is about promoting a healthy diet in the city he loves.
Comment: Sheer, undiluted financial wizardry. Intense media savvy, excellent forecasting ability. Has his looks played a part in his success? Probably not.
Larry Page has an MS from Stanford. He is the co-founder of Google and is 24th on the Forbes Billionaire list. Google rules the search engine, with almost 87% of the worldwide market, giving a new noun to the English-speaking world – it does sound better than ‘to bing’, I think. Its Android mobile phone system is given away free to phone makers. Page is passionate about energy conservation and has bought up large residential areas of Palo Alto in California which use a revolutionary type of fuel cell. He rides an electric dirt bike, invests in and drives an electric Tesla sports car and his interests include large-scale rainwater capture and geothermal energy.
Comment: Great Ivy League start, a natural innovator and successful future-predictor. Looks? H’m. Difficult. Boyish charm certainly – but he looks like your kid’s English teacher.
Wallis Simpson, the American woman who stole a king, once famously remarked ‘A woman can never be too rich or too thin’. Is it true, I wonder, whether successful women have clawed their way to the top in the same way that the men have done?
Among fourteen females worth over one billion dollars worldwide representing only 2% of all self-made billionaires, at least five of them started their business with their husbands, brothers or sometimes both, so I have had to discount them. For example, Giuliana Benetton originally knitted sweaters that her brother Luciano would then hawk around retailers on his bicycle. Number three is, however, a little different. J K (Joanne) Rowling studied French at Exeter University, and then worked for Amnesty International in London. On a Manchester-bound train, the idea for a scrawny, bespectacled kid who didn’t know he was a wizard just ‘fell into her head’. But, from conception to birth was a painful road. Seven years after graduating from university, Rowling, depressed and suicidal, saw herself as “the biggest failure I knew.” Her marriage had failed, she was jobless with a dependent child, but she described her failure as liberating. For her, as for many, failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. She writes that she stopped pretending to herself that she was anything other than what she was, and began to direct all her energy to finishing the only work that mattered to her. Had she really succeeded at anything else, she might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where she truly belonged. She described herself as being set free, because her greatest fear had been realised, she was still alive, had a daughter whom she adored, an old typewriter, and a big idea. And so rock bottom became a solid foundation on which she rebuilt her life.
After a long gestation, Harry Potter was born in a succession of small Edinburgh cafes where she wrote frenziedly, her sleeping daughter beside her in a push-chair. She typed out the manuscript herself in the evenings and the rest, as they say, is history. Now worth at least $900 million, she has received honorary degrees from five prestigious universities, including Harvard, and believes that those who have more than they need have a moral responsibility to give to those with less. To this end she has set up charities which combat poverty and social inequality.
Her new novel ‘The Casual Vacancy’ is basically a character study of human nature faced with power and crisis. No last action heroes, not much plot, little real action of any kind, and not that much resolution of existing conflicts by the end of the book. Just a little sketch of a bit of small-town English society, quite nicely done. She writes very well and even punctuates properly, but some critics’ praise is a bit too fulsome and luvvie; ‘brilliant, profane and funny’ rather overstates, I think. The prose is relaxed without resort to gimmickry and distraction and even the cover is understated. ‘Cranford’ for the 21st century – something which for a new novelist would hardly get a second glance from a publisher – stands well by itself, the execution is competent and writerly enough. She’s no Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but, since it’s her….
Comment: One great, passionate and all-consuming idea and the willingness to sweat blood and tears to see its fulfilment. Looks? Irrelevant. What a surprise.
So, what do we conclude from this little exercise. What is it about the wealthy that makes them rich and therefore different? Is there a pattern? Probably not a simple one, otherwise I’d be right up there with them, but all of them have a few threads in common. Vision, passion, single-mindedness and being in the right place at the right time about sums it up, together with the magic secret ingredient which not even Harry Potter’s Galleons could buy. Luck.