I’ll tell you how I came up with the idea to write this article. I was having lunch with a buddy; let’s call him ’A.’ We work together, and as usual we were having an overly inflated discussion. That day it was about creators, innovators and the self-made man. Suddenly ’A’ bursts into a tirade about how it was complete and utter bullsh*t that most people consider these guys underdogs and Cinderella success stories. He pointed out that most of them are actually over-privileged rich kids that had significant advantages compared to their peers as indicated by the uber prestigious schools they drop out of.
As I nodded in agreement, I thought I’d delve into the topic a bit more and see if I could prove or disprove this theory that some of the most famous stories about success are in fact complete and utter bullsh*t.
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Why Underdog Success Stories are (sometimes) B.S.
The business world is based on networking just as much as it’s based on making moolah, money or bringing home the bacon (choose your favored colloquialism). If you happen to be the type of poor shmuck that is first in her/his family to graduate college you are at a more advantageous stage in life than your predecessors. However, the complete lack of networking will probably result in quick relegation to the lowest tier of the corporate world. It goes a bit deeper too.
Even if your upper crust family gives you absolutely no financial quarter (get it?), just the privilege of your family name can open all kinds of doors that your superior intellect, talent and hard work would never be able to. Case in point, George W. Bush didn’t even have intellect, talent or hard work, just the name!
Now, if you are of those few lucky bastards that actually does get some financial support from your family to flesh out your dreams or get your startup off the ground, then you’re on the fast track to make some decent money. Case in point (yes I’m repeating myself, I apologize it’s to make a point) Bill Gates.
Bill Gates is a brilliant man, a generous philanthropist and the man largely responsible for the personal computer revolution. Even though the media keeps presenting him as a rapscallion college drop out, the truth is that he comes from a very, very well off family. His grandfather was a national bank president, his father was a prominent lawyer, and his mother sat on the board of a very powerful financial holding company and United Way, a global non-profit organization. He went to a private elementary school that allowed him to pursue his talent in computers instead of taking math.
But that’s what private schools do. If he was in a public school and asked to replace his math classes with computer time, he’d probably get laughed at initially and then receive a healthy helping of corporal punishment (yes, because in 1968 when Gates went to school, teachers could still discipline children by beating them, it was only abolished in 1987).
After primary and secondary school, he was accepted to Harvard and granted he got almost a perfect score on his S.A.Ts he still needed the necessary money to enroll, which is a lot of money. About half of the median family income at the time. Today the median income in the U.S. is about $51.000 which would roughly equate to annual fees of $25.000 (keep in mind that’s just for tuition) and that’s a lot more than most families can afford.
Remember the networking thing I mentioned above? Even though Gates dropped out of Harvard, it was on the Cambridge campus that Gates met the future CEO of Microsoft, Steve Balmer. Again I’m not trying to trivialize Gates as a visionary, industrious and talented individual. I’m attempting to trivialize the depiction of the billionaire that came from humble beginnings which the media has a long love affair with and is enamored with the dissemination of such success stories.
Michael Dell is the founder of Dell Inc. one of the world’s biggest sellers/manufacturers of PCs. From an early age, he displayed an entrepreneurial spirit and propensity for success. His mother was a stockbroker and his father an orthodontist. His mother’s involvement in the financial sector seemed to have rubbed off as during his teenage years Dell would sell subscriptions to the Houston Post via telephone and used the money he accrued to invest in stock and precious metals…seriously as a teenager. That takes some serious money savvy, but his mother’s influence and advice must have been a determining factor for him to do so.
From there on out he was actually fundamentally a self-made man working out of his dorm room at the University of Texas and then dropping out and pursuing his direct from manufacturer to buyer model of computer sales. Combined with impeccable timing, being one of the first manufacturers to offer this low-cost solution, in 1992 he ranked on the Fortune 500 list. Let’s consider though, if his family couldn’t afford his first 2.600 Dollar Apple II in 1980 (which would equate to 7.500 “today” dollars), what direction would Dell’s life have taken.
Buffett is something of a financial savant. There is even a financial effect named after him which influences the movement of the stock market. Sure he was born in the 1930s just a few months after the crash of the stock market, but his father was a four term Senator that worked as a stockbroker. Now I want you to take a look at this man’s pedigree and time of financial activity. He started playing around with the stock market when he was still in high school and had bought a 40 acre farm in by 1944 when he was just 14 for 1.200 dollars or about 16.000 in today’s money.
The reason he could buy so much land for such a low price was because this was shortly after the depression and right before the end of WW2. Prices were still low, yet the consumer market was on the upswing. Buffett was not only born in the midst of this, he was also of a certain privilege and had the business savvy to take advantage of it. By the time he graduated college his savings as a result of his various endeavors had reached 10.000 dollars in 1949 or an astounding 100.000 dollars in today’s money. Also, in today’s reality most college students would graduate with that amount of debt, not savings.
After he graduated from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, a private, very prestigious and very expensive private school which has alumni that include Elon Musk (Multi-billionaire Tesla founder and CEO), Donald Trump (Multi-billionaire founder and CEO of Trump Organization) and Alassane Ouattara who you might not know but was President of the Ivory Coast, Deputy Head of the IMF and Governor of the Central Bank of West African States. To say these guys are filthy, stinking insanely rich would be a gross understatement. These dudes could buy planets if they chose to, and they all gather to have tiny sandwiches and chat a little at Wharton’s annual Alumni Forum. That takes place in exotic locations across the world. Remember that next time you complain about driving back to your college in Ohio for home-coming weekend.
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Are there any other wealthy self-made success stories you know of that might be B.S? Let me know in the comment section below.