Real estate developer Mike Harrah
Mike Harrah made hundreds of millions as a real estate developer–but first he picked pineapples for 45 cents an hour. (Photo: Bill Furnish)

Plotting a Path to Riches and Fame? Read This

Recently, my wife and I attended a college-planning event at our son’s high school. It doesn’t seem all that long ago that Andre was 5 and we were taking notes at an orientation session for parents of new kindergarteners, but here we are. He’s 17 now and, with a little luck and a lot of our money, he’ll be heading off to college next year.

As such, he’s starting to consider what he wants to do with his life. And perhaps because of today’s fear-inducing economy, he seems focused on determining which careers would be most lucrative rather than on what he’d most enjoy. He has been known to express pessimism about his prospects and to agree with the adage about how you have to have money to make money.

As I keep trying to tell him, though, I’ve interviewed many highly successful people in the course of my work as editor of Business Jet Traveler, and their experiences belie that assertion. Moreover, some of the wealthiest of the bunch didn’t even make any effort to find high-paying careers; they simply discovered something they loved to do, felt driven to do it as well as possible and wound up successful due to their passion, perseverance, hard work, talent and a bit of good fortune.   

Here are five themes I see over and over in the life stories of BJT interviewees who have climbed to the top of their fields:

1. They often start with nothing. Real estate developer Mike Harrah, one of California’s richest citizens, told me he picked pineapples in Hawaii for 45 cents an hour after he finished college. Canada’s Ron Joyce, who became a billionaire by building the Tim Horton’s coffee-and-donuts chain, started as a cop for $5,000 a year, which was a step up from the days when his family lived on welfare. Jared Isaacman, whose company annually processes $10 billion in credit-card transactions, quit high school at 16 and established his first office in his parents’ house–a house they were about to lose because they couldn’t pay the mortgage. Billionaire attorney Willie Gary spent his childhood as a migrant laborer and without indoor plumbing. Financial adviser Suze Orman waitressed for six years, earning $400 a month, then borrowed money she intended to use to open her own restaurant, invested it in stock options and lost every cent.

2. They frequently stumble into their careers. F. Lee Bailey told me he didn’t plan to become an attorney but accepted a job as second assistant legal officer in the Marines simply because he thought it would be easy. He wound up trying cases, however, and by the time he returned to civilian life, he knew “this is what I’m going to be good at.” The late Cliff Robertson intended to go into journalism but someone suggested that he start writing for the theatre and, “next thing I knew, I got acting jobs.”

3. They work insane hours. Butch Stewart, founder of the Sandals Resorts chain, told me that in the early part of his career, he was on the job from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day. Harrah said he still works from 4 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. But both of them are slackers by comparison with Gary, who insisted he wasn’t exaggerating when he said, “When I’m in trial, I work 23 hours a day, and I do that routinely.”

4. They’re upbeat, determined and self-confident. Bob Cuillo, who made a fortune with auto dealerships, “set a goal for myself…I knew I’d be a millionaire before I was 40.” Harrah declared bankruptcy early in his career, but said it was “good for me” and “taught me a lot about business.” Gary said, “All I knew is that I wanted to be somebody…you have to keep dreaming and every round should take you a little bit higher.” Despite being only 16, Isaacman “felt very confident that I understood certain elements” of the credit-card industry that others didn’t.

5. They love their work more than the financial rewards. When I asked Stewart what motivated him, he said, “I just found an excitement with life and with the job…Money has been important to me to the extent that I have bills to pay. After that, I’ve never been driven by money in any way, shape or form.”

Of course, even if you really, really love your work, there’s no guarantee that your enthusiasm will propel you to riches and fame, no matter how many hours you devote to your job or how self-confident and focused you remain. But hey, at least you’ll love your work, which is more than a lot of people can say.

Are you listening, Andre?