Raising the level of your leadership




The $143 Billion Man


When Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877, he was worth 20% of all the cash and demand deposits in all the banks in the US—about 143 billion in today’s dollars (per Wikipedia.com). Today’s richest Americans must have trouble making ends meet when compared to Vanderbilt (Bill Gates is worth only $59B and Warren Buffet a paltry $44B per Forbes).

As documented by T. J. Stiles in The First Tycoon, Vanderbilt made his money in transportation: first steamboats, then railroads. He was successful because even as a teenager, “His life was regulated by self-imposed rules and with a fixedness of purpose as invariable as the sun in its circuit.” In other words, he had a high degree of self-discipline and a clear goal for his life.

One of his “self-imposed rules” was “to spend less every week than he earned.” It was a great rule in the 1800’s…the 1900’s…and still today. Dave Ramsey would have been very proud of him.

His “fixedness of purpose” was driven by a “…unending hunger for wealth….” He accomplished his goal and died as the richest man in the cemetery, sparking a court battle among his heirs over how to distribute the bounty.

Vanderbilt should have paid attention to an earlier richest man, Solomon, who experienced the same thing:

I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun,
for I must leave it to the man who will come after me.
And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?
Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored…This too is vanity.”
Ecclesiastes 2:18-19 NASB95

A thousand or so years after Solomon, Jesus said this about purpose fixed on riches:

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”
Matthew 16:26 NASB95

All of us would do well to follow Vanderbilt’s example of living with self-discipline and a fixed purpose. But in your personal life and in your role as a leader, set your purpose on something greater than self. Do you really want to die believing, like Solomon, that “all is vanity”? I hope not. Whatever your age, whatever your status, it’s not too late to fix your purpose on something valuable and enduring—something worth really living for.

By the way, if you enjoy biographies, The First Tycoon is an interesting and worthwhile read.

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© Copyright 2012 by Dick Wells, The Hard Lessons Company

2 responses to “The $143 Billion Man”

  1. Matt Austin says:

    I like the line, “he died as the richest man in the cemetery. That alone says volumes.

    • Dick Wells says:

      I did not create that line. It has been used a lot, most recently by Steve Jobs. I do not know who should get original credit.

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