All you need is thick skin, cunning - and a work ethic
Across the valley, far, far below me, palm trees fringe the fishing boats and yachts nodding in the harbour. Beyond the bay to the west, a turquoise sea ripples out to a purple and pink horizon, heralding another glorious sunset.
I am in Mustique, a tiny island in the Windward Islands of the Caribbean. More specifically in my “writer’s cottage”, a study-cum-library some distance from the main house, built solely for one purpose — to permit me to write whatever I please in peace and quiet.
All of this, as if you needed me to remind you, costs money. It’s what you get, if you want, when you’re rich.
You’ll be suggesting next that it will improve my sex life.
People who grow rich almost always improve their sex life. More people want to have sex with them. That’s just the way human beings work. Money is power. Power is an aphrodisiac. Money did not make me happy. But it definitely improved my sex life.
Just how quickly can I become rich?
I have known it done inside five years, but there are very few “short cuts”. Knowledge learnt the hard way combined with the avoidance of error, whenever and wherever possible, is the soundest basis for success in any endeavour.
The bottom line is that if I did it, you can do it. I got rich without the benefit of a college education or a penny of capital but making many errors along the way. I went from being a pauper — a hippie dropout on the dole, living in a crummy room without the proverbial pot to piss in, without even the money to pay the rent, without a clue as to what to do next — to being rich. And I am certainly no business genius, as my rivals will happily and swiftly confirm.
Yet the odd thing is, I’ve ended up far richer than most of my rivals.
How rich are you, anyway?
I don’t know. Nor does any rich person know. I haven’t cashed in all my assets and I’m not certain what they will fetch. Let’s say $400m-$900m (£215m- £483m) of net worth before tax.
Five homes. Three estates. Fancy cars. Private jets. (The jets are always rented. If it flies, floats or fornicates, always rent it — it’s cheaper in the long run.) Thousands of acres of land. Art on the walls and libraries stuffed with first editions. Bronze statues littering up the garden. Chauffeurs, housekeepers, financial advisers and other personal staff coming out of my rear end. Oh, and thousands of bottles of fine wine in the cellars. Never forget the wine.
Less the debt, of course. Around $30m (£16m) of debt. Rich people always have a certain degree of debt. Apparently it helps to reduce taxes. I’m not so hot on the bean-counting side. But I can’t fly the jets or drive the Rolls-Royces or Bentleys either. I never had the time or the inclination to learn.
Honestly speaking, what kind of people get to become rich?
An interesting topic. There is a confidence that radiates from first-born sons and daughters. Not in all the cases but in too many for it to be a coincidence. A similar confidence is to be observed, more often than not, in people who are rich, no matter whether they were born with it, inherited it or acquired it through their own efforts.
You can see it in the way they walk into a hotel or restaurant they have never visited before. In the irritating disposition of rich women to haggle in an Oxfam shop over a designer dress — unlike any working-class woman, who would be horrified at the thought of doing any such thing, even though she perhaps needs the discount while the rich woman does not.
You can see it, too, in the way the children of the rich appear to assume that the world was created entirely for their sole benefit. Money brings a kind of insouciance with it. It is among wealth’s least attractive characteristics.
Whatever qualities the rich may have, they can be acquired by anyone with the tenacity to become rich. The key, I think, is confidence. Confidence and an unshakeable belief it can be done and that you are the one to do it.
Tunnel vision helps. Being a bit of a shit helps. A thick skin helps. Stamina is crucial, as is a capacity to work so hard that your best friends mock you, your lovers despair and the rest of your acquaintances watch furtively from the sidelines, half in awe and half in contempt.
Becoming rich does not guarantee happiness. In fact, it is almost certain to impose the opposite condition — if not from the stresses and strains of protecting it, then from the guilt that inevitably accompanies its arrival.
If I had my time again, I would dedicate myself to making just enough to live comfortably (say £30m or £40m) as quickly as I could, hopefully by the time I was 35. I would then cash out immediately and retire to write poetry and plant trees.
Making money was, and still is, fun, but at one time it wreaked chaos upon my private life. It consumed my waking hours. It led me into a lifestyle of narcotics, high-class whores, drink and consolatory debauchery. As a philosopher might have put it, all the usual dreary afflictions of the seeker after wealth. ()
These afflictions, in turn, helped to undermine my health. But like an old, punch-drunk boxer, I couldn’t quit. It’s no excuse, but making money is a drug. Not the money itself. The making of the money. This sounds like so much hooplah, but it’s true.
Nobody believed that exercise could prove addictive until science stepped in and discovered endorphins. And making money, I assure you, is a hell of a lot more of a rush than jogging.
Up to just seven years ago I was still working 12 to 16 hours a day making money. With hundreds of millions of dollars in assets I just could not let go. It was pathetic. Because whoever dies with the most toys doesn’t win. Real winners are people who know their limits and respect them.
Eventually I found a way out. I handed over day-to-day control of my businesses to younger and mostly smarter boys and girls. I cleaned up my personal life.
I began doing what I wanted to do — not what I felt I had to do. After all, what did I have to prove? Except, perhaps, to myself.
IT IS possible that you will avoid such mistakes when you get rich. I hope so. One thing is for sure: “the usual afflictions” are no reason not to make the attempt. There is no reason on earth why financial success should lead to personal catastrophe.
If you wish to be rich, however, you must grow a carapace. A mental armour. Not so thick as to blind you to well-constructed criticism and advice, especially from those you trust. Nor so thick as to cut you off from friends and family. But thick enough to shrug off the inevitable sniggering and malicious mockery that will follow your inevitable failures. Not to mention the poorly hidden envy that will accompany your eventual success.
Consider carefully this shortlist:
If you cannot face up to your fear of failure, you will never be rich.
The truth is that getting rich means sacrifice. And it isn’t always you that’s doing the sacrificing. This is not a calling for the faint-hearted. There is no shame in turning away. After all, if everyone was prepared to make the necessary sacrifices, who would be left to work for my own companies? Quite apart from sacrifice, there is a last brutal truth to be confronted. After a lifetime of making money and observing better men and women than me fall by the wayside, I am convinced that fear of failing in the eyes of the world is the single biggest impediment to amassing wealth. Trust me on this. ()
If you shy away for any reason whatever, then the way is blocked. You will never get started. You will never get rich.
Fear of failure is almost certainly the reason that you have not already begun to make yourself rich. It haunts all of us.
In essence, it comprises two components. The first is our natural desire to avoid letting ourselves or others down. The second is the exposure of that failure to the outside world.
This nastier, stickier second component, the “broadcasting” of our misjudgments or errors, especially to our peers, is often the nub of the matter.
The same factors apply to me, sitting around with colleagues at Dennis Publishing trying to figure out if we should invest millions of pounds to launch a new car magazine, or to a young woman considering whether to take over her father’s used-car business or to invest another two years of her life into obtaining a PhD in bio-engineering.
Neither decision will involve utter financial ruin. But fear of a result that cannot be easily hidden weighs heavily in the balance.
The board of directors that runs Dennis Publishing will talk earnestly and sensibly about the effect on morale for the rest of the company (usually forgetting to mention its own morale) in the event our proposed new magazine bombs.
In reality, Dennis Publishing staff working, say, on The Week or Maxim or Computer Shopper, won’t give two hoots if the company’s new car magazine is a sensational flop. But by discussing the matter in such terms, in code if you like, the board gives itself the opportunity to weigh its own fears while appearing to weigh the fears of others. It is a form of well-disguised cowardice.
On a less corporate level, the young woman believes she might be able to expand her father’s used-car business more aggressively than he has done in the past. On the other hand, a PhD would add status to her life and offers the prospect of a fulfilling career in science.
She must decide. Her father is unwell and cannot wait for her decision. What if she takes over the company and it goes belly up? What if she shoots for a master’s degree and does not achieve it? A failure to obtain her master’s degree could be disguised fairly easily. She could always claim she has become bored with bio-engineering. The decision to take over her dad’s company, however, will be far more closely monitored — by relatives and neighbours, by the people who work there, by rival car dealerships, by the bank manager, and not least by her father. Should she fail, she will run the risk of becoming a laughing stock or an object of pity.
So what is her best option? She is unlikely to get rich as a bio-engineer. But she might well get rich expanding the dealership, especially because she is aware that her father has never invested to the extent that he might have done in marketing and promotion, especially on the internet.
The car dealership is already capitalised, and, although she will have to pay off her father eventually, he is hardly likely to foreclose on her. There is an opportunity, but is she prepared to exploit it? So what should our young college girl do? Normally, I would hesitate to offer any advice. But I happen to know her. I was half in love with her once. She happens to be real and her name is Julie. All this happened a long time ago.
In the event, she took her degree and her father sold the business to an outsider. Julie is a highly competent bio-engineer and has enjoyed her career enormously. But on more than one occasion she has told me she regrets not taking her father up on his offer.
What swung the balance was her fear of failure in such a “public” endeavour. She was frightened that others (especially the male-dominated community of car sales firms) would laugh at her.
It irks her to know that she will never be rich. It always irks intelligent people like Julie. And I can give you other examples. One of them is my mother.
She will be furious (if she ever reads this) that I have mentioned her in such a context. But I know my mother well. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that everything I have achieved I owe not just to care and love but to her genes.
She could have built herself a fortune had she wished. Her personality combines the resilience, the drive and the restless energy of so many people who become rich. But 60 years ago it was almost unheard of for a woman to act out such ambitions. Her parents would have been scandalised. Neighbours would have viewed such behaviour in the most negative light imaginable. And had she succeeded, horror of horrors, she would have earned their undying enmity. It just was not “done” for a woman to earn a fortune for herself — except, somewhat dubiously, as a movie star perhaps. Or a writer of crime novels.
Single or newly married women from respectable families in the 1940s and 1950s were actively discouraged from involvement in business except for a little light typing or serving in shops and department stores. Especially if they had children. Especially if they lived in the south of England.
Never mind that my mother had more brains in her little finger than half the twerps she worked for as an accountant. Women were not even allowed to sign a hire-purchase form back then. They had to get their husband or their brother or their father to do it.
So she didn’t become rich. She had a decent career. She earned enough to support my brother and me and to provide us with more than just the necessities of life. And she married again and became a pillar of the community. But I know that she could have done it, had she been prepared for the unpleasantness, the sheer nastiness that would have been unleashed upon her if she had chosen to say: “To hell with them. Let’s go!” It was not so much a fear of failure on my mother’s part, I believe, as a fear of upsetting the whole apple cart of the community in which she lived. And now she is an elderly, if formidable lady who quietly walks her dog along English country lanes.