Secrets of the World's Wealthiest People

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Bill Gates did it. Warren Buffett was phenomenal at it. Sam Walton showed that a rural farm boy could do it. John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Jay Gould were pioneers at it.

All these famous people were celebrated business leaders. All had pioneering visions for their industries. And all of them were (or are) filthy, filthy rich. Sure, they were also brilliant and passionate about their businesses, but that doesn't mean the average Joe and Jane can't learn a thing or two about how these corporate titans built unrivaled fortunes.

Not all the wisdom within these success stories applies in our daily lives. But there are three important lessons we can start with today, in hopes of following them toward our own satisfying fortunes.

1. Start young.
With few exceptions, the world's wealthiest people got a very early start in their careers. Warren Buffett was buying stocks at age 11, and John Rockefeller got a taste of business as an accountant when he was a teenager. It's rare to find rich people who started late in life.

When paving your own path to riches, remember that the difference in returns between younger and older savers is mind-boggling. Suppose two people start saving $3,000 a year for retirement -- one at age 20, the other at 40. Earning a hypothetical 8% annually, the 20-year-old will have amassed a comfortable $2 million by age 70. The one who started at 40, alas, will have less than $400,000. Ramen noodles, anyone?

2. Define your goals.
The world's wealthiest people knew exactly what they wanted. Gates started Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) with the goal of putting a personal computer on every desk and in every home. Buffett, meanwhile, told his first investors his exact aim: to beat the Dow by 10% per year. And Rockefeller, whose Standard Oil business spawned oil giants ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) and Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) , defined his life's mission early on: Make $100,000 and live to be 100 years old.

Even if your goals are out of this world, defining them right from the start will give you a sturdy launch pad. If your goal is to become a millionaire, say it, write it down, and think about it every day. Your chances for achieving that goal will go through the roof.

3. Never stop believing in what you're doing.
Carnegie, whose steel company became part of what's now U.S. Steel (NYSE: X  ) , once gave a young lawyer named Napoleon Hill a pressing task: to find out what sets successful people apart from the masses. Hill laid out his conclusion in the classic book, Think and Grow Rich. While he purposely didn't spell out the exact answers -- he wanted to spur greater thought and concentration from his readers -- one theme does stand out. No matter what, successful people almost never give up.

What can we learn from this? Well, some of the best-loved stocks in our Motley Fool CAPS investor community, such as Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  ) , Abbott Labs (NYSE: ABT  ) , and France Telecom (NYSE: FTE  ) , haven't seen their shares rise nearly as much as the overall market during the recent stock market rally. But giving up and dumping their shares now, even though you still believe in the future of the company, won't get you very far.

Bill Gates, here I come
Following these three steps may not land you in the Forbes 500, but a few pointers from some of the world's most successful individuals can help you start off on the right foot.

Have stocks come too far, too fast? Find out why Fool contributor Todd Wenning thinks it's time to sell this quality stock.

This article, written by Morgan Housel, was originally published on Jan. 18, 2008. It has been updated by Dan Caplinger, who doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. France Telecom and Johnson & Johnson are Motley Fool Income Investor selections. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls on Johnson & Johnson and a diagonal call position on Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy is giving the world's richest people a run for their money.

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  • Report this Comment On March 11, 2010, at 4:13 PM, bernbern0 wrote:

    Another great article Morgan. I came from a very poor family and had no knowledge of investing. Probably one of the worst investments I ever made was being talked into the front load Dreyfus mutual fund that I used to add to every month. But it was "forced savings" and even that bad investment with all of those fees tacked on came in handy many years later when our older son started college. Another of my "investments" was the payroll savings plan the company that I worked for had. Every two weeks at payday, they would hold back enough money that I never saw in my payroll check to get us a $25 U.S. savings bond. That too, while not the best investment, paid off many years later when the need to cash them in came. Of course I've had to educate myself over the years learning about good no-load mutual funds like Vanguard and discovering drip stock investments, among other things. I hope young people are following your good advice. I wish I was as knowledgable about investing (and I'm still learning) as I am today, but I have not done badly.

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