Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Chairman Bill Gates did it. Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B) Warren Buffett was phenomenal at it. Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) tycoon 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 men 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 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 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 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 Novartis (NYSE:NVS), Titanium Metals (NYSE:TIE), and Contango Oil & Gas (AMEX:MCF), have taken massive beatings in the market in recent months. But giving up and dumping their shares at a loss, 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.

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This article, written by Morgan Housel, was originally published on Jan. 18, 2008. It has been updated by Dan Caplinger, who owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Berkshire Hathaway and Titanium Metals are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. 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.