How People Get Rich, and How To Do Well At Work

“My last job was at a Taco Bell Express. Then they became a full Taco Bell and I just couldn’t keep up.” – The Office

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Pugsley before his first day at his new job in the salt mine.  

About 47.6% of the American economy consists of books that purport to tell you how to get rich.  (The other 52.4%?  Equal shares of pictures of naked ladies and Pez®.)  But how did the rich folks get rich?  Let’s make the assumption that you’re not going to be James Bond Enemy Island Secret Volcano Space Program Rich, since Elon Musk seems to have that market cornered . . . let’s still ask the question, how do people get rich?

  1. Inheriting it is the old fashioned way to do it. 30-40% of the Forbes 400 richest Americans . . . inherited it.  You never really hear this part of the story, because the story “Baby Billionaire Born” is not nearly as compelling as “Unsung genius invents an app to get a cab driver to come by your house and trim your nosehair with your iPhone.”  An astonishing 60% of American household wealth is inherited.  So, unless you’ve got great-aunt Grunelda leaving you a stash of cash, this isn’t in your wheelhouse.  For reference, we Wilders have little inherited wealth, but are willing to learn what it’s like for science if you want to cut us in on your will.
  2. Investments and Real Estate – 127 billionaires got their third comma from FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate), which we talked about before (LINK). In 2013, per evonomics.com, the ever-hated top 1% made 21% of the US income, which I’m sure they were pretty fond of, since that’s out punching your weight by 20 times!  But the big driver to their wealth?  Gains from their investments.  In 2013, they raked in 35% of the business gains (things like dividends, interest payments, stock price gains, and real estate, etc.).  Really, the big drivers were stock and real estate.  So, if you’re not born with cash, this seems to be the most reliable way to get buckets of it.
  3. Tech, Media, and Energy, combined to create 123 billionaires. Now don’t cry too much for this bunch being in third place, since it includes folks like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Larry Ellison.  (I refuse to add Zuckerberg because he’s such a tool.)  It’s pretty cool that these folks managed to make bank by changing forever the way we use computers (Gates), purchase stuff (Bezos), and, well, whatever the hell Ellison does that allows him to own Hawaii.

As we’ve discussed before, a job is less preferable than owning a business, where you have other people working to make money for you, but it is possible to get into a pretty good position with a job.  This isn’t the last post where we’ll discuss this, because most people have jobs, don’t own businesses, and aren’t blessed (yet) with a really cool investment portfolio.

So, how can you maximize your income as an employee?  Here are my first ten (not my top ten, just the first ones):

  1. Do something valuable that requires you to think. College is a stupid idea for many people.  Honestly, lots of people going to college really don’t belong there – it’s just like four more years of high school for them.  Since employers can’t (by law) give IQ tests, they use college as a rough screen for IQ.  They want smart-ish workers (not TOO smart, mind you) and they use a college degree for a screen for that as well as the ability to defer pleasure now for a payout later.  Unless you’re going to get a degree that is required for the field, like science, engineering, law, medicine, accounting, finance, and teaching – I would think twice about college, especially if you choose a major like anthropology.  Seriously, fast food workers make more money than anthropology professors.  Smelly teen age fast food workers.  Also avoid: sociology, anything ending in “studies”, communications (The Mrs. has that one), recreational studies, art, classics, public administration, exercise physiology, media management, music therapy, etc., etc.  These are “degrees” made up by universities to extract the maximum student loan value from you.
  2. Pick the right industry. Pick an industry where there’s huge oceans of cash swimming around.  I’ve listed them up above – finance, real estate, energy, technology.  Pick one of those.  It’s still not easy to get rich there, but there is a TON of money floating around in those businesses.  Teaching?  Not so much.  Regardless of how much fun you have doing it, if you can’t support your family, that is going to suck your energy out like a cat eating a banana.  Find something that you can do that pays well, and do that thing.  Not many engineers (for instance) end up as really rich dudes.  That’s fine – the median engineer does well, but often doesn’t get to the top slot.  There were a LOT more guys with business degrees than engineering degrees, and you’re only seeing the ones that were good AND lucky that get to the top.  You’ve got to be good, but you’ve also got to be lucky (which will have its own future post).
  3. Work harder than the next guy – and be a closer. The only reason to watch Glengarry Glen Ross is the scene where Alec Baldwin, in no uncertain terms, illustrates that you have to work hard, and also have to show actual results.  I’ve linked to it below.  Be warned – the language and content are R-rated, so if you’re squeamish about naughty words and crude concepts, skip it, but this seven minute scene he’s in got him a nomination for best supporting actor.  Seven minutes.  Really, working hard is important because it sets the stage for results, but results must  (Note:  a recent study showed that bosses only care about how much time you’re in the office, and think if you’re there a lot, you’re working hard.  Guess they never heard about goofing off?)  Are results the only thing that matters?  No.  But they matter A LOT.
  4. Don’t scare your boss. If you work hard and are smart and are getting great results, you should be setting yourself up for amazing success, right?    You might be one step away from being fired.  Bosses are people, too, and most of them don’t want to be eclipsed by an employee, namely, you.  If you’re reading this blog, there is a good chance that, besides being handsome and bullet-proof, you’re smarter than your boss.  With a good boss, that’s okay – he (or she) wants to teach you and allow you to grow.  With an insecure boss?  Oh, my.  With an insecure boss who doesn’t have skills?  Competence is a death warrant, or at least a quick ride to a pink slip.  If you have a scared boss?  Act stupid.  Give them bread crumbs to come to a good decision, and then allow them to take the credit.  Most importantly?  Align your incentives so if your boss makes you look bad, it is a reflection on their leadership.  Sometimes none of this will work.  Look for a new job or a new position in the company, but be prepared to exit involuntarily.  Insecure people are horrible (more on this in a future post).  One other note?  At some point you will have a really horrible boss.  Deal with it.
  5. Stay off of lists. HR has a list of people who, say, didn’t do training.  Who showed up late to work.  Who go one too many times to Facebook on the company Internet.  Who call a radio station 3400 times in a month attempting to be caller nine with the phrase that pays (this actually happened to someone I knew).  These lists might be petty lists, with “insignificant” actions or behaviors on them, but your very presence on the list turns you into your boss’s enemy, because you just became someone he has to defend to HR.  A boss, even a good one, will only go to that well so many times.
  6. Be flexible. No, not like a gymnast.  For your boss, your job description is only the barest suggestion.  If he or she asks you to learn to translate ancient Babylonian tablets instead of your job, which is generally being an accounting clerk, TRANSLATE THE TABLETS.  A job isn’t an argument, and if you make it one, you become . . . another pain to your boss.
  7. Be firm when your principles are involved. Even if means your job.  When I was doing an internship in college, the boss asked me to do something I knew to be technically illegal (like a real “go to federal prison” felony).  I told him no, I couldn’t do that.  He was on the road, and called, yelling at me to do the illegal thing.  I went to his boss (VP), and told him about the illegal action, and explained why it was a felony.  The VP made one minor comment, but was in agreement with my boss.  I told my professor (that I was taking a business organization class from) about the situation, and asked what he thought I should do.  He told me, “Well, it looks like you already quit.”  I thought about it, and, yeah, I had quit, but I was the only one at work who didn’t recognize it.  I turned in my notice the next day.  They weren’t surprised.  Don’t be a felon.  Don’t compromise your basic beliefs for a job – that’ll tear you up inside more than having a Chihuahua with needle-sharp teeth surgically implanted next to your spleen.
  8. Be a solution, not a problem. I have a rule with people who work for me – don’t come to me with a problem.  Come to me with a problem and two or three suggested solutions.  Most of the time I take one of their solutions.  Some people?
  9. Be nice. Those people you’re working with?  They talk to your boss, too.  And if you’re nice to people?  Good karma accumulates.
  10. Be on time. Just do this.  Being late shows a lack of respect for whatever you’re late to.

So, unless one of you is gonna write me in on your will, and die soon, I’ve gotta go to work tomorrow.  And follow my own advice.  But I’m still saving up for that private volcano island.  Right now I think I can afford a small rock outcropping off the coast of that Pacific island inhabited by cannibals that kill and eat anyone who stops nearby (this is a real place).  But, hey, it’s a start.

This blog is not financial advice, yadda-yadda-yadda-yadda.  Be responsible for yourself.

(Reminder – LOTS of naughty language.)

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom – How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.

3 thoughts on “How People Get Rich, and How To Do Well At Work”

  1. It’s interesting how the concept of being on time is so different around the world. The Germans are certainly sticklers for punctuality. I once went out with this German girl, and decided to play it cool by being “fashionably late”. Needless to say she was not too pleased. With American girls, I feel like people are competing to see who can show up a little later than the other person

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