If you look at the list of the world’s wealthiest people, one of the striking things is that the source of their money can be summed up in one word, even if it’s not a company. Jeff Bezos: Amazon. Bill Gates: Microsoft. Bernard Arnault: luxury.
In short, they concentrated in one area. It wasn’t just luck that produced those positions: They knew how to double down when they recognized a winning idea.
I interviewed Marc Compton, a managing director of U.S. Trust (now part of Bank of America), a half-dozen years ago about the habits of mind he observes among the wealthy. How do they view their money, and what sets them apart? It’s worth remembering his answers in pandemic time. The question is both how to avoid making financial mistakes out of panic now, and how to build so that you’re ready to take advantage when the economy turns – as it inevitably will.
Wealthy people double down on their careers – and will borrow to do so. “It’s the ability to see the thing that is working for you, and concentrate it and feed the flame,” said Compton, who based his remarks on a survey of almost 700 U.S. Trust clients.
But they also hedge their bets with their personal finances. They have mastered the art of diversification, including into real estate.
Along with having the ability to focus, they place a higher value on physical assets and are more willing to take credit risk — and risk in general. Taken together, the habits seem to suggest an ability to view their finances and their lives as a balance sheet so that they can double down on the winners and leverage when it’s worthwhile.
If you don’t have that ability to focus, can you develop it? Can you learn to take more risk and think of the ways all your assets could work for you? My guess is that you probably can.
“If we thought more about our balance sheet, and managed our lives, and did that in strategic way, our odds for the financial success would better,” said Compton.
So what are the habits of mind and practice that enable serious wealth-building?
- The wealthy are clearly more entrepreneurial than most people. Many of the U.S. Trust survey respondents were business owners. Compton said 78% built wealth through their businesses. Again, it’s that ability to zero in and be consumed by one project, or double down on a winning instinct within yourself.
Successful executives and business owners don’t keep eight irons in the fire; when they do more than one thing in their lives, it is often in succession, not all at once. (The flip side of that ability to focus is probably obsessiveness, which I have encountered many times interviewing CEOs over the years: They will try to control even the tiniest word choices in articles).
- The wealthy are more willing to take credit risk. Fully 42% had borrowed against existing assets to gain liquidity. That’s opposed to selling an investment — which would be the other route if you want to come up with cash. This is particularly interesting now, in an era of almost free money. Some entrepreneurs are borrowing at today’s low terms and banking the money.
“What the wealthy do is free up liquidity through their balance sheet through credit,” said Compton. They want that ability to go buy something, and go opportunistically to find that next property. A wealthy family might be willing to borrow against a house to buy land in West Virginia, for instance.
- Related to that, Compton said, they also see their financial lives as a collection of assets that can work together and are more apt to be interested in owning physical assets. In fact, the wealthiest people were most likely to borrow: 56% of those with investable assets of more than $10 million said borrowing money enables them to put their own money to better use.
Of course, you may not want to make all the sacrifices required to become wealthy. The majority of the business owners in the survey said the needs of the business come first, and one in four said they were better at communicating at work than in their personal lives.
The pandemic has brought a lot of life choices into sharp relief. My guess is that after a year of deep family time enabled by the pandemic, the entrepreneurs of America will be ready to go back to building their businesses, with a heightened appreciation of their families at home.