As the CEO of a rapidly growing fintech company and a frequent contributor to Forbes, I get asked to do a lot of media interviews.
The same questions seem to pop up time and time again, but during a recent interview, I was asked a question I had never encountered before.
The interviewer asked, “What was the most important thing you ever learned in school?” I’ve grown so used to delivering the same soundbites that I was caught unprepared. I thought for a moment, and then the obvious answer came to mind.
“Ingratiate yourself with people of great wealth,” I replied without hesitation. The interviewer was a bit taken aback because it’s somewhat of a blunt answer. However, the seemingly cynical response was, in fact, the most important thing I ever learned in school.
I’m a proud Arizona State University Sun Devil, a graduate of the W.P. Carey School of Business with a degree in finance.
During my senior year at ASU, I took an upper-level finance course taught by a famously eccentric professor by the name of Dr. Glenn Wilt.
Dr. Wilt was, without a doubt, the most entertaining teachers I’ve ever had. He was famous for, among other things, starting his lecture out in the hall while he walked to class. He would stride in the door mid-sentence as though it was perfectly normal.
Once, he arrived to class wearing a bright red suit and a floor-length fur coat which, according to him, was purchased from “an old bag working at Goodwill.”
Despite (or perhaps because) of his eccentricities, he was a fantastic teacher who was able to add blunt, real-world perspective to the world of academic finance.
He was the one who, on his final exam, posed the question “What is the secret to success?” Of course, the answer he taught us was to “ingratiate yourself with people of great wealth.”
While it seemed like a bit of a tongue-in-cheek joke at the time, the sentiment always stuck with me. A decade later, after building my company, I realized just how true his lesson was.
Never be the smartest person in the room
I’m fond of saying that if you find that you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re probably in the wrong room. Success is, like so many things in life, self-perpetuating and contagious.
I’ve learned that life is richer when you surround yourself with people who are successful, accomplished, and intellectually stimulating. If you’re the “dumbest” person in the room, it means you have the unique opportunity to learn from those around you.
While not every wealthy or successful person is intelligent, the two traits tend to go hand-in-hand. It takes a lot to run a company, manage money, or drive innovation.
Surrounding yourself with successful (and yes, often wealthy) people elevates you as an individual. Not because of the proximity to wealth, but rather because of the proximity to passion, drive, and intelligence.
I always want to be the least successful person in my social group or professional network. Ensuring so give me the opportunity to learn from successful people and elevate my perspective.
Money isn’t everything, but it certainly makes things more interesting
While intellectual stimulation and the opportunity to learn are incredibly valuable, we shouldn’t overlook the impact of money.
I fully realize that it’s gauche to talk about money, but the truth is that it makes everything more interesting, at least for people looking to become successful in their own right.
Capital makes the world go ‘round, and wealthy people by definition have it. I think back to my experience. When I wanted to start my company, BodeTree, it was the injection of capital by one of my successful mentors that turned the dream into a reality.
Without this private capital, relatively few wealth-creating ventures can ever get off the ground. Building relationships of mutual trust, respect, and admiration with successful people of means opens up a world of possibilities for those individuals looking to make their mark on the world.
Remember that opportunities are not random
Successful people tend to attract other successful people, and that leads to a confluence of ideas that often results in further wealth creation.
Opportunities, both in life and business, are not random. Instead, they tend to occur when driven people with passion and resources get together. This is why the rich tend to get richer, as the saying goes.
Success feeds upon success, and by injecting yourself into that virtuous cycle creates the opportunities that the driven crave.
In fact, the most interesting and rapidly growing channel in my own business is a direct result of a casual conversation I had with a successful and highly-driven friend only a few months ago.
When we learned of what each other did for work, we immediately saw a hidden opportunity that would prove to be lucrative for both parties.
So, while it may seem crass, Dr. Wilt’s maxim did, in fact, prove to be the most important thing I ever learned in school. The truth is that intelligence alone does not lead to success in business. There are a lot of smart people who are stuck in boring jobs, working for other people.
Success, as Dr. Wilt knew, is found at the intersection of intelligence, hard work, and opportunity. Whether it’s politically correct or not, associating with people who attract success is the best way to become successful yourself.