The new Forbes billionaires list just came out. It’s always fun to flip through the names, ages and profiles of the billionaires.
I could give you a lot of details about how many more there are than last year, where they’re from, and how much younger they all are. But details like that probably wouldn’t answer your main question:
What could you possibly have in common with a billionaire? The answer is pretty exciting.
Of all the 946 billionaires in the world, 60 percent made their money from scratch. Think about that. The majority of the world’s billionaires once had just as much money in their bank account as you do (or less!). They took what little they had, sunk it all into that product, or service, or midnight notion and built it into a fortune. For all the talk about how unfair the world is, it turns out that pure gumption can be more important than family connections.
Now, that doesn’t mean that just anybody can become a billionaire, or that the process of becoming one is always fair and square. In the first place you have to have enormous concentration and energy. It’s not for nothing that so many of the new billionaires are under 50; it’s very hard to sustain the kind of output necessary to amass so much wealth unless you’re relatively young.
And then there’s the question of whether all these bootstrap billionaires played it on the up-and-up. The fastest growing country of billionaires is Russia, a country not known for its strict adherence to the rule of law. It’s likely that some of Russia’s 53 billionaires (ranking third worldwide, next to Germany with 55 and the U.S. with 415) bent or broke rules to get there.
But just the fact that so many of these folks started with nothing shows the potential that every human being has to make something spectacular out of his life. And, let’s make it clear. Wealth doesn’t just mean making money. Imagine what someone could do if they applied the same kind of wealth-creation energy and determination exercised by these bootstrap billionaires to something like charity. In fact, a person who epitomized charity (even naming a religious order after it!) was at least as energetic as a billionaire: Mother Teresa. I didn’t know her, but I know people who did, and they say she was a whirlwind of energy who had no patience for laziness.
Then there are those who concentrate their energy on the arts. Yes, this is different because artistic ability often seems inborn and exercised even when the artist is a child. But just as often, an artistic ability appears later — such as with Vincent Van Gogh, who didn’t begin to paint professionally until he was 27; or author James Michener, who published his first book at age 40. To make yourself into a major artist as a second career gives hope to all those who feel stuck in a rut.
But what about the cultural or political barriers to the creation of wealth? That’s not an insurmountable problem. Communist China, which by definition is supposed to prohibit wealth creation, now has 20 billionaires. And Mexico, whose poverty and corruption forces many millions north to look for work, has 10 billionaires.
Having said that, political connections and illicit behavior clearly account for at least some of the billionaires in places where capital accumulation takes place outside the rule of law. But that makes it all the more hopeful that the country that does more to adhere to the rule of law, the U.S., has far more billionaires than any other country. You can cheat to make a billion. But you can make a billion more easily in a country that does its best to limit cheating.
Becoming a billionaire is not like winning the lottery. It’s not a matter of chance. It’s a matter of working your butt off. Just ask the 60 percent of the world’s billionaires who started with nothing. You may not want to work that hard; such single-minded focus often takes a personal toll. But those who are constantly whining about life “not being fair,” should spend just part of their day thinking about how others in their boat made it so far.
By the way, a major caveat to the fairness doctrine praised above must be mentioned. Only 1 percent of the world’s self-made billionaires are women! The “Billionaires’ Club” appears for the most part to be for men only. I leave it to sociologists and cultural anthropologists to sort that one out. But for all the advances made by women in the past 50 or so years, the goal of amassing a billion dollars or more remains allusive.
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David Asman is the host of "Forbes on FOX" which airs on the FOX News Channel, Saturdays at 11 a.m. ET.