Getting True Value Out of Life

We were walking down a small cobblestone street in Aix en Provence. It was a perfect June day – sunny and still warm in the late afternoon. The old, unpainted buildings had an amber glow.

Some of these buildings, we had learned from poking our heads inside, contained modest-sized apartments. Others enclosed elegant residences that only the wealthy could afford. From the outside, though, you couldn’t tell one from the other.

“That’s a good thing,” K said. “From the outside nobody can tell how much money you have.”

“It’s the opposite back home in Florida,” I said. “Wealthy people want everyone to know how much money they have. They tear down old buildings and replace them with McMansions.”

“It’s just a question of values,” K said.

We stopped at a cafe about a block from where we were staying. It was nearly filled with people having drinks and smoking, enjoying the end of their workday. A young girl stood under an oak tree playing Bach on a violin.

Jean Marc, the owner, brought us coffee. I wrote in my journal. K was reading a local newspaper.

“It says here you can survive without food for three weeks,” she said. Three days without water. But only three minutes without oxygen.”

“Japanese pearl divers can stay under water for 10 minutes,” I said. “The world record is something like 19 minutes and 21 seconds.”

She shook her head, smiling. “You know what I mean. It’s a question of values.”

I thought about that as we walked back to our place. So much of our time is spent pursuing goals that have questionable or temporary value. And often we ignore what is most important.

Like oxygen. What could be more important to human beings than oxygen?

Yet we don’t spend any time appreciating it. I made a mental note to mention oxygen the next time I said grace.

Bill Bonner and I often surprise our marketing protégés by saying that “there is an inverse relationship between what is valuable and how much people will pay for it.”

I remember a meeting in London, for example, with the people running Bill’s investment publishing business there. We pointed out that their free services usually focused on investment strategies, their $100 newsletters focused on investment analysis, and their $1,000 services provided trading tips.

“The strategies – fundamentals, timing, etc. – are what really determine financial success,” we reminded them. “Yet nobody is willing to pay for that. They will pay $100 for stock analysis and they’ll pay even more for single-sentence buy recommendations. We’ve tried reversing the price structure many times, but it never works.”

When I have candid conversations with very successful investors they never give me stock tips. They always talk about fundamentals. The same is true in the world of business. The entrepreneurs I know who make huge money seldom talk about specific business opportunities. They prefer to discuss universal principles.

There is a reason for that.

When you have ready access to wealth building opportunities, you understand that they, in and of themselves, have little value. What counts is being able to analyze them quickly and efficiently, cull out the best ones and then take advantage of them. That knowledge is what separates you from the rest of the pack. And that knowledge is scarce.

But if you’re like most people, specific opportunities are rarely available to you. Colleagues don’t call you up and offer you inside deals. Your broker doesn’t care much if he pleases you. He just wants to sell something and take his commission. So because genuine opportunities are scarce, you tend to jump on anything that “feels” good.

Trouble is, since you are an outsider, most of what you are pitched is not special. You don’t know that, but you fork over your money anyway. And then you are disappointed.

There is a lesson here for entrepreneurs: Without a solid understand of fundamentals, it is hard to make smart wealth building decisions. If you want to be successful you must learn to value what is truly valuable.

So what are the most important things for entrepreneurs to know about wealth building?

Here is a short list:

  • You will never get rich chasing the next hot opportunity. Understand the larger business trends. Discover how wealth builders of the past have profited from them. And do the same with your time and money.
  • All businesses develop in much the same way. They go through stages, each one of which has its own problems, challenges, and opportunities. To take your business from one level to the next, you must learn what these problems, challenges, and opportunities are and take advantage of them.
  • Never invest in a business or an industry that you don’t understand. It doesn’t matter how great the opportunity seems. If you don’t know the market well, you will inevitably make bad and costly decisions.

When fledgling entrepreneurs come to me and ask me to mentor them in wealth building, I always tell them the same thing:

“Everything I know I have already written down in the books I have written. You can find out what you need to know by reading those books.”

Most of the time, they don’t follow my advice. They can’t believe that something they might find in a bestselling book will give them what they are looking for: a formula for getting from zero to millions of dollars.

They tell me that they want to hire me to be their personal consultant, no matter what it costs. And when I explain that I am not taking on any new clients, they are discouraged. But they shouldn’t be.

There is no question that getting mentored by a successful wealth builder is more valuable than reading a book. But the value is in the prompting and coaching and correcting, not in the essential ideas.

If you are still struggling to hitch a ride on the money train, the problem may be that you don’t understand the fundamentals. Take this five-question test to judge your knowledge:

  1. What is the single most important rule in acquiring great wealth?
  2. What ROI do you need every year to acquire the net worth you are seeking?
  3. What sort of enterprises will give you that ROI?
  4. What is the optimal selling strategy for the most successful business in your industry?
  5. What is the allowable acquisition cost for your business?

If you didn’t know the answers to at least four of the questions, you should read – or reread – two of my New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling books: “Automatic Wealth” and “Ready, Fire, Aim.” Combined, they contain everything I know about building wealth.