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Finding Your Road to Riches

WHAT does rich mean to you? A million? 10 billion? What’s plenty to some, falls far short for others. You need to decide what’s rich for you. And then it’s just a matter of making one of the 10 roads that lead to big wealth work for you. There’s a right road here for everyone who desires riches, if you can navigate the common pitfalls.

Start a successful business. Have a compelling vision? Leadership skills? An understanding spouse? You just might be a visionary founder. Founding your own firm can create astounding wealth. Half of the 10 richest Americans did this, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and Google wunderkinds Sergey Brin and Larry Page. This road works with scant restriction by industry, education or pedigree—Ph.D.s and college dropouts are equally welcome. Be warned: This road is not for the fainthearted. It requires courage, discipline, strategic vision, a talented supporting cast and Teflon skin.

Become a CEO of an existing firm and juice it—a very mechanical function. Responsibility and running things come easy? But you’re no visionary founder? Some of our finest CEOs didn’t found the firms they lead—like GE’s Jack Welch. Non-founder CEOs can take firms to unthought-of heights. Fully half of America’s largest-firm CEOs make in excess of $8.3 million. Warning: Heavy is the head wearing the CEO crown. CEOs must be tough—more now than ever. Failed CEOs don’t just lose their jobs— they frequently end up vilified by the media, even indicted.

Hitch to a successful visionary’s wagon and ride along—it’s high value added. Good at picking winning horses? Think being boss is tough? Your destiny could be to ride along. Ride-alongs rise high, play critical roles, are well-respected leaders and get rich, but never bear a CEO’s pressure. Some famous ride-alongs ride high on the Forbes 400—Buffet’s sidekick Charlie Munger, for one, with about $2 billion.

Turn celebrity into wealth or wealth into celebrity and then more wealth! Seeking fame and fortune? Don’t mind abdicating privacy? Try cruising the rich-and-famous road. This road has two forks: One is talent, like Cameron Diaz or Derek Jeter; and the other is mogul, like Ted Turner or Rupert Murdoch—who run and own media empires.

Marry well—really, really well. Seem ridiculous? Then this isn’t your road. See it like this: You wouldn’t marry someone physically repulsive to you, so why marry someone fiscally repulsive? If money moves you, shop among the rich. If you don’t like the notion, fine. Leave the rich to those who care.

Steal it, legally. No guns necessary. Ever wish you could just take the money? Would you like some to see you as a hero? And others fear you? You can legally steal and be a hero as a plaintiff ’s lawyer, today’s Robin Hood. Idolized by Hollywood, plaintiff’s attorneys posture themselves as crusaders for the helpless—fighting big bad business to save the little guy. My apologies to other lawyers and law students if this sounds harsh, but it’s true: Most plaintiff law is a perfectly legal twist of thievery and thuggery. With targets the media loves skewering—big business, pharma, tobacco—your odds improve.

Capitalize on other people’s money (OPM)—where most of the rich are. Like telling folks what to do? Have nerves of steel? This road is paved with fees from other people’s money—money management, private equity, brokerage, banking and insurance. Some OPMers end up heroes, some in prison—there’s ample room for conflict of interest. But a good OPM richie efficiently and ethically makes his (or her) clients rich at the same time.

Invent an endless future revenue stream—even if you’re not an inventor. Have wild imagination or none at all? Here you make an annuity-like future cash flow from something you create, own or patent that just keeps spewing cash. A gadget, book, song, movie or even experience. The big money is in getting rights, licensed or patented, for future reuse and generating reuse.

Trump the land barons by monetizing unrealized real estate wealth! Dream of building skyscrapers? Collecting rent? Don’t let the recent residential hoopla dissuade you—there’s huge money in being a land baron. Like other roads, it’s not easy. Successful land barons don’t just have a knack for finding tasty, unappreciated land and willing investors. They have the strategic vision of successful firm founders. They borrow!

Go down the road more traveled—save hard, invest well—forever. Like boring, predictable paths? The least sensational, but the most reliable, road to riches is saving linked to good investment returns. The road is wide enough for anyone with a paycheck. This road is not sexy. Frugal isn’t known for sexy.

Excerpts fromThe Ten Roads to Riches: The Ways the Wealthy Got There (And How You Can Too!) (Fisher Investments Press)
, by Ken Fisher (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2008).

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