Ah, to be rich.
Not just McMansion in Orange County rich, but really rich. Like Scrooge McDuck kind of rich. That is what everyone wants, isn’t it, to be enormously wealthy? To earn your fortune by becoming a titan of industry, a world-renowned talent, or by inventing a world-changing new technology or product is on the mind of nearly everyone. At the very least, the riches and rewards that await as a result are often on the brain. But what it comes down to is getting there. And to get there, it takes some special qualities.
The question is, do you, the average American, have what it takes to become a millionaire, or even a billionaire? In order to answer that, we need to figure out how billionaires actually acquire that status.
According to the Wealth-X and UBS 2014 Billionaire Census, there are fewer than 2,500 billionaires on the planet, along with 12 million millionaires. Of those billionaires, 13% are the fortunate recipients of large inheritances, 27% inherited some amount of wealth and made the rest of their money through reinvestments, and about 60% are self-made. All told, the world’s billionaires control around 4% of the entire planet’s wealth, at $7.3 trillion.
Clearly, there are some significant barriers in the way of billionairehood, and only a small handful of people have been able to get to that status. That must mean that those individuals are either incredibly lucky — which some are, given that 40% of them had some help in building their fortune through inheritance — or that the kind of raw talent needed to amass at least $1 billion is exceedingly rare.
So, how do you know if you have what it takes to ascend the economic ladder to join the billionaire ranks? And what exactly does it take?
The truth is, there’s no direct answer. But we can look at some commonalities between those who have become billionaires. Obviously, looking for similarities between those who have inherited their wealth won’t do much good, but there is something to be said for those who have inherited a pile of money and managed to keep it, or grow it exponentially.
What we should focus on instead is those who have built themselves up from nothing, or from little. These are your entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, musicians, and more. People who come to mind immediately are individuals like Bill Gates, who has built Microsoft from scratch, or even the founders of companies like Google or Facebook. While these individuals may have had an advantage in education or personal connections, they still put the work into building products and companies that were, by and large, unproven.
On Quora (and also covered by Slate), the question was asked that if an individual has a set goal of becoming a billionaire, and is willing to put in the amount of work necessary, would that be enough?
The answer, provided by Justine Musk, was a simple “no.”
“We live in a culture that celebrates determination and hard work, but understand: these are the qualities that keep you in the game after most everybody else has left, or until somebody bigger and stronger picks you up and hurls you back out to sea,” Musk wrote. “Determination and hard work are necessary, yes, but they are the minimum requirements. As in: the bare minimum.”
Musk says that the only way to get there is by not only working hard and devoting yourself completely, but through a bit of luck, and by being the right person for the right job, in the right place, and at the right time.
“The world gives you money in exchange for something it perceives to be of equal or greater value: something that transforms an aspect of the culture, reworks a familiar story or introduces a new one, alters the way people think about the category and make use of it in daily life,” she wrote.
In a world in which there are millions willing to work their asses off — assuming that’s all it takes, according to some — we would be seeing a lot more billionaires. But we don’t, because it takes so much more than that. And there’s no real way of putting the pieces into place, especially for the average person.
Like Musk writes, being willing to work hard and sacrifice is what gets you in the game — but your ultimate level of success will probably depend on luck or fate.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger