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A Few Notes on The Wealth Elite

September 11, 2018 • Posted in Investing Expertise

Rainer Zitelmann prefaces his 2018 book, The Wealth Elite: A Groundbreaking Study of the Psychology of the Super Rich, as follows: “For this book, I succeeded in convincing 45 wealthy people to talk to me. …Without exception, the interviewees were entrepreneurs or investors… The interviews were conducted in person between September 2015 and March 2016, and each lasted between one and two hours. …every interviewee (with one exception) took a personality test consisting of 50 questions. …This work explores the personalities and patterns of behaviour exhibited by wealthy individuals. …their answers to my questions clearly demonstrate that the personality traits and patterns of behaviour described in this book have played a significant role in their extraordinary economic success. However, this is a study based on methods of qualitative social research and, as such, the interview subjects do not constitute a representative sample. Above all, their answers were not tested against a control group consisting of non-wealthy individuals.” Based on the body of wealth creation research and the set of in-depth interviews/personality tests, he concludes that:

From Chapter 7, “Methodology” (Page 123): “The study’s lowest wealth quartile comprises those individuals with net assets worth between EUR 10 million and 30 million, and the upper quartile comprises those with assets worth at least EUR 300 million. In total, 36 of the interviewees were self-made entrepreneurs. In most cases, they had either inherited nothing or only very small amounts. Four interviewees had inherited very small businesses, which they had then substantially expanded… Five interviewees were family entrepreneurs, and four of these had vastly increased the value of their family’s assets. …More than half of the interviewees were over the age of 60, and only two were below the age of 40. …44 of the 45 were men.”

From Chapter 9, “Formative Years” (Pages 191-192): “…parents of 60% of the interviewees were self-employed… …only two were blue-collar workers… …school and university education did not play a decisive role… …More than half of the interviewees were involved in competitive sports while they were at school. …It is also striking to learn how [they] earned money alongside school or university. Typical jobs for teenagers or students, i.e. those paid by the hour, were the exception. A look at their varied ideas and initiatives reveals a tremendous amount of creativity.”

From Chapter 10, “Motivations for Self-employment” (Pages 194, 214): “…40 of 45 had been self-employed all their lives or almost all their lives. The five interviewees for whom this was not the case, and who were board members or managing directors of companies, either owned stock in these companies or were successful as investors alongside their main occupation. …a number of interviewees…view themselves as difficult people, individuals who are too unorthodox to integrate themselves into prescribed structures or subordinate themselves to others. …But alongside this group, there are a number…whom this does not apply. Before they founded their own businesses, they initially worked for large companies – often in banks – and made careers for themselves. For them, either things progressed too slowly or they perceived their earning potentials as too limited.”

From Chapter 11, “Wealth as a Goal in Life?” (Pages 230-231): “For many of the interviewees, the written formulation of goals played an important role. …They set themselves specific financial goals and exact deadlines for achieving them. An astonishing number of interviewees described a process of detailed goal-setting, which they carried out once a year. …A number of interviewees carried out this review at shorter, more regular intervals… Nevertheless, not all of the interviewees employed such goal-setting techniques. A number explained that, although they set revenue targets for their companies, they do not formulate any personal financial goals. Others…questioned whether it is at all possible or makes any sense to set life goals. The hypothesis of popular wealth literature, that it is ‘only’ possible to achieve great wealth by setting down specific, quantifiable financial goals in writing and constantly visualizing these goals, could not be confirmed.”

From Chapter 12, “What Does Money Mean to You?” (Page 242): “There was only one motivation about which almost all of the interviewees agreed. They associate wealth with freedom and independence. …In second place was the opportunity to use the money for new things, to invest.”

From Chapter 13, “The Importance of Sales Skills” (Pages 263-264): “Two thirds of the interviewees stated that the ability to sell successfully had made a decisive contribution to their success. More than 30% even credited between 70% and 100% of their success to their talents as salespeople. …They define sales…as just the process of convincing other people… They stressed the importance of the ability to ‘read’ people, to gain an intuitive understanding of their fears, blockades, and objections in order to dispel them. …Interviewees frequently mentioned ‘being able to explain things clearly’ as a crucial ability in successful sales. The importance of networking was also repeatedly emphasized.”

From Chapter 14, “Optimism and Self-efficacy” (Page 276): “On a scale from -5 (extreme pessimist) to +5 (extreme optimist), 38 of 40 interviewees placed themselves in the positive range, classifying themselves as optimists. Of these, 35 went as far as to place themselves in the very optimistic range (from +3 to +5). …The interviewees defined optimism in their own words as the belief that ‘as a result of your own abilities or the network you have built, or your intellect, you are always able to identify solutions and to overcome anything.'”

From Chapter 15, “Risk Propensity” (Pages 294-295): “A substantial majority of the interviewees assessed themselves as having an elevated risk profile. …At the same time, there were a number of interviewees [who] rated their own propensity for risk as moderate, while also admitting that the outside world would classify them as extremely tolerant of risk.”

From Chapter 16, “Decision-making: Gut Feeling or Analysis?” (Pages 321-323): “…one third said that analysis played the primary role, whereas more than half stated that gut feeling was the major factor in their decisions. …Even those interviewees who asserted that analysis clearly dominates rely on their gut feelings for between 20% and 40% of their decisions. …many of the interviewees stressed that gut feeling is not something innate; rather it is the sum of an individual’s experience. …Almost all interviewees agreed that decisions involving the assessment of people can only be made on the basis of gut feeling. …Many of the interviewees stressed the fact that their decision-making follows a set series of processes. This begins with a careful analysis of the figures. If a project is identified as not being worth further consideration, because the figures just do not add up, it is immediately dismissed. If the figures line up in favour of the project, gut feeling dictates the remainder of the decision-making process.”

From Chapter 17, “The Big Five: Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness and Neuroticism” (Page 328): “Among the interviewees, conscientiousness was found to be the dominant personality trait. …Extroversion was widespread among the interviewees… Openness to experience was also very strong…agreeableness was somewhat weaker than conscientiousness, extroversion, and openness to experience. …Neuroticism is a weak characteristic among the interviewees.”

From Chapter 19, “‘Swimming Against the Stream'” (Pages 342, 354-355): “More than half of the interviewees emphasized that their habit of swimming against the prevailing current had been a key contributing factor for their success. Only four explicitly refuted this. …It should, however, be noted that most of the pronounced contrarians were investors, often from the real estate sector. Therefore, the findings cannot necessarily be generalized. …Having the courage to stand against majority opinion is probably a  prerequisite for making successful investments, as this is what makes it possible to buy cheap and sell high.”

From Chapter 20, “Dealing with Crises and Setbacks” (Pages 356, 380): “…action orientation after failure was an important characteristic shared by this group of wealthy individuals. …What is also striking is the fundamental attitude that the blame for setbacks and crises is not to be sought in external circumstances or in other people, but in themselves. …The interviewees share an ability to get over negative experiences very quickly. To put it simply, they do not struggle with things they cannot change anyway, but focus exclusively on practical solutions to any crisis. Forgiving themselves for their own mistakes is as important to them as taking personal responsibility for setbacks.”

In summary, investors and entrepreneurs will likely find The Wealth Elite an interesting exploration of prerequisites of success as represented by sustained accumulation of wealth. The author’s overall assessment is that success of interviewees “is largely due to the control they eventually learned to exert over their innate, above-average risk propensity.”

The study has a significant methodological weakness, acknowledged by the author as follows: “A causal explanation…would have required the formation of control groups and, for example, a comparison between this group of interviewees and…other social groups… …the behavioural patterns and personality traits described in this book are prerequisites for becoming extremely rich. However, they are not a guarantee, because the same behavioural patterns and personality traits (i.e., very high optimism, high risk tolerance, gut decisions) could also lead to failure. …This methodological problem is characteristic of best practice studies as well as of the bulk of the literature on management and success, and the popular wealth-creation literature.”

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