3 Strange Billion-Dollar Traits That's Common To Success

September 20, 2015

I've recently graduated from university and for the first time in a long while, I was able to have a few precious weeks off to think and reflect about the direction of my life and the career decisions that I have to make. I wanted to get an answer to a burning question that I had been itching to find out:

Apart from working hard and smart, what qualities, traits, or behavior patterns do exceptionally successful people have? 

I'm not just talking about any high performance individual; I'm talking about the earth shakers and industry giants that society often nefariously term as the one percent. I started to pour myself into biographies of people that most would consider wildly successful. I dug through books such as "From Third World to First" (Lee Kuan Yew), "Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China" (Ezra Vogel), "Chiang Kai-Shek: China's Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost" (Jonathan Fenby), "Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and a Quest for a Fantastic Future" (Ashlee Vance), "Losing My Virginity" (Richard Branson), "Street Smarts: Adventures on the Road and in the Markets" (Jim Rogers), "Zero to One" (Peter Thiel), "Innovation and Entrepreneurship" (Peter F. Drucker), and "The Essays of Warren Buffett" (Lawrence A. Cunningham).

I was looking for common traits between these exceptional individuals in business and politics that were completely uncommon to me; these were qualities that were rare to society and me.

By reading the life stories and philosophies of those who had gone before me and did great things, I hope to stand on the shoulders of giants and have a clearer view of the path ahead.

1) An Unwavering Vision and Searing Passion

Exceptional success requires exceptional leadership. And exceptional leadership begins with a vision. An unwavering vision can be defined as a compelling mental image of how you would like to shape the society you live in. While there are a hundred and one things that could be done in a day's work, a leader with an unwavering vision can distill the work that is heading towards the intended vision. This leader is sensitive to opportunities that would bring him/her in the direction of his/her vision and would not hesitate to make the necessary sacrifices to take those opportunities.

But many people have goals and goal setting is a common part of high performance individuals, so what makes them truly exceptional? 

The key difference is that while high performance individuals set goals and reach them, exceptional individuals possess a life vision that goals are constantly derived from.

This is clearly evident in the life of Elon Musk, an industrialist who is the founder/ co-founder of Zip2, Paypal, Tesla Motors, Space-X, and SolarCity. He is basically a Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and Steve Jobs all rolled into one.

During interviews and in his biography, he often talked about his vision since his college days of how three areas would undergo significant change: the Internet, renewable energy, and space. So even after his first windfall from the sale of Zip2, bagging him US$22 Million, he didn't stop pursuing his vision. Instead, he made many financial and personal sacrifices to help achieve the change he envisioned in online payments, electric automobiles, and even space exploration. Goals can be reached but a vision keeps you going even after you had reached a state of personal comfort.

Another important point to note is that passion is derived from the Latin root word passionem, which is to "suffer or endure". 

Just like Elon and many others (Deng, Lee Kuan Yew, and Chiang), exceptional leaders were willing to make personal sacrifices, some of which even to risk death in order to fulfill the vision for the society they envisioned.

Since the 1920s, Deng Xiaoping envisioned bringing the technology and industry knowledge from the West to China. He boarded a ship to France, only to discover the lack of support he had from the Qing dynasty to complete his work-study programme. Disillusioned, he subsequently returned to China and joined the CCP. For the next 50 years, he faced a tremendous amount of trials. He endured through the Long March of 1934-1935 where almost 90% of the original party members died from hunger or ambush to escape from the KMT. He endured a tremendous period of starvation during the Great Leap Forward from 1958-1961 where an estimate of 18 till up to 42 million people lost their lives. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, he was purged from CCP leadership thriceand sent away for "re-education" in a Jiangxi work factory.

Despite all the suffering, Deng returned to power in 1977 and consolidated all support to develop China's economy. He fulfilled his vision by reintroducing a meritocratic university entrance examination system, sending the best academic candidates overseas to read science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (more commonly known as STEM today). He invited talent, technology know-how, and investment to flow into China through the four special economic zones. For the next four decades, China experienced an economic growth that wasunprecedented in the history of mankind. It is undeniable that Deng's unwavering vision and searing passion made the China we see today. 

2) Contrarian Boldness to Create Opportunities

Steve Schwarzman, the chairman of Blackstone Group and the "king of private equity", made a big splash when he donated USD$150 Million to Yale University. While philanthropy is certainly most welcomed, what was more peculiar was the following TV interview from Bloomberg:


Steve Schwarzman openly revealed that he was rejected from Harvard College admissions. What was much more notable is that former dean of admission from Harvard remembered Steve enough to write a letter to him many years later admitting that it was a mistake not to admit him (a $150 Million mistake). If Steve had gone to Harvard, the $150 Million Dollar donation would most definitely have gone to Harvard.

Why would the dean of admissions from Harvard College remember the rejected application of a 17-year-old high school student?

"Well...” the dean later told him, "I don't get calls from 17-year-olds". Steve Schwarzman actually called the dean through a payphone to seek reconsideration for Harvard admissions. That was like calling God. Nobody does that.

He did.

Although Steve didn't go Harvard, that same striking boldness to create opportunities followed him into the private equity industry.

Exceptional people do what others wouldn't dare to do in order to create opportunities for their vision. 

When Richard Branson's flight to Puerto Rico was canceled, leaving him and hundreds of other passengers stranded at a small island airport, he picked up a phone and tracked down a chartered plane. He divided the cost of the plane by the number of seats, and charged the stranded passengers $39 to rebook their seats. That led him to develop the idea of a transatlantic airline company, Virgin Airlines. Nobody does that. 

He did.

Jim Rogers is a contrarian trader who sought to use his understanding of economics to build the wildly successful Quantum Fund with George Soros. He then retired and wanted to travel the world on a motorbike. In the 1980s, he wrote to the Chinese government and got permission to ride his motorbike through Red China. He has since identified Asia as the place to be to take the most of the opportunities in the 21st century. He sold his comfortable landed mansion in New York City and migrated to Singapore. He now sends his girls to Nanyang Primary School where they learn fluent Mandarin and English to give them a language "head-start". Nobody does that.

He did.

In fact, I recently met Jim Rogers and he gave me this quote on his perspective on developing contrarian thinking:

"If everybody is thinking the same thing, nobody is thinking"


Opportunity comes from identifying and taking advantage of contrarian ideas that you know will "blind-side" even the smartest people in the world simple because of human biases.

3) Development of a Brand and Team Larger than Themselves

If you flip up Forbe's billionaire list (http://www.forbes.com/billionaires/list/), you will notice a striking commonality among the majority of billionaires:

Their wealth was built or inherited from company ownership. And such companies have strong brands and teams.

Bill Gates is synonymous with Microsoft. Warren Buffett is synonymous with Berkshire Hathaway. Amancio Ortega is synonymous with Zara. Larry Ellison is synonymous with Oracle. Sam Walton is synonymous with Walmart. Michael Bloomberg is synonymous with Bloomberg... Furthermore, Lee Kuan Yew was synonymous with Singapore in the same way Deng was synonymous with China. But behind the wild successes of these few exceptional individuals, there exist strong teams of people to carry their visions forward.

While not everyone has the penchant to start their own company or build a country, everyone has the same opportunity to identify and join strong teams to work with. Everyone has the capacity to build their own personal branding that would advertise their reputation beyond their physical reach.

The takeaway: Exceptional people posses these three things,

  1. An Unwavering Vision and Searing Passion
  2. Contrarian Boldness to Create Opportunities
  3. Development of a Brand and Team Larger than Themselves

I hope you've enjoyed reading about these qualities and behaviour patterns as much as I enjoyed discovering them.


Joshua Cheong is a management associate at Citi. He is passionate about the world and the impact he can create. Feel free to connect with him on LinkedIn at: https://sg.linkedin.com/in/joshuacheong. Read more of his thoughts at: http://joshuacheong.mit.edu