Forbes 400 List: Lessons from the 1%

Every year, Forbes magazine compiles a list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. There are a lot of familiar names on this exclusive list, with some moving up, some moving down and others dropping off the list completely.

We are talking the top 1% of the 1% here. Officially, there are 3.2 million Americans in the wealthiest 1%. This Forbes list is the top 400 of those folks. Most of us can’t even imagine this kind of wealth, let alone entertain hopes of achieving it. Still, it makes fascinating reading if nothing else. And there are lessons related to the success of those who made the list that everyone can learn from. (For more, see: What the Rich and Powerful Have in Common.)

This year, it took a net worth of $2 billion to make the list although the average among this tiny group is almost $7 billion. Among first timers on the list (there are 22), most are entrepreneurs (19). Some 169 people in America have net worth over $1 billion and still didn’t make this list. They are millionaires a thousand times over and still can’t make this exclusive list.

Common Traits

What can we learn from this year’s edition? Are there specific lessons for the rest of us? A couple of things. First, none of these people work for the man. America is the land of opportunity and the quickest way to the top is to start a successful business or be born to someone who did. People on this list are not typical wage earners.

Second, many of these fortunes are powerfully tied to the U.S. stock market. Not in the same way as you or me (through our 401(k) plan or brokerage accounts), but the wealth they create is primarily in the corporate stock of a company they founded. Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg aren’t rich from trading stocks. They are rich because the corporations they started  - Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook - respectively, have immense value for millions of shareholders. As stock prices rise, so do their personal fortunes.

That brings another important point. To earn a billion dollars at anything takes scale. Not skill, scale. A store-front enterprise in Saint Joseph, Missouri is unlikely to ever serve enough people to produce this kind of wealth. America has 325 million people, and the world around seven billion. Incredible wealth requires a big chunk of them as customers. It’s no mistake that Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook founders make this list. They serve millions of customers every hour of every day.

Lessons to Be Learned

We can still learn from them. Most of us won’t start an international company and we’ll never enjoy the type of fame that earns a nickel each from millions of fans (Oprah Winfrey or Mark Cuban, for instance). Our opportunities are much more modest. Even so, we can build our work lives around helping others in a mutually beneficial way.

If our opportunities are modest, so are our needs. Truthfully, no one needs a billion dollars. My guess is that most of the Forbes people are both surprised and dismayed by their success. Many of them, including Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, have pledged to give most of their money away to charity when they are done. They didn’t expect it, they don’t need it and they won’t pass it along to family or friends. In other words, money isn’t the main point to their lives.

That’s likely the most powerful lesson for you and me, too. We don’t need to make this annual list to be successful or good. These people are extraordinary in almost every way. Their ideas, talents, work ethic, ambition and outsized opportunity earned them a spot on the most exclusive of exclusive lists. Congratulations to them and I pray they use that wealth to accomplish great things.

For us the scale is smaller, but our tools are exactly the same. Ideas, talents, work ethic, ambition and opportunity can create remarkable success in any endeavor. (For more from this author, see: 5 Habits of Financially Successful People.)