What can we learn from John D. Rockefeller?

As part of our “What can we learn from…” series this week, I wanted to talk about John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil fame. Thought by some to be the richest American who ever lived (personally owning 1.5% of the country’s GDP when he died), Rockefeller became a household name when he set up a monopoly over oil refineries in the second half of the 19th century.

What lessons can we learn from this oil magnate?

1) Learn what you can from your parents. John’s mother (named Eliza) was a hard-working woman who had to raise her children practically single-handedly (her husband and John’s father was a philandering con-man). Even though she was not a rich woman herself, she did offer this simple advice to her son: “Willful waste makes woeful want.”

From a young age, John showed himself to be a serious person who did not waste anything.

2) Start small if you have to. Born into a poor family, John could not leech off of a family trust or assume that others would provide for him. He knew that he had to earn his own way in the world. So, he started small and worked his way up. He started making some extra money as a child by selling turkeys, potatoes, and even by loaning small amounts of money to neighbors. By the time he was 20 he started his first business shipping produce.

3) Adapt. Growing up in a world where people burned whale fat to see at night and rarely travelled outside of their county, Rockefeller invested in an oil refinery. He knew that whale fat was fast becoming too expensive and that railroads were poised to push westward expansion. So even though an oil refinery seemed counterintuitive, decided to strike out into a new industry he knew little about – because that’s where the money was. He learned, adapted, and thrived.

Rockefeller had a lot of success, but there was also a lot of controversy around Standard Oil’s strong-handed tactics. Some say he knew of the threats and bribes, others say that he had no control. Either way, it wasn’t long before everyone knew the name Rockefeller.

While we may not be trying to achieve the same level of success, we can imitate the principles. Never use your upbringing as an excuse for failure; don’t be too proud to start small; and if something isn’t working anymore don’t be afraid to cut your losses and start something new.

That’s what Rockefeller did, and it worked out pretty well for him.

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