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4 Financial Lessons From John D. Rockefeller

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We mention on FinTekNeeks that the ultimate form of wealth is discipline and John D. Rockeller lived a disciplined life with financial lessons we can learn. Rockefeller set the record for being the wealthiest man in the history of mankind with an inflation-adjusted amount of wealth at over $400 billion US Dollars. One of his most significant accomplishments came from balancing the volatile oil industry for both consumers and producers.

The Series

  1. 4 Financial Lessons From Alexander Suvorov
  2. 4 Financial Lessons From Genghis Khan
  3. 4 Financial Lessons From John D. Rockefeller

The Lessons

1. Never quit. When Rockefeller tried to find his first job, every job rejected him. He tried again starting early in the morning until late at night and failed. He applied for numerous jobs at companies that rejected him multiple times and he still tried again. After three months of looking, a company hired him. When he reflected over the countless rejections, he made it clear that his job was to find a job during that season of his life. He also later stated that anything could be accomplished with perseverance and that it was one of the most powerful virtues he knew.

In order to master discipline, we must first taste despair – there is no other way. If we’re not experiencing despair, how much discipline do we really have? We can do one of two things when we feel despair: quit, or realize that this is our moment. In Rockefeller’s case, he pressed on and remained discipline even though he continued to be rejected.

With money, we will experience setbacks – it’s only a matter of time. We should first prepare for these setbacks financially and mentally. When they come, we will be prepared and we will know how to react – with perspective: this is our moment to shine.

2. Money follows behavior. Rockefeller worked from 6 AM to 10 PM six days a week. Some of this was a reality for his time, some of this was his work ethic. In addition to working diligently, Rockefeller saved a significant portion of his earnings early in his life while he worked while faithfully giving a portion of his income to his faith. Rockefeller did not see either of these as losses; as a young man, he once stated that he wanted to accumulate $100,000 (he surpassed) and live to 100 (came within 2 years). If we were looking at the young Rockefeller today, we might describe him as a minimalist. This mentality preceded his later success.

What have we sacrificed today? How hard have we worked today? How do both of these relate to our vision? Rockefeller’s behavior mirrored his vision – if it did not fit his vision, he terminated the behavior. What we do should reflect our vision.

3. Mastery equals discipline plus vision. While we think of Rockefeller as being one of the richest individuals who lived, he actually mastered one of the most volatile markets for his day. Before Standard Oil began in 1870, the oil market experienced huge booms followed by busts. Producers would lose their entire business in a bust, while consumers would experience huge losses during a boom. Oil was one of the worst markets.

Being disciplined, Rockefeller saw the lack of balance in the oil market: when oil was high, everyone sold oil like crazy, but caused the price to crash. When oil the price of oil crashed, businesses would go bankrupt and create a shortage of oil on consumers, causing the price to spike again. Oil companies lacked discipline; in the good times, they should have been saving and preparing for the bad times, while in the bad times, they should have been accumulating the bankrupt companies. This is exactly what Rockefeller did and he built one of the largest oil companies in the world – Standard Oil.

As Standard Oil dominated the market, the price of oil began to stabilize and jobs losses in the oil industry were few and far between and consumers enjoyed a more balanced price. If you look at the below graph, you can see exactly how much the price of oil was impacted over time by the creation of Standard Oil:

What we see in that graph is the mastery of John D. Rockefeller. Mastery creates wealth for producers, consumers, and helps others impact the world as well, as they don’t have to worry about volatile prices or unstable jobs. When it comes to money, our mastery of money – discipline and vision – inherently creates wealth for others.

4. Charity should create self-reliance. I used to think that giving money to people was a noble thing to do. In college, when I read Titan, Rockefeller was the first challenge to my view on this even with my doubts. The nail in the coffin that changed my view on charity was a documentary called Poverty Inc and it showed that charity – or giving money to help – often undermines people who are actually trying to work for their community (entrepreneurs).

“No one wants to be a beggar for life” […] “Having a heart for the poor isn’t hard, but having a mind for the poor is the challenge.”

Rockefeller viewed charity as destructive, if the recipient became dependent on charity. The purpose of charity to Rockefeller was to create self-reliance. After considering this topic, I admire that Rockefeller really cared whether his money made people better off. It’s easy to give money and think, “That’s enough!” To Rockefeller, this involved no further investigation – did it actually improve people’s lives? True to his discipline, Rockefeller investigated, reflected, and chose charity that helped improve people’s self-reliance, most notably education.

Are we giving for others or for ourselves? If we’re truly giving for others, we should investigate whether our giving actually moves people forward or not. One humbling lesson I’ve had to learn is that “the return” is really proving value to others – “the market” (I fully admit that in college I thought that “getting a return” was always evil). Giving money and creating dependence does not prove value; in fact, over the long run, it’s completely unsustainable because producers will cease to exist, like we saw in the Soviet Union before its collapse.


One of my favorite reminders about John D. Rockefeller’s impact on our world is plumbing. Rockefeller’s investment into improving the lives of many poor individuals led to the eventual discovery of modern waste disposal, which has significantly led to the reduction of diseases. While easy to forget, at the turn of the 1900s diarrhea was one of the top ten killers of humans (diarrhea!). Humans struggled with basic hygiene, but a lot of the charity Rockefeller gave to help improve the lives of people led to eventual discoveries that allowed us to move past these errors.

Rockefeller shows how discipline, perseverance and mastery can impact the world even when we’re gone. Our lives may be limited, but our actions can pay dividends to people we’ll never meet.

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