“If they jumped off a cliff, would you jump off too?” — Mothers around the world
It’s a staple of success porn to see the habits of billionaires and believe it’s the secret to neverending mountains of money. Is it really though?
The truth is billionaires are a pretty diverse set of people. No one is going to confuse Bill Gates or Kylie Jenner with Aliko Dangote or Zhong Huijuan. Most people haven’t heard of the names of 90% of billionaires and we read about the same famous names over and over.
Just because Steve Jobs did something, it doesn’t automatically mean you should too. There are many paths to whatever you define as success and your heroes probably did everything to their heroes. Has there ever been a billionaire like Elon Musk?
This doesn’t mean it’s not still interesting to read the secrets to people’s careers. It can trigger ideas and inspire us to strive for more. I do it myself and sometimes I can adapt lessons to work for me. If you enjoy learning more about entrepreneurs then there’s nothing lost even if you don’t act on what you read.
Yet there are some habits of billionaires that we really shouldn’t adopt. They can be unhealthy to both an entrepreneur and their startup. Sometimes a business succeeds in spite of their founder’s quirks not because of them. The end doesn’t justify the means!
Here are some of the most fascinating habits to avoid:
Elon Musk: Schedule your day in 5-minute blocks
The Tesla and SpaceX founder is a global superstar and billionaire but I wouldn’t hesitate to reject the offer to trade places with him. His extreme time management technique is to block out his day in 5 minute periods from the moment he wakes up at 7 am. This sounds like my version of hell.
The planning fallacy means we are terrible at predicting how long we will take to do a task. It’s no wonder Elon works 80–120 hours a week when his tasks are crammed in at such a micro-level. This isn’t a badge of honor or the height of productivity. It’s the opposite and out of control.
His Saturday family time includes looking at emails and claims he “can be with them and still be working at the same time”. Arianna Huffington wrote an open letter begging him to bring more balance to his life which he dismissed. He insists on his unsustainable lifestyle while Tesla misses its deadlines.
Elon Musk is extraordinary and a visionary but don’t be inspired to copy him and burn yourself out.
What to do instead:
Work out what matters to you and find a sustainable way to get there. Especially once you are earning enough to sustain your lifestyle, ask yourself if you really want to shave years off your life for career achievements. Make time for rest and play.
Warren Buffet: Obsessively consume your own products
The Sage of Omaha is praised for his investment prowess but, like Steve Jobs, has strange eating habits. What makes Warren an odd case is he aggressively consumes products he owns or has owned in the past.
He has all the bases covered. 5 cherry cokes a day is a dentist’s nightmare. McDonald's for breakfast every day and lunch at least 3 times a week is a doctor’s. He is still active at 88 but don’t be too hasty calling your mother to tell her you were right along and junk food is good for you! Warren’s older sister Doris lived until 92 and his younger sister, Roberta is still alive at 86. Wealth allows them to access the best medical care available.
Warren clearly believes in the companies he invests in but does this blind him to other opinions? Just because he has no problems with such a heavy sugar and salt diet, it doesn’t mean his companies aren’t contributing to obesity and diabetes epidemics across the world. His own consumption can feed his confirmation bias that everything is ok.
What to do instead:
Don’t fall for your own marketing. When you are promoting something which is addictive, follow the typical Hollywood gangster advice of not getting high on your own product. It can distort your view because you are thinking from your perspective rather than your target customers.
Bill Gates: Scream at your cofounder
For my entire adult life, Bill Gates has been a statesman-like philanthropist who does things like try to eradicate malaria. The entrepreneur version of him was a different beast.
Paul Allen, the often forgotten co-founder of Microsoft, revealed all in his autobiography. He recalls a toxic environment where Bill would launch rants at him in front of their staff on a regular basis. Most terribly, Paul overheard Bill complaining about his lack of productivity while he was fighting cancer.
It was a large factor in Paul leaving in 1983 and he told Bill “Some days working with you is like being in hell”. We know Microsoft is now a trillion-dollar company but they stagnated for years under Ballmer and new tech giants rose. Would Paul have directed Microsoft into the areas now dominated by FAANG?
65% of startups fail because of cofounder conflict. It’s often said those who want to achieve big need a ruthless streak but Bill’s behavior could have caused Microsoft’s destruction instead.
What to do instead:
A true cofounder relationship should have no space for an alpha. Rather than looking to impose your will on your partner, split the roles in a way so you both play to your strengths. Many coaches advise their clients to do this with great results such as Jill & Josh Stanton of Screw the 9–5.
Steve Jobs: Eat only one food for weeks on end
It feels like every entrepreneur wants to be the Apple founder but Ashton Kutcher came closest when he plays the genius in the biopic Jobs. Ashton may have hoped method acting would help him become a billionaire but he got pancreatitis instead.
It’s no secret Steve Jobs had an obsessive character and he kept a strict diet which sometimes meant for weeks he would only eat carrots. He continued this behavior even after doctors appealed to him to introduce a more varied diet for his health. He created his own nutrition theory based on two books he read in college, one of which is 100 years old.
Steve believed this diet got him into a flow state and he could self actualize success but he was still confined by a human body. Considering the effect a short period on this diet had on Ashton Kutcher, I hope I don’t have to explain the folly. If Steve had a better diet, how much more brilliance would he have shared with the world?
What to do instead:
Take your dietary advice from nutritionists and doctors not your own interpretation of books. Keep your body and mind healthy to give yourself the best chance for success. Don’t let yourself create an extreme diet because of likely coincidental creative bursts when under duress.
Jeff Bezos: Go on “Nutters” at employees
“Are you lazy or incompetent?”
“I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?”
“If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself.”
I wince as I read those lines but according to Brad Stone’s tell-all book about Amazon culture, they all came from the mouth of Jeff Bezos. When your mood swings are so famous your employees refer to them as “nutters”, you’ve surely got to take a look at who you are as a person.
Some Amazon employees justify this as him being aggressively pro-customer. Yet there is nowhere written in the laws of the universe that you need to disrespect your own staff to achieve this. The customer is king model has led to Bezos being the richest man in the world but at what cost.
Do you want to emulate Bezos and create a culture of fear within your organization? Your employees are real people with needs and in 2020, your star performers will expect better. The leader sets the tone and this can trickle down throughout the business; Amazon has the second-highest employee turnover in the Fortune 500.
What to do instead:
Treat your employees with respect. Who cares if it leads to slightly lower profits as are you willing to sacrifice human decency for money?
All billionaires are human and are afflicted with flaws just like the rest of us. There’s no harm in looking to them for ideas and many of those will be great. Yet be critical about the information you are taking in and find your own way. Don’t forget, we have much more information at our fingertips today than when these titans started their companies. You don’t need to be the person who jumps off the cliff because famous billionaires have.