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Before he was an oilman, John D. Rockefeller was a bookkeeper and aspiring investor—a small-time financier in Cleveland, Ohio. The son of a criminal who’d abandoned his family, the young Rockefeller took his first job in 1855 at the age of sixteen (a day he celebrated as “Job Day” for the rest of his life). All was well enough at fifty cents a day.
Then the panic struck. Specifically, the Panic of 1857, a massive financial crisis that originated in Ohio and hit Cleveland particularly hard. As businesses failed and the price of grain plummeted across the country, westward expansion quickly came to a halt. The result was a crippling national depression that lasted for several years.
It was a situation similar to what we’re in today with COVID-19. Business closed, the stock market plummeted, and bankruptcies skyrocketed.
Rockefeller could have gotten scared. Here was the greatest market depression in history and it hit him just as he was finally getting the hang of things. He could have pulled out and run like his father. He could have quit finance altogether for a different career with less risk. But even as a young man, Rockefeller had sangfroid: unflappable coolness under pressure. He could keep his head while he was losing his shirt. Better yet, he kept his head while everyone else lost theirs. “The more agitated others became,” biographer Ron Chernow wrote, “the calmer he grew.”
It echoed what Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations nearly 2,000 years before:
“Be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.”
And so instead of bemoaning this economic upheaval, Rockefeller, like Marcus, observed the momentous events. Almost perversely, he chose to look at it all as an opportunity to learn, a baptism in the market. He quietly saved his money and watched what others did wrong. He saw the weaknesses in the economy that many took for granted and how this left them all unprepared for change or shocks.
The same choice we have in front of us today.
From the first crisis he experienced, Rockefeller internalized an important lesson that would stay with him forever: The market was inherently unpredictable and often vicious—only the rational and disciplined mind could hope to profit from it. Speculation led to disaster, he realized, and he needed to always ignore the “mad crowd” and its inclinations. There is always a countermove, always a way through, a path is always there for those willing to look for it then take it.
It was this intense self-discipline and objectivity that allowed Rockefeller to seize advantage from obstacle after obstacle in his life, during the Civil War, and the panics of 1873, 1907, and 1929. As he once put it: He was inclined to see the opportunity in every disaster. To that we could add: He had the strength to resist temptation or excitement, no matter how seductive, no matter the situation.
For the rest of his life, the greater the chaos, the calmer Rockefeller would become, particularly when others around him were either panicked or mad with greed. He would make much of his fortune during these market fluctuations—because he could see while others could not. This insight lives on today in Warren Buffet’s famous adage to “be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.” Rockefeller, like all great investors, could resist impulse in favor of cold, hard common sense.
Was he born this way? No. This was learned behavior. And Rockefeller got this lesson in discipline somewhere. It began in that crisis of 1857. In what he called “the school of adversity and stress.”
“Oh, how blessed young men are who have to struggle for a foundation and beginning in life,” he once said. “I shall never cease to be grateful for the three and half years of apprenticeship and the difficulties to be overcome, all along the way.”
Or as another stoic Epictetus said:
“The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic-class material.”
Of course, many people experienced the same perilous times as Rockefeller—they all attended the same school of bad times. But few reacted as he did—without the pestilence of panic or fear. Few had the discipline in perception to see clearly that there is a proper course of action in every situation. Not many had trained themselves to see opportunity inside this obstacle, that what befell them was not unsalvageable misfortune but the gift of education—a chance to learn from a rare moment in economic history.
A rare moment much like we’re in now with COVID-19. The stock market has lost 30% in the past month. The US government announced an unprecedented $2 trillion bailout package. Many people will face real crises, many will not emerge from the other side stronger. We can see disaster rationally. Or rather, like Rockefeller, we can see opportunity in every disaster, and transform this crisis into an education, a skill set, or a fortune. Seen properly, everything that happens is a chance to move forward. If we are able:
- To be objective
- To control emotions and keep an even keel
- To choose to see the good in a situation
- To create opportunities
- To exercise patience
- To take advantage of the mistakes less disciplined people make
- To steady our nerves
- To embrace the present moment
- To focus on what we control
As many have said, we are living through history. It’s up to you if you’ll see this as just a crisis, or as an opportunity. Will you lose your emotions, or remain calm? Will you focus on playing the blame game, feeling sorry for yourself or on your response? What will you do next? That’s the question.
Desperation, despair, fear, powerlessness—these reactions are functions of our perceptions. You must realize: Nothing makes us feel this way, as the Stoics would say, events are objective. Our opinions make them “positive” or “negative.” We choose to give in to such feelings. Or, like Rockefeller, Marcus Aurelius, or Epictetus, choose not to.
And it is precisely at this divergence—between how Rockefeller perceived his environment and how the rest of the world typically does—that his nearly incomprehensible success was born.
This is your opportunity to develop your own cautious self-confidence. To perceive what others see as negative, as something to be approached rationally, clearly, and, most important, as an opportunity—not as something to fear or bemoan.
BY RYAN HOLIDAY
Will You Choose Alive Time Or Dead Time?
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