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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.”
“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.