These self-made millionaires did one thing in school that made their fortunes (that had nothing to do with good grades)

Self-made multimillionaires are more likely to have played competitive sports or run businesses on the side while at school than to have received top grades, new research suggests.

They are also more likely to be over-optimistic in general, to learn from experience instead of analysis, and to be abrasive characters who are comfortable in conflict with others.

So argues social scientist and author Rainer Zitelmann, author of “The Wealth Elite,” which is based on an extensive review of academic research into the minds and habits of the super-rich as well as several dozen deep interviews with self-made multimillionaires.

These findings may help individuals understand better the characteristics likely to lead to riches, but undermine what middle-class parents tell their children about homework and grades.

His findings may help individuals understand better the psychological characteristics likely to lead to riches, but also to undermine what a lot of middle-class parents tell their children about homework and grades.

While everyone is different, Zitelman found that some strong patterns emerged when looking at the personalities of those who had built substantial personal fortunes by their own efforts. “There is a correlation between the success of these people and their psychological traits,” he said.

The traits were apparent as early as school, he said. There was “absolutely no correlation at all” between their grades at school and whether they went on to make a fortune, he said. “Those who were best at school were not among the richest.”

The 45 people interviewed in this new book were more likely to have excelled at competitive sports, run a business on the side while studying, or both. Half were competitive athletes.

Instead, he said, those he interviewed were more likely to have excelled at competitive sports, run a business on the side while studying, or both.

“Half of them were competitive athletes,” he said, and this was no coincidence. From sports, successful entrepreneurs told him, “they learned how to deal with victory.”

“More important,” he added, “they learned how to deal with defeat. They always took responsibility for their victories, but also for their failures. They always blamed themselves.” As several told him, when things went wrong, “I can’t blame my competitors. I can’t blame the market.”

The other common characteristic from their school days is that many of those who went on to make a fortune often ran their own businesses on the side, Zitelman found. This did not include just holding an outside job. “Someone who worked for an hourly wage was the exception,” he said.

‘Very importantly, they were engaged in sales. These early careers in sales were much more important than what they learned in school.’

—Rainer Zitelmann, author of ‘The Wealth Elite.’

Instead, he found future multimillionaires were running their own businesses, where they had to think like entrepreneurs and work with customers. “Very importantly, they were engaged in sales,” he said. “These early careers in sales were much more important than what they learned in school.”

In a further blow to the importance of school work, Zitelmann said his subjects learned far more from doing than from reading, and relied on intuition and “gut instinct” more than analysis.

“Gut feeling is the result of this learning by doing,” he said. “This ‘implicit’ knowledge was much more important than what they learned at school.”

For his book, Zitelmann conducted detailed interviews with 45 self-made multimillionaires across multiple industries in Germany. Most had a net worth between 30 million euros and 1 billion euros, or around $35 million to $1.15 billion. All had either made their fortunes from scratch, or had multiplied an inheritance many times over. His findings are consistent with other studies of the mentalities of successful entrepreneurs in the U.S. and elsewhere, he observed.

They are more likely to be over-optimistic, to learn from experience, and to be abrasive characters who are comfortable in conflict with others.

But he warned that we are still learning about what makes these people different. The subject of how to become super-rich is studied surprisingly little by academics, he said. And we shouldn’t over-generalize or over-simply the findings. Everyone is unique.

But his interviews revealed further patterns shared by many or most of his subjects.

They were typically more comfortable than most with interpersonal conflict: “Their ‘agreeableness’ is not so high,” he said, referring to one of the so-called “Big Five” personality traits tracked by psychologists.

They were also, on average, more conscientious than the average person, more open to new experiences and more extroverted. “They liked swimming against the stream,” he said. The preferred to take a “contrarian approach,” he added. “They do things differently, they think differently. If you do things like everyone else, you will not make yourself rich.”

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