By age 25 John D. Rockefeller controlled one of the largest oil refineries in the nation.
By age 31 he had become the world’s largest oil refiner.
By age 38 he commanded 90% of the oil refined in the U.S.
By the time of his retirement at age 58, he was the richest man in the country.
By the time he died, he had become the richest man in the world.
The methodology by which Rockefeller gained dominance of the oil industry and amassed his wealth has long been the subject of debate. He has been alternately lionized and pilloried, according to the temper of the times and the side of his character being examined.
To critics, Rockefeller was a ruthless and greedy capitalist, who unfairly crushed his competition and created a malevolent monopoly. To champions, he was a business genius (he never had a year where he didn’t make a profit, flourishing even in recessions) who embodied the ideal of the self-made man, stabilized a volatile industry, created jobs, brought down the price of oil (it dropped 80% during the life of Standard Oil), and became history’s greatest philanthropist.
Indeed, as Rockefeller’s preeminent biographer Ron Chernow puts it, “Seldom has history produced such a contradictory figure.” In studying his life, one finds evidence for both portraits of the man, and of a character far more nuanced than those fond of either apologetics or polemics acknowledge. As Chernow concludes, “his good side was every bit as good as his bad side was bad.”
Fortunately, one need not agree with his bad side to learn from his good. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that a man would be well served in learning the set of what were essentially Rockefeller’s morally neutral tactics, and deciding for himself to which use to put them. For many of the fundamental principles this industrial titan employed to build his empire can be applied towards attaining success in any endeavor.
Today we will delve into just what those principles are.
The Rockefellian Key to Success: Be Your Own Tyrant
If there was one overarching principle to Rockefeller’s success, it is contained within this maxim of his:
“I would rather be my own tyrant than have some one else tyrannize me.”
Rockefeller’s most striking quality was what Chernow calls his almost “eerie self-control.” He relentlessly honed his will, training himself to be master of his emotions, desires, and schedule, so that he could direct all his impulses towards his aims. He set big goals for himself, and then attacked them with a disciplined, workaday ethic.
Rockefeller understood that if you wish to be your own boss, you have to learn how to boss yourself.
Here’s exactly how he did so:
Practice Relentless Persistence
“Do not many of us who fail to achieve big things … fail because we lack concentration — the art of concentrating the mind on the thing to be done at the proper time and to the exclusion of everything else?” –John D. Rockefeller
There was little in Rockefeller’s upbringing that would portend his meteoric rise.
He was born in a clapboard house in New York in 1839. His mother was a solid, religious woman, but his father, William Avery Rockefeller, was essentially a snake oil salesman, who was gone from home for weeks and sometimes months at a time, selling his “botanical” cures and living as a secret bigamist with another family. The Rockefellers had enough money to get by on, but their finances were perennially uncertain, dependent on when “Devil Bill” would show up, and how much money he would bring upon his return.
Young John grew up helping work the family farm and tending to his younger siblings. But he had his eye set on greater things, and earnestly desired to rise in the world. How he would do so was not immediately clear. In school, he was considered dim-witted and slow at his studies, and made little impression on his classmates, who, after his ascent to fame, struggled to remember much about him. As one recalled, “I have no recollection of John excelling at anything…There was nothing about him to make anybody pay especial attention to him or speculate about his future.”
Yet the same former classmate did make this addendum: “I do remember he worked hard at everything; not talking much, and studying with great industry.” Here we find what would be one of the secrets to Rockefeller’s success; in his own words, while he wasn’t “brilliant,” he was “reliable.” He went about his schoolwork with patient persistence. “I was not an easy student,” he said, “and I had to apply myself diligently to prepare my lessons.”
Rockefeller did find he had a knack for numbers, and he dropped out of high school to become better acquainted with their management. Enrolling in a 3-month business course at a commercial college, he learned the basics of bookkeeping, penmanship, and banking, and then graduated at age 16 ready to move up in the world.
Eager to escape the orbit of his disreputable father and become an autonomous and self-reliant young man, Rockefeller left his rural home in Ohio (where his family had moved) to start his own life in Cleveland and find his very first job.
Rockefeller attacked this goal with the same patient persistence he had applied to his schoolwork. Wanting to find a position with a large and reputable establishment in which he’d have the greatest opportunities for learning and advancement, he made a list of the merchants, banks, and railroads with the highest credit ratings. Each day Rockefeller put on a dark suit, shaved, shined his shoes, and hit the pavement making inquires about town. “At each firm,” Chernow writes, “he asked to speak to the top man — who was usually unavailable — then got straight to the point with an assistant: ‘I understand bookkeeping, and I’d like to get work.’”
As Rockefeller remembered, the job market was tight, and the response was not encouraging: “No one wanted a boy, and very few showed any overwhelming anxiety to talk with me on the subject.” Yet young John D. was not at all discouraged. A return to his home, and to dependence, was unthinkable. When he had gone through his whole list without an offer, he simply started at the top, and visited every establishment again, sometimes dropping into the same business three times. He treated his job search just like his job: “I was working every day at my business — the business of looking for work. I put in my full time at this every day.”
Thus from morning until later afternoon, six days a week, for six weeks — sweating through Cleveland’s hot summer, walking its streets ‘til his feet ached — Rockefeller continued to seek a position. Finally, on September 26, 1855, he heard the words he’d been waiting for: “We’ll give you a chance.” The small produce firm of Hewitt & Tuttle was in urgent need of an assistant bookkeeper, and told Rockefeller to take off his coat and get to work right away.
Ever after, Rockefeller referred to this date as “Job Day” and celebrated its anniversary with more gusto than his own birthday. For this was the great turning point in his life. Through singular focus on a goal, and patient persistence in its attainment, he had obtained a toehold in the world of business, and would use it as a springboard in making his improbable climb from lowly bookkeeper to corporate titan.
Cultivate Unassailable Poise and Reserve
“His usual attitude towards all men was one of deep reserve, concealed beneath commonplaces and humorous anecdotes. He had the art with friends and guests of chatting freely, of calling out others, but of revealing little or nothing of his own innermost thoughts.” –Frederick T. Gates, Rockefeller’s financial advisor
As a boy, John D.’s mother taught him: “Control of self wins the battle, for it means control of others.”
He took that maxim to heart, adopting a far different leadership style than the stereotypical corporate tycoon, cultivating a power that relied not on loud, blustering displays and belligerent table-pounding, but quiet authority and a sphinx-like demeanor.
As a young man he had struggled with his temper, but he had trained himself to control it, and moved through the rest of life with exceptional equanimity, remaining poised and unruffled no matter the circumstances. “Even as a teenager,” Chernow notes, “Rockefeller was extremely composed in a crisis…The more agitated others became, the calmer he grew.” This unflappability was accompanied by a studied reserve; though he was far warmer and genial than often pictured in the public imagination, he typically revealed little of his thoughts, even to close associates, and secreted himself in a shroud of privacy.
Such a stance was not simply a matter of preference or personality, but a deliberate tactical strategy; mastering his moods, reactions, and expressions and living another of his favorite maxims — “Success comes from keeping the ears open and the mouth closed” — gave Rockefeller an incomparable edge.
In dealing with employees, no matter how far down the ladder, he never lost his cool, even when they presented him with grievances. As one refinery worker recalled:
“He always had a nod and a kind word for everybody. He never forgot anyone. We had some trying times in the business in those early years, but I’ve never seen Mr. Rockefeller when he was not friendly and kind and unruffled. Nothing excited him.”
Chernow notes that many of his other subordinates corroborated this description of their boss, saying that he never “raised his voice, uttered a profane or slang word, or acted discourteously.” Such behavior won Rockefeller “excellent reviews from employees who regarded him as fair and benevolent, free of petty temper and dictatorial airs.”
Believing there was strength in silence, Rockefeller listened far more than he talked in his meetings with the men at the top as well, and this air of almost supernatural calm only heightened his influence in the boardroom. As Chernow explains, “The quieter he was, the more forceful his presence seemed, and he played on his mystique as the resident genius immune to petty concerns.” Rockefeller in fact sometimes napped, or seemed to, on a couch in the directors’ conference room, only opening his eyes from time to time to add a comment to the proceedings.
Even when his associates engaged in heated debate, the chairman of Standard Oil maintained his composure. As one director recalled, “I have seen board meetings, when excited men shouted profanity and made menacing gestures, but Mr. Rockefeller, maintaining the utmost courtesy, continued to dominate the room.”
When dealing with adversaries, Rockefeller’s reserve worked to upset their balance. His long silences while negotiating deals often threw members of the other party off their game, tying them up in self-defeating knots.
Virtually immune to intimidation, he answered the questions of hostile interrogators in a slow, cool, dignified way that frustrated their purposes. Rockefeller loved to tell the story of the time an irate contractor burst into his office and laid into him with an angry tirade. Rockefeller sat with back turned, hunched over a writing desk until the tongue-lashing ran its course. Then he spun around in his swivel chair, faced the scold, and coolly asked, “I didn’t catch what you were saying. Would you mind repeating that?”
Colleagues and rivals alike found him hard to read — for one thing he had practiced the ability to maintain a perfect poker face when receiving a letter or telegram to conceal the kind of news it contained — and equally hard to reach. He wouldn’t see unsolicited visitors in his office, and those who wished to meet with him had to make their approach by letter. As Chernow observes, “His remoteness frustrated opponents, who felt they were boxing with a ghost.”
Rockefeller also vigilantly maintained his privacy when it came to the press, routinely turning down interview requests, especially early in his career. Not only did he simply dislike anyone prying into his business, but he believed that familiarity bred contempt, and that the less access you gave the media, the more you preserved the public’s fascination. Plus, he felt that speaking with journalists was an easy way to unintentionally share a trade secret that was best kept close to the vest.
Even when the press criticized him, as famous muckrakers like Ida Tarbell did to great acclaim and attention, Rockefeller chose to keep silent. He rarely even read these critiques, not because he couldn’t take feedback — he actively solicited it up and down the Standard Oil ladder — but because he disdained criticism from those he felt lacked sufficient skin in the game. “It is one thing to stand on the comfortable ground of placid inaction and put forth words of cynical wisdom,” he said, “and another to plunge into the work itself and through strenuous experience earn the right to express strong conclusions.”
Though critiques he felt were misguided or outright wrong did get under his skin, he controlled his urge to react, leading one of his partners to exclaim: “John, you have a hide like a rhinoceros!” This ironclad restraint came from his inner-directed nature – he simply didn’t crave the approval of others, especially those he didn’t respect.
His membership in the “never complain, never explain” school of response is perhaps best explained by an anecdote recalled by a friend. The two men were walking around Rockefeller’s estate, with his companion urging him to respond to his critics. By way of an answer, Rockefeller pointed to a caterpillar crossing their path: “If I step on that worm I will call attention to it,” he said. “If I ignore it, it will disappear.”
Check Your Ego
“Only fools get swelled up over money.” –John D. Rockefeller
From the above description, it may seem like Rockefeller was a prideful man. But this was far from the case. Throughout his life he assiduously cultivated his humility. From the very start of his career, he keenly understood the way that power and wealth could lead to hubris, and intentionally trained himself not to be guided by ego.
As his net worth began to steadily increase as a young man, he repeated proverbs like “Pride goeth before a fall” to himself throughout the day. And at night, he would engage in an introspective examination of the state of his soul and his ego. Lying in bed, he would meditate on the volatility of the oil industry and the potential transience of his success, giving himself admonishments like:
“You’ve got a fair fortune. You have a good property — now. But suppose the oil fields gave out!”
“Because you have got a start, you think you are quite a merchant; look out, or you will lose your head — go steady. Are you going to let this money puff you up? Keep your eyes open. Don’t lose your balance.”
Such self-scrutiny, Rockefeller believed, helped him keep his head on straight: “These intimate conversations with myself, I’m sure, had a great influence on my life. I was afraid I could not stand my prosperity, and tried to teach myself not to get puffed up with any foolish notions.”
Rockefeller’s membership in a faith community also aided him in keeping a level head. As a teenager, he had been baptized into the Erie Street Baptist Church (later the Euclid Avenue Baptist Church), a small mission church attended by largely lower middle-class congregants. Rockefeller diligently attended its Friday night prayer services, as well as two Sabbath day services, and sought to serve the church however he could. He not only led prayers and taught Sunday school, but functioned as the church’s volunteer clerk and even janitor. As a fellow congregant remembered, no work was beneath him and he took care of whatever was needed:
“In those years…Rockefeller might have been found there any Sunday sweeping out the halls, building a fire, lighting the lamps, cleaning the walks, ushering the people to their seats, studying the bible, praying, singing, performing all the duties of an unselfish and thorough going church member…He was nothing but a clerk, and had little money, and yet he gave something to every organization in the little, old church.”
Even as he grew into the richest man in the country, Rockefeller didn’t defect to a more “high-status” mainline denomination or switch to attending one of the more well-to-do churches frequented by his tony peers. Instead, he prized the chance to rub shoulders with folks “in the most humble of circumstances” all the more, and never wanted to lose his connection with common people.
Inside and outside the church, Rockefeller was perennially interested in and curious about other people — no matter their walk of life. Wherever he went he asked those he met about themselves, and he listened attentively to what they had to say.
At work, this interest in others extended both up and down the corporate ladder.
His visits to the oil fields earned him the nickname “the Sponge” for the way in which he keenly observed and absorbed all the information he could about how things were running. He conversed not only with those overseeing the operation, but with the rough wildcatters who were actually doing the drilling.
When touring Standard Oil’s refining facilities, he consistently asked supervisors how things could be improved, made a note of their suggestions in the pocket notebook he always carried with him, and then unfailingly followed-up on their ideas.
Such exchanges were motivated by Rockefeller’s bedrock belief that “It is very important to remember what other people tell you, not so much what you yourself already know.”
At the meetings of Standard Oil’s directors, Rockefeller sat not at the head of the conference table (a chair he in fact ceded to the director with whom he had the most conflict), but amongst his colleagues. He solicited everyone else’s opinions before offering his own, and even when he did, he framed his ideas as suggestions or questions. Rather than trying to unilaterally enforce his will, he always talked in terms of “we” rather than “I,” encouraged compromise, and required all decisions to be made by consensus. As Chernow observes, far from this management style chafing his ego, Rockefeller happily delegated responsibilities and “applauded the committee system as relegating him to a fifth wheel.” Indeed, he liked to manage every level of Standard Oil with a light touch that allowed for the maximum autonomy of all his colleagues and subordinates.
Even in his philanthropy, Rockefeller submerged his ego. Unlike many charitable patrons who wanted their name plastered on everything, Rockefeller typically preferred to be a silent, invisible partner in the projects he funded. He specifically asked that buildings not be named after him (though benefactors sometimes insisted), and rarely visited the facilities he brought to life, not wishing to draw attention away from the good work being done, and towards himself.
To Get Wealthy, Have a Purpose Beyond Getting Wealthy
“I know of nothing more despicable and pathetic than a man who devotes all the hours of the waking day to the making of money for money’s sake.” –John D. Rockefeller
“The man who starts out simply with the idea of getting rich won’t succeed; you must have a larger ambition.” –JDR
From the time he was a young man, Rockefeller wanted to become wealthy, and he was certainly driven at times in his career by simple avarice. But importantly, his motivation in building his empire did not rest solely on the desire to be rich, but was rather undergirded by satisfactions and purposes outside the acquisitive.
First, he simply enjoyed his work — enjoyed the identity, autonomy, and challenge (no matter how seemingly mundane) it presented. In his first job as a bookkeeper, he toiled from dawn ‘til late in the evening not only to impress his superiors but because the work “was delightful to me — all the method and system of the office.” While others found ledger books dreary and dry, John D. found them inexhaustibly interesting. He loved poring over the figures — putting them in order, ferreting out errors, making sense of the data.
In all his positions throughout his career, he always found something new to learn, and to seek to improve. “The zest of the work,” he said, “is maintained by something better than the mere accumulation of money.”
As Rockefeller moved up in the world, he worked not just for the sake of its inherent satisfactions, nor only to make more money, but rather had his eye on two larger purposes.
First, he wanted to pioneer a new way of doing business. The oil industry was full of investors seeking immediate results — speculators who hoped to hit a gusher and become instantly wealthy. These start-ups had a short-term perspective that created a path of destruction — both in the economy and the natural landscape they gutted in search of black gold.
Rockefeller had a different vision for what the oil industry could become, one built on a long-term perspective, and the desire to create something sustainable and lasting. In helping to develop the principles of vertical and horizontal integration, and the structure of the trust, he sought to bring organization and stability to the chaotic industry, and in so doing, created the mold of the modern corporation. His goal was nothing less than an economic revolution, one he believed would benefit the nation as a whole. As Rockefeller explained his aim:
“I had no ambition to make a fortune. Mere money making has never been my goal. I saw a marvelous future for our country, and I wanted to participate in the work of making our country great. I had an ambition to build.”
Of course, not everyone felt that this new way of doing business was a good thing, but Rockefeller himself earnestly believed it was a benevolent pursuit — he saw his life’s greatest work as stabilizing industry, creating jobs, and bringing down the price of kerosene, and then gasoline, thus making it affordable and accessible to the masses.
What added to Rockefeller’s sense of purpose in building his industrial empire, was that the more money he made, the more he could give away. As a boy, his mother had always encouraged him to put some of his pocket change in a collection plate at church, and the philanthropic impulse never left him, and only grew along with his wealth.
In his first year as a bookkeeper, while earning a salary that barely allowed him to get by, Rockefeller gave around 6%, and sometimes more, of his income to charity. By time he was 20, he was consistently giving over 10%. Young Rockefeller was ecumenical in his giving, donating not just to his church, and to individual congregants in need, but to a mission in the notorious Five Points district of NYC, a Catholic church, and, in a move that was fairly unusual for the time, to charities that aided African-Americans.
In later life, he funded great, ambitious undertakings, including universities, medical research institutes, black schools in the South, and health campaigns around the globe. By the time of his death, he had given away almost $540 million dollars.
Rockefeller saw wealth accumulation like any other vocation or calling, saying:
“I believe the power to make money is a gift from God — just as are the instincts for art, music, literature, the doctor’s talent, the nurse’s, yours — to be developed and used to the best of our ability for the good of mankind. Having been endowed with the gift I possess, I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money, and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of my conscience.”
Paradoxically enough, wealth often comes as a kind of by-product of the pursuit of other goals, rather than from the pursuit of it itself, and having purposes over and above the mere attainment of money is arguably part of what facilitated Rockefeller’s success. His greater goals fostered a deeper motivation, and a more long-term perspective; rather than myopically chasing immediate results, he was able to focus on building something lasting.
Pay Attention to the Details
Chernow writes that “Rockefeller seemed destined to succeed as much from his fastidious work habits as from innate intelligence,” and the man himself admitted to having “a passion for detail.”
If anything, this was an understatement.
In his personal appearance, Rockefeller always presented himself well-groomed and neatly dressed. His face was always shaved, and his shoes were perennially shined.
When it came to appointments, he was religiously punctual, believing that “A man has no right to occupy another man’s time unnecessarily.”
He kept his own personal routine to a T — allotting a certain time for business, family, faith, and hobbies, and sticking to that planned schedule down to the second.
In business deals, he always paid his debts and fulfilled his contracts on time.
In dictating letters to his secretaries, he would work his way through 5-6 drafts, refining the wording in each round until he felt it was just right and best conveyed his intent.
Signing these letters was a precise process in and of itself. As an aide remembered, “I have seen him sign his name to hundreds of papers at a sitting. He did each signature carefully as if this particular one was to be the only one by which he was to be remembered for all time. Each signature became in his mind a work of art.”
And of course, when it came to bookkeeping, Rockefeller’s zeal knew no bounds. Early in his career, he “learned to have great respect for figures and facts, no matter how small they were.” If there was a tiny error on an invoice, Rockefeller noticed it. If he was due a few cents more than he was paid, he requested the oversight remedied.
As the chairman of Standard Oil, he was consistently on top of all the numbers being generated by his sprawling empire, as they allowed him to objectively track the health of its various sectors, and to know when the data didn’t match what he was hearing from his subordinates. As Chernow writes, “It was the way that he extended rationality from the top of his organization down to the lowest rung: Every cost in the Standard Oil universe was computed to several decimal places.” Or in other words, Rockefeller was a big believer in the maxim, “What gets measured gets managed.”
His left hand always knew what his right hand was doing, and he scoffed at rivals who lacked such knowledge: “Many of the brightest kept their books in such a way that they did not actually know when they were making money on a certain operation and when they were losing.”
Some found this obsession with the details overly methodical and exacting, but Rockefeller knew that tiny corrections could end up making a large, lasting impact. For example, while touring a plant he saw that 40 drops of solder were being used to seal kerosene cans destined for export. He asked the foreman to try sealing them with 38 drops; some leaked with 38, but none with 39, and so the switch was made. Rockefeller recalled:
“That one drop of solder saved $2,500 the first year: but the export business kept on increasing after that and doubled, quadrupled — became immensely greater than it was then: and the saving has gone steadily along, one drop on each can, and has amounted since to many hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Live Frugally (Even When You Don’t Have To)
In looking back on the factors that most shaped the trajectory of his success, Rockefeller believed that one of the most important was his decision to track all of his spending and saving. Starting as a young man, John D. had kept a strict accounting of his finances in a small, red pocket notebook he dubbed “Ledger A.” Even as an old man, he kept it in a safety deposit vault like a sacred relic — which to him it was — a device which had taught him the value of a dollar, or a cent, and thus influenced the outcome of his whole life.
During his lean days as an assistant bookkeeper in Cleveland, making sure his income outpaced his expenditures was a matter of necessity, and he lived as spartanly as possible. As he remembered of the time: “I wore a thin overcoat and thought how comfortable I should be when I could afford a long, thick Ulster. I carried a lunch in my pocket until I was a rich man. I trained myself in the school of self-control and self-denial.”
Even after he accumulated massive wealth, and his personal account books became far denser and more complicated than when he was a boy, rather than outsourcing their auditing to a professional, he pored over the ledgers himself, correcting the tiniest of errors, and, just like in his business life, disputed bills that were inaccurate by a cent or two.
And though he now could afford just about any conceivable entry in the expenditures column, Rockefeller continued to live frugally — relative to his vaunted station in life, of course. He bought and built large houses, but they were always relatively modest compared to what he could have afforded, and what his fellow robber barons constructed. Inner-directed as he was, he designed and decorated his homes not to impress others, but merely to please himself and his family, and chose a style that eschewed ostentation. This discretion was not only related to his frugality, but also to his aforementioned reserve — he liked to live in a way that masked the true size of his fortune.
Rockefeller kept up his thrifty habits throughout his life as well. He would save the paper and string from packages that arrived in the mail, wear out his suits until they had become almost threadbare, and go though the house at night turning off gas lamps that had been left on. When playing golf, he always used old balls around tricky traps, since they had a good chance of becoming lost. When he saw others using new balls, he’d exclaim in surprise, “They must be very rich!” At the holidays, he and his wife exchanged practical gifts like pens or gloves, and then wrote each other effusive thank you notes, extolling how much they appreciated the present.
The Rockefellers were eager to pass on their frugal ways to their four children, who they understandably worried would grow up to be spoiled adults.
In an attempt to combat this, and impress upon their children an appreciation for what they had, the Rockefellers tried to keep them from grasping the extent of their wealth. They never visited their father’s refineries and offices, and Rockefeller ran his household like a mini, merit-based economy. Following in his footsteps, each child was required to keep their own accounting books, and they could earn pocket money by doing things like repairing vases, killing flies, pulling weeds, chopping wood, and abstaining from candy. The children wore hand-me-down clothing, and received only a modest number of gifts and toys. For example, when they all asked for bicycles, Rockefeller decided against getting a bike for each, and instead opted to buy only one they would need to learn to share. “Amazingly enough,” Chernow notes, “the four children probably grew up with a level of creature comforts not that far above what Rockefeller had known as a boy.”
Rockefeller not only tried to impart the value of money to his children, but later to his grandchildren as well. When he visited them, he would give each a nickel, accompanied by a kiss and this admonishment:
“Do you know what would hurt grandfather a great deal? To know that any of you boys should become wasteful, extravagant, careless with his money…Be careful, boys, and then you’ll always be able to help unfortunate people. That is your duty, and you must never forget it.”
Rockefeller’s frugality for frugality’s sake represented a commitment to a life principle — a stance, an attitude — that he wished to maintain even when thrift no longer served a “practical” purpose. It served as a check to ego and a continual reorientation towards wealth — a reminder not to take it for granted, an acknowledgement of its potential transience, and a reaffirmation of the ability to go without.
In a way, Rockefeller’s frugality wasn’t about money at all — but rather a way to exercise the muscle that had generated his success in the first place and continued to hold it all together: self-mastery.
In continuing to be his own tyrant, he ensured the retention of his throne.
Last updated: June 29, 2017