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How to raise your kids to be billionaires

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BY CHARLIE TIPS

Quora, the popular website where people can post questions on a wide variety of topics to be crowd-answered, was new to me when I came across an intriguing question: What are good ways to prepare my kids to be billionaires? This inquiry had been posted under Money, Parenting and a few other topics. I rolled my eyes. Who would ask such a question? (It turns out lots of people in India, China, and other emerging parts of the world are thinking very much that way.)

No sooner did my eyes settle back down than I realized we had done pretty much that, absent making any certain amount of money a goal—but definitely imparting how to leverage money in the world and create equity. I decided to give a straightforward answer.

To that point my Quora answers, like most, had been receiving a handful of upvotes. My very first—advice on writing—was closing in on a hundred upvotes. “Billionaire Kids” has been viewed on Quora by more than a third of a million people, upvoted more than 5000 times and shared out to other sites more than 100 times. Guess you could call it a hit—but a controversial one.

I was prepared when I first typed it for knee-jerk, anti-capitalist feedback. Indeed, I looked forward to them confronting my portrait of the capitalist as a compassionate person who brings a lot of good to the world—my actual experience. But, thankfully, I have received little of that.

But the troubling feedback was the insistence that this was nothing more than well-to-do parents calling in favors in order to get plum adventures for their kids. No. In fact, I counter that right in the third paragraph, but I guess many readers cannot imagine pulling off such feats without a lot of resources. The secret is that resources are all around us—neighbors and friends who just happen to be stone masons or tinkerers, piano tuners or crime lab directors, instrument makers or coppersmiths. Often, such people would love nothing more than the opportunity to pass along what they know to a member of the future. And what they know is exactly what’s missing from our educational system—the chance to have meaningful close relationships with adults, the mastery of processes from start to finish, tasks that involve coordinating the brain and hands and, especially, having impact in the real world.

Anyone can do this… you have but to ask in order to open up a whole new world of experience for your children. Better yet, have your kids ask. And so, What are good ways to prepare my kids to be billionaires?

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I once had a venture capitalist (VC) tell me that I had come up with more legitimate billion-dollar concepts than anyone he'd ever known. I have friends who went from zero to billionaire status. So, I feel qualified to give you a straight answer. My answer will assume you want them to have the know-how, creativity and value systems to pull it off on their own. Plus, I raised my three sons this way.

Make them aware of the full range of life options.

I told my sons of a remote beach in NW Australia where the climate is magnificent and you can pull lobsters out of the surf two at a time. Build a grass shack. Find a good woman. You're set. At the other end, how did that guy build his love of crafting musical instruments into a $100M business? Take the mystery out of the steps it takes. The world abounds with opportunity to lead whatever life you want, but you have to demystify, demystify, demystify for them to be able to see what makes go businesses go.

Do not send them to public school nor to the prep schools that are just our public schools on steroids.

If you want conventional minds, get them a conventional education. Our oldest started working professionally at age 12. He skipped high school to work. He worked at a corporate branding company in SF Media Gulch. He did at least one project a year with an itinerant filmmaker. He traveled the Maya for several months assisting a woman writing a book, lived with Maya families and interviewed children in Spanish on their beliefs about different plants and animals and the Quiche (or Yucatec or Mam) name for them. He spent two winters in Luzern captaining a dive boat mapping wrecks in the lake. He shot a documentary film in Cuba. (This was not a rich dad buying opportunities for his sons--it was opportunities they earned.)

Teach a love of work.

After you get rich you can coast some. Getting rich takes work. They will need to excel at physical work and have stamina. They will especially need to excel at mental work and be both flexible and tough.

Teach a love of people.

The only way you get rich is by serving the real needs of others. You must have an affinity for others. My household was famous for all the people who came trooping through. People I met stranded at the airport. Japanese Homestay girls. Aux pairs. Local homeless guys dropping by for a shower and a meal. Chinese physicists and Eritrean guerillas had meals with us. Our sons' friends were welcome at any time without prior arrangement. Make sure they understand that they are not above or below anyone else.

Teach generosity.

Those who would receive much must be able to give much. My middle son (11 or so at the time) and I walked across Embarcadero from my office to look at SF Bay. There was one sole figure there, a man in his late 40s with one entire seam of his jeans ripped open. He was playing the spoons and playing them well. We got to chatting. He'd just been let out of San Quentin Prison that morning. I told him time to celebrate. We took him up to my office for a shower, out to buy some clothes and to dinner and gave him money for a room for the night. On the way home, I pointed out to my son that the money I gave the guy was nothing compared with the time we gave him. The only real wealth is the time you have, and whenever you have a chance to use your time well for others, do it and do it fully. Giving money without time can be a way of creating distance.

Teach the mental nexus.

Here falls the shadow. Rational people do not become entrepreneurs. Like combat officers, one is constantly making critical decisions on partial information. One has to take steps without being able to see if there is support there. One must taste failure time and again and be inspired by it. One must be armed with a variety of rationalizations for continuing on despite doubt, buffeting, adverse opinion. Every successful new business gores someone's ox, and those people react in nasty ways. The faces you see each day are now depending on you to make payroll. Pediatric oncologists must be mentally tough to deal with the suffering of others; entrepreneurs must be superhuman to deal with the tragedies they themselves can be the authors of. Trick is, you can't teach that mental nexus if you have not lived it yourself. If you haven't, then apprentice them to someone who has.

Lie, cheat and steal.

I was shocked at my mother's funeral when a brother flatly stated that he'd had a difficult time in life because he'd just assumed everyone was as wonderful as she was. The world is full of assholes and swindlers and your kids will need a radar for it, and they need to suffer the consequences so that they develop an arsenal of techniques for dealing with it. They need to be superb judges of character. You can't teach good behavior by isolating them from bad behavior. There's no satisfactory example here; let's just say that April Fools was big in our house, and not just once a year.

Make them teen outcasts.

Correlating highly with successful entrepreneurs is unfulfilled teen years. Basically, those who are dialed in by 18 stay comfortably dialed in. This is another reason to keep them out of high school. Another high correlation is Fs. Entrepreneurs are highly results-oriented and have little patience with those as process-oriented as teachers. I've talked with VCs who confessed to being a little disappointed if they don't see an F or two on a possible CEO's college transcript. I know I had 'em.

Teach numeracy.

Anyone who can't do math in his head on the fly is going to have a difficult time being an entrepreneur and putting deals together. Schools don't teach this; it's a special, long-term effort.

No allowances. No "Joe" jobs.

Nobody ever got rich working for a living. Trading your time for money is a loser's game. An allowance just teaches a kid to lack resourcefulness—same for teen jobs. My wife and I played VC to our kids. They could ask for any amount of money they wanted but what's the plan? What's your purpose? What are alternatives? They learned to recognize opportunities and pitch them. (Add: If you are going to help them get job jobs, make it in sales--they won't get far without the power to persuade, and it's another thing they won't learn in school.)

Get a grubstake.

Fortunately, my kids went to school with the children of an immigrant couple who left the kids with relatives two straight summers while they went to live in a tent in Alaska and can salmon. They each cleared a wad of cash each summer, and after two years they had a grubstake with which to get into the start-up world. They found some scientists with a bright idea (one that everyone reading this is impacted by many times daily), started the company, got backing and they are billionaires. No grubstake. No billionaires. You can't be a capitalist without capital and the willingness to put it all at risk.

Be worthy.

Finally, the most important thing is they must be worthy. No backing comes to those who lack abundant evident character. I have found the best way to fine-tune morality is to put it entirely on them. Each time a moral decision is called for, it's "Search your heart, son. You have to build your life around what is important to you. The only way I can help you is to tell you how I screwed up sometimes. But the sooner you learn to get in touch with your own feelings of what is right and what is wrong, the better." (But be sure to model right over wrong like crazy to them.)

There is only one path to getting wealthy: exploit opportunity. The whole purpose of what I've stated above is to equip your children with the tools to spot and build on an opportunity to add value to the world.

How will you know you're on the right track? The vast majority of people you meet are inert. One in ten or twelve has scalar energy--they liven up the event. One in a thousand or so has vector energy—the ability to channel effort to a purpose and pull others in their wake. The only way a human being begins to become a vector force is to find and embrace his or her passion, and that can be a bit quirky. For example, our youngest has long been the butt of family jokes for his inability to tell a story. What did his passion turn out to be? Turns out his head was too crammed full of details for each story. Once he learned to animate, his stories were incredible!

You should be getting glimpses of that talent to pursue purpose with passion all along, but it doesn't mature until adult years. It is such a rare thing that schools are not at all equipped to teach it. Even the best MBA programs teach you how to go to work for that guy rather than be that guy. So, if you can pull it off, you will not only have enriched your children, you will have enriched the world.

***

My youngest son, Keaton, replied to my post and added a lovely and complementary counterpoint. For perspective, he is 25 and lives in San Francisco where for two years he has had two partners in an animation and motion graphics studio.

***

Hello everyone, one of the sons of the man who answered this question here.

I'd like to add a new perspective from the view of someone raised on the teachings laid out in the answer.

While I'm not a billionaire, there is definitely merit to what was said. My dad did indeed raise us in the way he describes.

First off, I'd like to state that I have no intention of becoming a billionaire. Screw that. That's a life sentence headache right there. I wouldn't wish that upon anyone.

But that's not to say I do not wish to be wealthy and successful. Personally, I'd like to live a life of comfort with the family I hope to one day support. That's most people's dream I think. But the main lesson I learned from my father barely hinted at above is "shit happens." What my goals are and what manifests in reality are two different things. Some of my ventures will fail. And I'm okay with that. They may all fail. Fine.

Invest in the process. I enjoy the pursuit. And so far, things have gone pretty well as a result.

My brother was a two-time Emmy award winning cinematographer before he was 30 as a result of loving what he does.

He is absolutely right about not sending your kids to conventional school. I went to a "hippy" school; really, a transcendental Quaker school. There were no grades. You couldn't tell how you fared with your classmates. And half of the day was recess. 3 hours to do whatever I wanted.

No grades? Yeah, no pressure of performance. Just a fantastic school environment that let you love learning. 

3 hours? Yeah, 3 hours to figure out what to do with my own time. My time. My life. 

I spent it—as with everyone else—pursuing other outlets for education. Whether it be in the art room, the weaving room, the clay room, the science room, the music room, the wood shop, or so much more. 

I spent a lot of time in the wood shop and science room and clay room. That's where I could create contraptions and potions and creatures. Starting in 5th grade, a group of friends and I would spend every Thursday afternoon in the library drinking tea, eating doughnut holes and playing anagrams with the librarian. 

Every now and again, I enjoyed lazing around, too. 

But the point is I loved school. In fact, I still love learning. That itch never went away. 

I went to a public high school with grades and textbooks and homework and other students who have only spent their time in public schooling with underpaid teachers and it was incredibly dull and pointless and erroneous just like this sentence. 

But I got good grades. Because I still liked learning. Even if I wasn't the best student, I was still the teachers’ favorite, because I was engaged in class. I treated the teacher like the rest of my peers, not as an authority figure, which seems to be a rule taught in public schools. 

I wish I had taken my dad's advice and traveled the world instead of going to high school. It would have been a lot more impressive to colleges when I was applying. 

(By the way, I never failed a class ever. Sorry, dad. But I did fail plenty of tests and assignments and refused to do homework I deemed a waste of time.)

There are some negative effects of this method. Growing up I've been fascinated by so many things. I've seen myself down so many paths. I've struggled for so long trying to focus on one skill, trade or career. I still haven't. When I come across something new and exciting, I try my hand at it until I can consider myself decent at it. But I'm okay with that. Sometimes those small quirks help out in the long run. Sometimes in the short. 

And lastly, let it be known that there is not a single set of parents out there I would rather have than the ones I got. You can't pick your parents and my brothers and I hit the jackpot. While my parents let us learn most things on our own, they let us make plenty of mistakes (they had a really tough time to get me to make any), they didn't try to structure our lives, they didn't force ideals or expectations upon us, and they encouraged our every interest. And they did so because they trusted us.

Oh, and we weren't a wealthy family. My dad came really close a few times. And to be honest, I'm glad we never were. I'm glad I grew up without that net. I'm afraid to think of who I may have been.

So not only is this great advice to raise a successful child, it is great advice to nurture a healthy family, rich or poor.

Love you, dad, and to the readers, I hope this gave a little more insight. And I apologize if this came off as pompous. I'm just... passionate.

Charles Tips, now retired to Flower Mound, Texas, is a former science editor, retailer and Silicon Valley venture entrepreneur.

Photo via The UMF/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)