3 Lessons on Success from a Billionaire and an Ascetic Leader

Some might think that Stephen A. Schwarzman and Mahatma Gandhi couldn’t be any further apart from one another. As different as they may seem these two extraordinary men both came from humble beginnings to become world renowned. I just started reading Stephen’s new book and Gandhi’s autobiography at the same time. Even in their early years you can see similarities in their trajectories. In Stephen you have an overly ambitious founder of one of the world’s leading asset managers, and one of the richest men in the world. In Monhandas Karamchand Gandhi, you have an ascetic seeker of truth, political and civil rights activist, and a staunch opponent of colonial rule.

Below are three main similarities that I found in common between the two.

  1. If you have to be thinking, you might as well think big.
  2. Challenge accepted practices
  3. Seek your own truth

1. If you have to be thinking, you might as well think big.

In Stephen’s book What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence, Stephen is undeniably a big picture thinker and yet he also delves into the details. Let me give you an incredible example. While he was a young boy working for his dad’s window drapery business in Pittsburgh he tries to convince his father to expand. He first starts off with the idea of going nationwide. His dad shoots him down but Stephen attempts again by asking what about multiple locations all over the region, or even just multiple stores? He quickly realizes that his dad has no ambitions outside of just running his store. At that young age Stephen comes to the conclusion that some are just managers and others are entrepreneurs. He was already thinking really big as a kid. In his book he explains, “it’s as hard to start and run a small business as it is to start a big one. You will suffer the same toll financially and psychologically as you bludgeon it into existence. It’s hard to raise the money and to find the right people. So if you’re going to dedicate your life to a business, which is the only way it will ever work, you should choose one with the potential to be huge.”

Gandhi in his own right was also a big thinker. You don’t free an entire colonized country like India from Imperial Britain without some outsized ideas and aspirations. That being said, even early on, before he was the great social reformer that we now know, he had big plans. He came from a working class family in India. His father died while he was young. Gandhi left his single mother, his young wife (they were married at 13), and his newborn child to go study in England in hopes of becoming a barrister. He left everything he knew at great expense to his family and started a life that was so foreign from what he knew, all because he dared to dream. He was bold and audacious even while having a shy personality. He took a large risk and it was much larger than most around him were willing to take. Both he and Steven started in small humble places, but thought about getting to bigger and better.

2. Challenge accepted practices

The best example of this is how Stephen managed to change the rules at Yale for visitations from members of the opposite sex. In his book he states, “In my final year [at Yale], I decided to take on the biggest issue of all for Yale’s men: the 268-year old parietal rules that forbade women staying overnight in a dorm room. ” Now I’m not saying he used his abilities for all the right reasons but he managed to change these rules by outsmarting the school administrators. He knew he couldn’t discuss changing the rules with them so he decided to do a survey of students, who majoritively supported abolishing the old rules. Steven then published the results in the student paper with supporting reasons. The Yale administrators folded. What most people would just accept as the way things were, Stephen sought to change. He challenged conventionally accepted practices over and over again with astonishing results.

Gandhi didn’t fully accept the traditional practices of his day despite what some may think of him. He was definitely a non-conformist and that is obvious from the beginning of his autobiography. He came from a vegetarian and deeply religious family and yet in his youth he had secretly been eating meat, smoking cigarettes, and even ended up in a brothel. Fortunately for him and future admirers of the leader, nothing happened in the brothel. To be clear he had firm values and felt much guilt because of his wayward ways, and mostly for disobeying his parents. What really shows Gandhi’s grit early in his life is a prime example of his disregard for the way things are just accepted by everyone else. In Gandhi’s quest to leave India for England he was confronted by people of his caste who forbade him to leave to England. Gandhi was reprimanded, looked down upon by others around him, and the leaders of his group. They told him that people of his caste don’t leave India to study abroad. Gandhi explains in the book how he just didn’t care what they thought. It is interesting to see how even in his youth he didn’t accept what everyone told him was the way things were done. He simply left. He didn’t care about their antiquated rules. He never looked back.

3. Seek your own truth

Stephen created his success by seeking for opportunities that were different than people around him. He took his own path which was really unique at the time. From his average high school and town he managed to get into a premier Ivy league school on his own. While a college student at Yale he found grueling work on cargo ships in the summer that traveled the world. He joined the army reserves during Vietnam and turned in leaders who were stealing food and selling it, which earned him recognition from a colonel. He went on to Harvard Business School but was so disappointed by the curriculum, the teachers, and the administration, that he complained about it to the Dean of Harvard Business School who flat out asked him, “Mr. Schwarzman, have you always been a misfit?” No matter where he went Steven was trying to get to the truth of things in his own unique way. He was forging his path of truth.

Gandhi was also seeking for his own truth. The subtitle of his book is, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Gandhi displayed an ability as mentioned previously to look outside of himself and what others thought to be the conventional way of life. His leaving his homeland, mother, wife and young child to go study was very unconventional for someone of his background. This is further evidenced by the resistance of others in his caste. He mentions though how he was interested and influenced by three “moderns” as he calls them. He was influenced by a young man named Raychandbhai who was a savant and also a wise spiritual man that he knew. The other two were “Tolstoy by his book, The Kingdom of God is Within You; and Ruskin by his Unto the Last.” For an Indian man such as Gandhi to be reading and influenced by these men says something. It shows that we was seeking for truth well beyond the world his neighbors and friends were confined to. He even later named one of his South African farms after Tolstoy. He was seeking not just in Hindu texts from his background but in the Qur’an and the Bible as well.

These two men although worlds apart had many similar characteristics that helped them in their early years in life. So we find that principles of truth and character are not limited to race, gender, nationality, geography, or wealth. They transcend space and time and are available to all. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Jewish-American billionaire or an Ascetic spiritual leader, these principles can be applied by all who are willing.