Ambition On Steroids

This guy is an animal. That was my first thought as I finished reading Stephen Schwarzman‘s new book titled What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence. Steve is an ambitious guy. I’m not even sure if I’ve ever read another life story about someone as ambitious. We like ambition. Our society likes ambitious people. We are attracted to them in many ways. I liken reading his memoir to reading the story of Genghis Khan’s conquests, written by Genghis Khan (if there was such a book). Not that Stephen is going around and putting people’s heads on pikes, well I guess you could say in some ways he did do that, figuratively speaking, of course. Stephen is arguably one of the greatest investors and businessmen of all time, and he has the investment returns, net worth, and philanthropic gifts to prove it. Stephen’s story is fascinating to say the least, and kept me interested from beginning to end. It was inspiring as well, and throughout this book I kept thinking what can’t this guy do? His life is a portrait to the possibilities of the human spirit and seeking excellence in every decision and in every action.

Now I’m not going to repeat to you all the details and chronology of his life. If you want to know that, read the book, which I highly recommend. Here are just a few highlights. He did his undergrad at Yale, and studied at Harvard Business School where he earned his MBA. Stephen worked at Lehman then later founded The Blackstone Group, which is now the world’s largest alternative investment firm in the world. By alternative investment it means that they basically focus on private companies, hedge funds, credit investments, mostly the types of investments you won’t find trading on a public exchange. Stephen is also very active politically, advising U.S. and foreign presidents/leaders, and a tremendous donor to educational institutions and public causes.

Usually when I read a book like this I’m looking for golden nuggets, or what I also refer to as wisdom nuggets. Basically they’re quotes from books that speak to me or that I can apply in my life, but more importantly they are quotes that speak universal truths. This book was chock full of these types of quotes. Stephen is great at getting to the root of complex problems and restating them as simple truths.

Here are several that I really enjoyed and resonated with. These are the types of ideas that anyone can apply in their own lives to improve their current situation:

Hard Problems

“We have a project,” Watkins said. “We’re just starting on it. We thought maybe you could work on it.” Maybe we could work on it? We were sitting around worrying about going broke. But I knew that he wouldn’t have come to us if the situation were simple. There were lots of advisers who could help. Watkins had a difficult problem, and he wanted an inventive solution. As an investment banker and later as an investor, I found that the harder the problem, the more limited the competition. If something’s easy, there will always be plenty of people willing to help solve it. But find a real mess, and there is no one around. If you can clean it up, you will find yourself in rare company. People with tough problems will seek you out and pay you handsomely to solve them. You will earn a reputation for doing what others cannot. For a pair of entrepreneurs trying to break through, solving hard problems was going to be the best way of proving ourselves.”


“When I began my career, I was like most other ambitious young people: I believed success was achieved in a straight line. As a baby boomer, I had grown up seeing only growth and opportunity. Success seemed a given. But working through the economic ups and downs of the 1970s and early 1980s, I had come to understand that success is about taking advantage of those rare moments of opportunity that you can’t predict but come to you provided you’re alert and open to major changes.”


“As a salesman, I’d learned you can’t just pitch once and be done. Just because you believe in something doesn’t guarantee anyone else will. You’ve got to sell your vision over and over again. Most people don’t like change, and you have to overwhelm them with your argument, and some charm. If you believe in what you’re selling and they say no, you have to presume that they don’t fully understand, so you give them another opportunity.”


“The rejections were horrible and humbling. The setbacks seemed endless. We met people who lied to us or never showed up for appointments even after we had traveled across the country. People we knew well in positions of authority rejected us. Pete and I talked throughout these struggles. He was not someone who failed. He hated failure. But at the same time, he was sixty years old. He was at a different place than I was, with a different mentality. If I had the drive, he had the patience and equanimity. He picked me up and kept me going. He assured me that when you believe in what you’re doing, overwhelmed or not, you have to keep moving forward, even when the quest feels hopeless. Which it did.”

Real Value

“You often find this difference between different types of investors. Some will tell you that all the value is in driving down the price you pay as low as possible. These investors revel in the transaction itself, in playing with the deal terms, in beating up their opponent at the negotiating table. That has always seemed short term to me. What that thinking ignores is all the value you can realize once you own an asset: the improvements you can make, the refinancing you can do to improve your returns, the timing of your sale to make the most of a rising market. If you waste all your energy and goodwill in pursuit of the lowest possible purchase price and end up losing the asset to a higher bidder, all that future value goes away. Sometimes it’s best to pay what you have to pay and focus on what you can then do as an owner. The returns to successful ownership will often be much higher than the returns on winning a one-off battle over price.”

Excellence and Integrity

“We formulated a clear set of expectations, which I laid out in a welcome speech to our new analysts. It boiled down to two words: excellence and integrity. If we delivered excellent performance for our investors and maintained a pristine reputation, we would have the opportunity to grow and pursue ever more interesting and rewarding work. If we invested poorly or compromised our integrity, we would fail.”


“I don’t feel a day over thirty-eight, the age I was when I started Blackstone and a year before my first trip to MIT. I sleep the same five hours I always have and am blessed with the same endless energy and unabated drive to engage in new experiences and tackle new challenges that I had when I was younger.”


“The 10s we hired have hired other 10s, and our meritocracy has created one of the most famous and admired financial companies in the world. We have been able to turn $400,000 of start-up capital in 1985 into over $500 billion of assets under management in 2019—a growth rate of about 50 percent a year since we started.”


“But beyond our size, our growth, and even the external accolades, I see a firm that reflects the core values I have worked so hard to instill. Establishing and imparting a strong company culture is perhaps one of the greatest challenges any entrepreneur and founder is tasked with, but it is also one of the most gratifying if you get it right.”


“Regardless of how you begin your careers, it is important to realize that your life will not necessarily move in a straight line. You have to recognize that the world is an unpredictable place. Sometimes even gifted people such as yourselves will get knocked back on their heels. It is inevitable that you will confront many difficulties and hardships during your lives. When you face setbacks, you have to dig down and move yourself forward. The resilience you exhibit in the face of adversity—rather than the adversity itself—will be what defines you as a person.” Failures, I want them to know, can teach us more than any success.”

At the end of the book Stephen’s lists 25 principles for work and life which if you applied in your life to any degree, would make you a better and more productive person. Here they are:


1. It’s as easy to do something big as it is to do something small, so reach for a fantasy worthy of your pursuit, with rewards commensurate to your effort.

2. The best executives are made, not born. They never stop learning. Study the people and organizations in your life that have had enormous success. They offer a free course from the real world to help you improve.

3. Write or call the people you admire, and ask for advice or a meeting. You never know who will be willing to meet with you. You may end up learning something important or form a connection you can leverage for the rest of your life. Meeting people early in life creates an unusual bond.

4. There is nothing more interesting to people than their own problems. Think about what others are dealing with, and try to come up with ideas to help them. Almost anyone, however senior or important, is receptive to new ideas provided they are thoughtful.

5. Every business is a closed, integrated system with a set of distinct but interrelated parts. Great managers understand how each part works on its own and in relation to all the others.

6. Information is the most important asset in business. The more you know, the more perspectives you have, and the more likely you are to spot patterns and anomalies before your competition. So always be open to new inputs, whether they are people, experiences, or knowledge.

7. When you’re young, only take a job that provides you with a steep learning curve and strong training. First jobs are foundational. Don’t take a job just because it seems prestigious.

8. When presenting yourself, remember that impressions matter. The whole picture has to be right. Others will be watching for all sorts of clues and cues that tell who you are. Be on time. Be authentic. Be prepared.

9. No one person, however smart, can solve every problem. But an army of smart people talking openly with one another will.

10. People in a tough spot often focus on their own problems, when the answer usually lies in fixing someone else’s.

11. Believe in something greater than yourself and your personal needs. It can be your company, your country, or a duty for service. Any challenge you tackle that is inspired by your beliefs and core values will be worth it, regardless of whether you succeed or fail.

12. Never deviate from your sense of right and wrong. Your integrity must be unquestionable. It is easy to do what’s right when you don’t have to write a check or suffer any consequences. It’s harder when you have to give something up. Always do what you say you will, and never mislead anyone for your own advantage.

13. Be bold. Successful entrepreneurs, managers, and individuals have the confidence and courage to act when the moment seems right. They accept risk when others are cautious and take action when everyone else is frozen, but they do so smartly. This trait is the mark of a leader.

14. Never get complacent. Nothing is forever. Whether it is an individual or a business, your competition will defeat you if you are not constantly seeking ways to reinvent and improve yourself. Organizations, especially, are more fragile than you think.

15. Sales rarely get made on the first pitch. Just because you believe in something doesn’t mean everyone else will. You need to be able to sell your vision with conviction over and over again. Most people don’t like change, so you need to be able to convince them why they should accept it. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.

16. If you see a huge, transformative opportunity, don’t worry that no one else is pursuing it. You might be seeing something others don’t. The harder the problem is, the more limited the competition, and the greater the reward for whomever can solve it.

17. Success comes down to rare moments of opportunity. Be open, alert, and ready to seize them. Gather the right people and resources; then commit. If you’re not prepared to apply that kind of effort, either the opportunity isn’t as compelling as you think or you are not the right person to pursue it.

18. Time wounds all deals, sometimes even fatally. Often the longer you wait, the more surprises await you. In tough negotiations especially, keep everyone at the table long enough to reach an agreement.

19. Don’t lose money!!! Objectively assess the risks of every opportunity.

20. Make decisions when you are ready, not under pressure. Others will always push you to make a decision for their own purposes, internal politics, or some other external need. But you can almost always say, “I need a little more time to think about this. I’ll get back to you.” This tactic is very effective at defusing even the most difficult and uncomfortable situations.

21. Worrying is an active, liberating activity. If channeled appropriately, it allows you to articulate the downside in any situation and drives you to take action to avoid it.

22. Failure is the best teacher in an organization. Talk about failures openly and objectively. Analyze what went wrong. You will learn new rules for decision making and organizational behavior. If evaluated well, failures have the potential to change the course of any organization and make it more successful in the future.

23. Hire 10s whenever you can. They are proactive about sensing problems, designing solutions, and taking a business in new directions. They also attract and hire other 10s. You can always build something around a 10.

24. Be there for the people you know to be good, even when everyone else is walking away. Anyone can end up in a tough situation. A random act of kindness in someone’s time of need can change the course of a life and create an unexpected friendship or loyalty.

25. Everyone has dreams. Do what you can to help others achieve theirs.

All in all, if you’re looking to read about the inspiring life of someone who has reached the pinnacle of success in their field, I would highly recommend this book. It paints a clear picture of the ups and downs that it takes to reach this level of success and also the many sacrifices that have to be made along the way. Stephen definitely has his fair share of sacrifices. As with anything in life, if you want to something deeply enough, you can achieve it. Make sure that you know in advance why you want it and what you are willing to give up to get there.