CHAPTER 14The Easiest Person to Fool

All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

—Blaise Pascal

When Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877 he was the richest person on the planet. Nicknamed “the Commodore” because of his vast shipping empire, Vanderbilt grew up poor and had little schooling but was a hard-nosed entrepreneur who built his fortune on the back of ownership and investments in waterway transport, railroads, and a host of other businesses. By the end of his life, the Commodore was worth more than $100 million, which would be the equivalent of an estimated $150 to $200 billion in today’s dollars, making him one of the richest people to ever walk the earth. Unlike many from the Gilded Age following the industrial revolution, Vanderbilt was never interested in spending lavishly on himself, preferring instead to accumulate vast amounts of wealth. When he died he left his eldest son, William, the bulk of his estate.[1]

“Any fool can make a fortune,” the Commodore advised William (whom he called Billy) before he died, but “it takes a man of brains to hold onto it after it is made.” In the publishing business, this is what they call foreshadowing. Just six years after his father had passed away, Billy more than doubled his inheritance through some shrewd business deals and was now sitting on $194 million. Yet even after Billy doubled the family’s money in short order, within 30 years of the death of his father, there wasn’t a single ...

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