Lessons In Life and Business From Cornelius Vanderbilt

Lessons In Life and Business From Cornelius Vanderbilt
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T. J. Stiles wrote, “The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt,” which won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize in 2010.

According to Stiles, Vanderbilt’s life serves as a “parable of the enterprising American spirit.” Indeed, the Commodore was “the archetype of the economic hero, the productive, practical man of business.”

In order to illustrate this epic life, here are ten lessons—ranging from autonomy and American values to economic optimism and willpower—from Stiles’ book:

1. Autonomy: “At the very beginning of his working life, [Vanderbilt] sought to be his own master… He epitomized the entrepreneur as champion of the people, the businessman as revolutionary.”

2. American Values: “Americans had an ‘ardor for enterprise’…In the Vanderbilt house, daily life was filled with buying and selling, borrowing and lending, earnings and debt…His family had so immersed him in business that, at the age of twelve, he already understood the principle of borrowing on collateral.”

3. Meritocracy: “Vanderbilt was an empire builder, the first great corporate tycoon in American history. He learned to use the tools of corporate capitalism to amass wealth and power on a scale previously unknown. His admirers saw him as the ultimate meritocrat, the finest example of the common man rising through hard work and ability.”

4. Economic Optimism: “Vanderbilt believed in a growing market—that more and more people wanted to travel between two cities, and would do so by steamboat if rates were cheap enough. This notion of an expanding economy was surprisingly new.”

5. Strategy: “Transportation captured Americans’ imagination. It seemed to be the most strategic sector of the economy in this sprawling country, and Vanderbilt took a strategic view of it.” Indeed, “He had a chokehold over the nation’s arteries of commerce.”

6. Understanding Markets: “Far ahead of many of his peers, he grasped one of the great changes in American culture: the abstraction of economic reality, as the connection faded between the tangible world and the new devices of business, such as paper currency, corporations, and securities. With those devices he helped to create the corporate economy that would define the United States into the 21st century.”

7. Willpower: “His will, self-reliance, and ambition to achieve success were immense…He waged his wars on multiple fronts, under difficult decisions, against wily opponents, and won them all.” In fact, “Vanderbilt fought one of the greatest business conflicts in American history purely out of a desire for revenge.”

8. Laissez-Faire: “Vanderbilt had remained as committed to laissez-faire as ever; his guiding principle was ‘to mind my own business,’ and all he asked from government was to be left alone.”

9. Control: “Sole control. It would be a recurring theme in Vanderbilt’s life. Always dominating, he increasingly lost interest in investment unless he had power over what was done with his money.”

10. Creative Destruction: Vanderbilt “led the rise of competition as a virtue in American culture. He had disrupted the remnants of the 18th century patricians, shaken the conservative merchant elite, and destroyed monopolies at every step.”

Quinn Connelly is a 2018 MBA candidate at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management.  

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