Secrets of the richest man in modern history – John D. Rockefeller


The secret of men, are in their stories. If you want great success, study great men. If you want great wealth, study the wealthiest men (Hey ladies, when I say men, I mean all gender). No man in modern history, is richer than John D. Rockefeller, and very few men in modern history could build a business empire as powerful as STANDARD OIL.

To understand the scale, power and monopoly of John Rockefeller’s Standard oil, consider this:

  • Standard oil controlled 90% of US oil refining and sales market !
  • Within the period of it’s existence, Standard oil was able to crash the price of kerosene in the world by 80%.
  • The empire owned 20,000 oil wells in America alone (Note that Mrs Alakija is the richest woman in Nigeria today -and one time richest black woman in the world-, because of just 1 oil well). The standard oil empire also included 4000 miles of oil pipeline, 5000 tank cars, and employed over 100,000 people.
  • The standard oil was responsible for refining 90% of the entire world oil market at its peak, and 80% for the rest of the century. Rockefeller dreamed to actually refine all the world oil ! but only gave up at 90% because of sentiments. He said, “We realized that public sentiment would be against us if we actually refined all the oil.”
  • When the US government finally broke up his company based on anti-trust grounds and public sentiments, It divided into 34 separate entities, some of which are : Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, Conoco, Amoco now part of BP, etc. These individual oil companies today are giants on their own.

What are the secrets of the man who accomplished such enormous god-like achievement? Like I said earlier, the secrets of men, are in their stories. And John D. Rockefeller’s story is an open one, he helped the world to know him better, by keeping a detailed record of all his activities in his diary and another precious book he called Ledger A.

The following, is a condensed life story of John D. Rockefeller and the secrets that made him great, and as you read, remember that life is not a respecter of persons. If you use the right key, the door will open no matter who you are. John D. Rockefeller’s story is full of “right keys” that you can use to open your financial door and ascend to greatness in life.

1.Your Antecedents don’t matter

John D’s father was a con man, who couldn’t provide for his family, this only made John to resolve to work hard and provide for his family.

2. Start early

 Rockefeller became an assistant bookkeeper at the age of 16, and went into a business partnership with Maurice B. Clark and his brothers.

3. Chose a different path

At 20, Rockefeller and his brother bought out their partners, and then when everyone was drilling for oil, he made the wise choice to focus only on oil refining.

4. Pay attention to details – The devil is in the details

From his teenage when he started earning money,  till he died, he kept a precious  book which he called LEDGER A. In this book, he recorded every single penny that he spent. His attention to detail was legendary. He never joked with bookkeeping. Rockefeller’s zeal knew no bounds. Early in his career, he “learned to have great respect for figures and facts, no matter how small they were.” If there was a tiny error on an invoice, Rockefeller noticed it. If he was due a few cents more than he was paid, he requested the oversight remedied.

In his personal appearance, Rockefeller always presented himself well-groomed and neatly dressed. His face was always shaved, and his shoes were perennially shined.

When it came to appointments, he was religiously punctual, believing that “A man has no right to occupy another man’s time unnecessarily.”

He kept his own personal routine to a T — allotting a certain time for business, family, faith, and hobbies, and sticking to that planned schedule down to the second.

In business deals, he always paid his debts and fulfilled his contracts on time.

In dictating letters to his secretaries, he would work his way through 5-6 drafts, refining the wording in each round until he felt it was just right and best conveyed his intent.

Signing these letters was a precise process in and of itself. As an aide remembered, “I have seen him sign his name to hundreds of papers at a sitting. He did each signature carefully as if this particular one was to be the only one by which he was to be remembered for all time. Each signature became in his mind a work of art.”

Every cost in the Standard Oil universe was computed to several decimal places.” Or in other words, Rockefeller was a big believer in the maxim, “What gets measured gets managed.”

Some found this obsession with the details overly methodical and exacting, but Rockefeller knew that tiny corrections could end up making a large, lasting impact. For example, while touring a plant he saw that 40 drops of solder were being used to seal kerosene cans destined for export. He asked the foreman to try sealing them with 38 drops; some leaked with 38, but none with 39, and so the switch was made. Rockefeller recalled:

“That one drop of solder saved $2,500 the first year: but the export business kept on increasing after that and doubled, quadrupled — became immensely greater than it was then: and the saving has gone steadily along, one drop on each can, and has amounted since to many hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

5. Have a big dream

John Rockefeller’s dream was very huge but simple, to conquer and control the world oil market, so as to bring stability. He achieved it… almost, and gave up at 90% because of public sentiment. Big simple dreams usually change the world. Bill Gates dream was “A PC in every desk in every home”. Google’s dream is to organise the entire world’s information. The list goes on.

6. Set goals and focus on achieving them

He made the decision that he wanted to be very rich at a young age. He set goals for himself and at such a young age, he had no contradictory thoughts telling him it was not possible. Rockefeller stated that he wanted to make a million dollars, and live to 100, when he was young, it sounded outrageous because a million dollars was a very huge sum at the time. But  it worked even better than expected, he became the first man to make a billion dollars in history, and his age goal was fairly accurate as well, he died at the age of 98. This is a key trait among successful people, they make an early decision or goal on what they set out to do. Proper goal setting can be learned.

7. Be Your Own Tyrant

If there was one overarching principle to Rockefeller’s success, it is contained within this maxim of his:

“I would rather be my own tyrant than have some one else tyrannize me.”

Rockefeller’s most striking quality was what Chernow – his biographer – calls his almost “eerie self-control.” He relentlessly honed his will, training himself to be master of his emotions, desires, and schedule, so that he could direct all his impulses towards his aims. He set big goals for himself, and then attacked them with a disciplined, workaday ethic.

Rockefeller understood that if you wish to be your own boss, you have to learn how to boss yourself.

8. Practice Relentless Persistence

“Do not many of us who fail to achieve big things … fail because we lack concentration — the art of concentrating the mind on the thing to be done at the proper time and to the exclusion of everything else?” –John D. Rockefeller

There was little in Rockefeller’s upbringing that would portend his meteoric rise. As one recalled, “I have no recollection of John excelling at anything…There was nothing about him to make anybody pay especial attention to him or speculate about his future.” Yet the same former classmate did make this addendum: “I do remember he worked hard at everything; not talking much, and studying with great industry.” Here we find what would be one of the secrets to Rockefeller’s success; in his own words, while he wasn’t “brilliant,” he was “reliable.”

Rockefeller did find he had a knack for numbers, and he dropped out of high school to become better acquainted with their management. Enrolling in a 3-month business course at a commercial college, he learned the basics of bookkeeping, penmanship, and banking, and then graduated at age 16 ready to move up in the world.

“I keep telling young people, you desperately need business training early in life, especially in book keeping and business planning. Many discover it when it is too late.”

You can enroll for Millionaires Academy course here.)

Eager to escape the orbit of his disreputable father and become an autonomous and self-reliant young man, Rockefeller left his rural home in Ohio (where his family had moved) to start his own life in Cleveland and find his very first job.

Rockefeller attacked this goal with the same patient persistence he had applied to his schoolwork. Wanting to find a position with a large and reputable establishment in which he’d have the greatest opportunities for learning and advancement, he made a list of the merchants, banks, and railroads with the highest credit ratings. Each day Rockefeller put on a dark suit, shaved, shined his shoes, and hit the pavement making inquires about town. “At each firm,” Chernow writes, “he asked to speak to the top man — who was usually unavailable — then got straight to the point with an assistant: ‘I understand bookkeeping, and I’d like to get work.’”

As Rockefeller remembered, the job market was tight, and the response was not encouraging: “No one wanted a boy, and very few showed any overwhelming anxiety to talk with me on the subject.” Yet young John D. was not at all discouraged. A return to his home, and to dependence, was unthinkable. When he had gone through his whole list without an offer, he simply started at the top, and visited every establishment again, sometimes dropping into the same business three times. He treated his job search just like his job:

I was working every day at my business — the business of looking for work. I put in my full time at this every day.”

9. Cultivate Unassailable Poise and Reserve

“His usual attitude towards all men was one of deep reserve, concealed beneath commonplaces and humorous anecdotes. He had the art with friends and guests of chatting freely, of calling out others, but of revealing little or nothing of his own innermost thoughts.” –Frederick T. Gates, Rockefeller’s financial advisor”

As a boy, John D.’s mother taught him: “Control of self wins the battle, for it means control of others.”

“Even as a teenager,” Chernow his biographer notes, “Rockefeller was extremely composed in a crisis…The more agitated others became, the calmer he grew.”

Such a stance was not simply a matter of preference or personality, but a deliberate tactical strategy; mastering his moods, reactions, and expressions and living another of his favorite maxims — “Success comes from keeping the ears open and the mouth closed” — gave Rockefeller an incomparable edge.

As one refinery worker recalled:

“He always had a nod and a kind word for everybody. He never forgot anyone. We had some trying times in the business in those early years, but I’ve never seen Mr. Rockefeller when he was not friendly and kind and unruffled. Nothing excited him.”

Chernow notes that many of his other subordinates corroborated this description of their boss, saying that he never “raised his voice, uttered a profane or slang word, or acted discourteously.” Such behavior won Rockefeller “excellent reviews from employees who regarded him as fair and benevolent, free of petty temper and dictatorial airs.”

Believing there was strength in silence, Rockefeller listened far more than he talked in his meetings with the men at the top as well, and this air of almost supernatural calm only heightened his influence in the boardroom. As Chernow explains, “The quieter he was, the more forceful his presence seemed.

Virtually immune to intimidation, he answered the questions of hostile interrogators in a slow, cool, dignified way that frustrated their purposes. Rockefeller loved to tell the story of the time an irate contractor burst into his office and laid into him with an angry tirade. Rockefeller sat with back turned, hunched over a writing desk until the tongue-lashing ran its course. Then he spun around in his swivel chair, faced the scold, and coolly asked, “I didn’t catch what you were saying. Would you mind repeating that?”

Colleagues and rivals alike found him hard to read — for one thing he had practiced the ability to maintain a perfect poker face when receiving a letter or telegram to conceal the kind of news it contained — and equally hard to reach. He wouldn’t see unsolicited visitors in his office, and those who wished to meet with him had to make their approach by letter. As Chernow observes, His remoteness frustrated opponents, who felt they were boxing with a ghost.”

This ironclad restraint came from his inner-directed nature – he simply didn’t crave the approval of others, especially those he didn’t respect.

10. Check Your Ego

“Only fools get swelled up over money.” –John D. Rockefeller

As his net worth began to steadily increase as a young man, he repeated proverbs like “Pride goeth before a fall” to himself throughout the day. And at night, he would engage in an introspective examination of the state of his soul and his ego. Lying in bed, he would meditate on the volatility of the oil industry and the potential transience of his success, giving himself admonishments like:

“You’ve got a fair fortune. You have a good property — now. But suppose the oil fields gave out!”


“Because you have got a start, you think you are quite a merchant; look out, or you will lose your head — go steady. Are you going to let this money puff you up? Keep your eyes open. Don’t lose your balance.”

Rockefeller’s membership in a faith community also aided him in keeping a level head. Rockefeller diligently attended its Friday night prayer services, as well as two Sabbath day services, and sought to serve the church however he could. He not only led prayers and taught Sunday school, but functioned as the church’s volunteer clerk and even janitor. As a fellow congregant remembered, no work was beneath him and he took care of whatever was needed:

“In those years…Rockefeller might have been found there any Sunday sweeping out the halls, building a fire, lighting the lamps, cleaning the walks, ushering the people to their seats, studying the bible, praying, singing, performing all the duties of an unselfish and thorough going church member…He was nothing but a clerk, and had little money, and yet he gave something to every organization in the little, old church.”

Even as he grew into the richest man in the country, Rockefeller didn’t defect to a more “high-status” mainline denomination or switch to attending one of the more well-to-do churches frequented by his tony peers. Instead, he prized the chance to rub shoulders with folks “in the most humble of circumstances” all the more, and never wanted to lose his connection with common people.

11. To Get Wealthy, Have a Purpose Beyond Getting Wealthy

“I know of nothing more despicable and pathetic than a man who devotes all the hours of the waking day to the making of money for money’s sake.” –John D. Rockefeller

“The man who starts out simply with the idea of getting rich won’t succeed; you must have a larger ambition.” –JDR

From the time he was a young man, Rockefeller wanted to become wealthy, and he was certainly driven at times in his career by simple avarice. But importantly, his motivation in building his empire did not rest solely on the desire to be rich, but was rather undergirded by satisfactions and purposes outside the acquisitive.

“I had no ambition to make a fortune. Mere money making has never been my goal. I saw a marvelous future for our country, and I wanted to participate in the work of making our country great. I had an ambition to build.”

12. Giving to Charity will expand your Purpose in Life

What added to Rockefeller’s sense of purpose in building his industrial empire, was that the more money he made, the more he could give away. As a boy, his mother had always encouraged him to put some of his pocket change in a collection plate at church, and the philanthropic impulse never left him, and only grew along with his wealth.

In his first year as a bookkeeper, while earning a salary that barely allowed him to get by, Rockefeller gave around 6%, and sometimes more, of his income to charity. By the time he was 20, he was consistently giving over 10%. Young Rockefeller was ecumenical in his giving, donating not just to his church, and to individual congregants in need, but to a mission in the notorious Five Points district of NYC, a Catholic church, and, in a move that was fairly unusual for the time, to charities that aided African-Americans.

“I believe the power to make money is a gift from God — just as are the instincts for art, music, literature, the doctor’s talent, the nurse’s, yours — to be developed and used to the best of our ability for the good of mankind. Having been endowed with the gift I possess, I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money, and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of my conscience.”

13. Live Frugally (Even When You Don’t Have To)

In looking back on the factors that most shaped the trajectory of his success, Rockefeller believed that one of the most important was his decision to track all of his spending and saving. Starting as a young man, John D. had kept a strict accounting of his finances in a small, red pocket notebook he dubbed “Ledger A.” Even as an old man, he kept it in a safety deposit vault like a sacred relic — which to him it was — a device which had taught him the value of a dollar, or a cent, and thus influenced the outcome of his whole life.

“I trained myself in the school of self-control and self-denial.”

Rockefeller kept up his thrifty habits throughout his life as well. He would save the paper and string from packages that arrived in the mail, wear out his suits until they had become almost threadbare, and go through the house at night turning off gas lamps that had been left on.

The Rockefellers were eager to pass on their frugal ways to their four children, who they understandably worried would grow up to be spoiled adults.

In an attempt to combat this, and impress upon their children an appreciation for what they had, the Rockefellers tried to keep them from grasping the extent of their wealth. They never visited their father’s refineries and offices, and Rockefeller ran his household like a mini, merit-based economy. Following in his footsteps, each child was required to keep their own accounting books, and they could earn pocket money by doing things like repairing vases, killing flies, pulling weeds, chopping wood, and abstaining from candy. The children wore hand-me-down clothing, and received only a modest number of gifts and toys. For example, when they all asked for bicycles, Rockefeller decided against getting a bike for each, and instead opted to buy only one they would need to learn to share.

In a way, Rockefeller’s frugality wasn’t about money at all — but rather a way to exercise the muscle that had generated his success in the first place and continued to hold it all together: self-mastery.

Subscribe to this page, because it will be impossible to do justice to this great man in just one article. In subsequent articles, we shall be expounding more on his philosophy of life that made him great.

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