Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

Notes from Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr. by Ron Chernow:

* “It is very important to remember what other people tell you, not so much what you yourself already know.”

* “A man has no right to occupy another man’s time unnecessarily.”

* Rockefeller equated silence with strength: Weak men had loose tongues and blabbed to reporters, while prudent businessmen kept their own counsel. Two of his most cherished maxims were “Success comes from keeping the ears open and the mouth closed” and “A man of words and not of deeds is like a garden full of weeds.”

* Taking for granted the growth of his empire, he hired talented people as found, not as needed.

* Far more than a technocrat, Rockefeller was an inspirational leader who exerted a magnetic power over workers and especially prized executives with social skills. “The ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee,” he once said, “and I pay more for that ability than for any other under the sun.” Employees were invited to send complaints or suggestions directly to him, and he always took an interest in their affairs.

* At meetings, Rockefeller had a negative capability: The quieter he was, the more forceful his presence seemed, and he played on his mystique as the resident genius immune to petty concerns. As one director recalled, “I have seen board meetings, when excited men shouted profanity and made menacing gestures, but Mr. Rockefeller, maintaining the utmost courtesy, continued to dominate the room.”

* Rockefeller prevailed at Standard Oil because he had mastered a method for solving problems that carried him far beyond his native endowment. He believed there was a time to think and then a time to act. He brooded over problems and quietly matured plans over extended periods. Once he had made up his mind, however, he was no longer troubled by doubts and pursued his vision with undeviating faith. Unfortunately, once in that state of mind, he was all but deaf to criticism. He was like a projectile that, once launched, could never be stopped, never recalled, never diverted.

* Standard Oil had taught the American public an important but paradoxical lesson: Free markets, if left completely to their own devices, can wind up terribly unfree. Competitive capitalism did not exist in a state of nature but had to be defined or restrained by law. Unfettered markets tended frequently toward monopoly or, at least, toward unhealthy levels of concentration, and government sometimes needed to intervene to ensure the full benefits of competition.

* “Great wealth is a great burden, a great responsibility. It invariably proves to be one of two thingsā€”either a great blessing or a great curse.”

* To Rockefeller, the least imaginative use of money was to give it to people outright instead of delving into the causes of human misery. “That has been our guiding principle, to benefit as many people as possible,” he affirmed. “Instead of giving alms to beggars, if anything can be done to remove the causes which lead to the existence of beggars, then something deeper and broader and more worthwhile will have been accomplished.”

* Rockefeller reviewed every bill that arrived at home and often patrolled the hallways, turning off gaslights. Such habits were not simply reflexive stinginess but were rooted in bedrock beliefs about the value of money.

* “A man’s wealth must be determined by the relation of his desires and expenditures to his income. If he feels rich on ten dollars, and has everything else he desires, he really is rich.”


January 5, 2020
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