Professional athlete. White House consultant. Mental-toughness trainer. Public speaker. Author. When it comes to accomplishments, Steve Siebold doesn’t fall short.
But it wasn’t always that way. Once a broke college student swimming in nearly $50,000 worth of debt, Siebold decided to learn why some people—the super-rich—seemed to have a handle on making their money grow, and why some people—the middle class—continuously settle and fall short. What started as a conversation with a millionaire turned into many—1,200 interviews, to be exact—that spanned a 30-year period. And thus, How Rich People Think, now an international bestseller translated into six languages, was born, and to date, remains among the largest case studies of how the wealthy really live, think, and behave ever created.
We had a chance to talk to Steve, who explained why growing wealth is a mental game; the fears that keep the middle class in a rut; and why with the right frame of mind, almost anyone—really, anyone—can become rich. (The first step? You’ve got to believe it.)
One of the key messages you repeat over and over again in your book is that getting rich is a mental game. Do you really believe that?
It’s a good question. Let me put it in context for you because I think this is relevant. In my opinion, people base their opinions—on wealth, anything, whatever—on their own experience, which tends to be the experience of a small group of people. My book is really the result of a 30-year research project: I started interviewing millionaires in 1984. I’ve accumulated over 1,200 interviews with millionaires and billionaires, chased them all over the world. It’s among the biggest, if not the biggest research ever done on the ultra-wealthy.
Their thinking is what really struck me. I didn’t do this for commercial reasons. I did this because I wanted to be wealthy. It starts with thinking. That’s the number one thing. People are like, how are you doing this? It starts with how you think about money, and abundance in general. If you’ve got negative beliefs about that, then you have a very small chance of ever having real money. Most people are smart, educated, and [being rich] has nothing to do with that. It’s all about beliefs.
What’s the biggest single fear that keeps people from getting rich? Or is it the emotion of fear itself that’s the issue?
The fear is that they’ll be viewed as someone who’s greedy and narcissistic by people who are in the middle class, as if they have more than their share. I’ve never seen it like this when it’s broken into factions. Half of the country is looking down on the producers, the people who produce jobs and wealth. Without them you don’t have America. I get emails about this [from people] all over the world. “Hey, I don’t want my family and friends to think I’m a greedy or bad person. I just want to make money.’’ You’ll never have money unless you change your beliefs. They’re smart, but they don’t have the beliefs.
You mention that money won’t make an unhappy person happy. But isn’t the idea of being “rich’’ an emotional experience, too? How would you specifically measure being rich? Is it a specific dollar amount in the bank, income potential, or something else?
That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer. Everyone has a different view of what that means. For me, it was one person’s opinion. I just wanted to be financially independent. I didn’t want to be beholden to an employer. I wanted to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted to do it. It’s a subjective concept, when people say “rich.’’ What I’m trying to get across to people is that financial independence is possible more now than ever. And it terms of it being an emotional experience: I think it’s a linear, practical experience. You don’t have any bills to pay. You have more money in the bank than you know what to do with. When you have no bills coming in, there’s no more debt. Debt is ridiculous to someone with money. They choose to have debt, but they don’t have to have it.
You mention “linear’’ versus “non-linear’’ thinking a lot in the book, too. Can you talk more about that?
Linear thinking is, I go to work; the more I work, the more money I make. Maybe I get a raise. Those are two ways I’m going to make money—trading hours for dollars. You get paid for XX number of hours, and so if you work more hours, I’ll make more money. That’s [how] the average person thinks, [and it includes] those who are getting student loans for masters degrees, so that they can wind up $100,000 in debt to make another $20,000 a year. Non-linear thinking is, if I can solve a problem, if I’m good enough, then I’ll get paid based on the problem I solve. The bigger the problem I solve, the bigger I get. The customer only cares about having a problem solved.
How can someone discover what they’re passionate about, and potential business ideas, if they haven’t already?
I think the best thing I ever heard—I wish I remember who told me—when I was looking for mine, they said, Go to the bookstore, or the library, and just notice what sections you gravitate toward. You’ll probably go the same section every time. Go look for those kinds of magazines or books, see what they’re about. It took me about five years to figure it out.
Do you think hobbies are a waste of time, like a lost opportunity to make money?
No. People need down time between their thoughts. If you’re someone who’s trying to get rich, thinking about solving problems is your biggest asset. Most of it really is the space in between. For example, when I was on vacation in South America, I was also busy, trying to think about solving problems. Hobbies are like that: there’s suddenly space [and solutions] between the thoughts.
What would you say to people who say they’re too lazy or unmotivated to become entrepreneurs?
I’d question their beliefs. When people say that, it’s that they don’t have the desire to be rich, or that they don’t believe they can do it. Who wouldn’t want to be rich over being middle class or poor? Who wouldn’t want to not struggle? I’m here to tell you that the streets are paved with gold. There’s so much money out there.
What if someone says they’re too young, or too old?
No, is the answer. Look at [Facebook founder and CEO] Mark Zuckerberg. He’s a young guy. Bill Gove, my business partner from way back, was 85 years old when we started our company together, and became one of the highest paid professional speakers in the world. He’d retired 20 years before that, and really started over again from scratch. There are lots of stories like that. It’s the conventional beliefs that are the actual things that hold people back, not age.
If someone buys your book and starts to practice what you preach, they’re going to face a lot of doubters. How would you suggest they cope with that?
This is a great question. You’ve got to sit down and ask if you want to be part of the rich or the working class. In Chicago, where I’m from, you’re just a kid from the neighborhood. You’re told you’re probably not as smart as [the rich] guys. I went to one of the millionaires I interviewed in the ‘80s and told him the story of how I grew up, and he said, I know they’re nice people, but do you want to become a firefighter, or do you want to be part of us? I said I want to be rich. And he said, you’ve got to start thinking like us. I decided to ignore the middle class and ignore conventional wisdom.
Do you think what’s going on in the local economy, or geography in general, has anything to do with why or how someone becomes an entrepreneur on their own?
That’s probably how it used to be, but with global interconnectedness, it’s not like that anymore. It’s more about the thinking, the consciousness. Unless you’re on some remote island, I don’t think there’s anything to do with it. It starts with consciousness, the thinking.
Any other final thoughts you want to impart on Boston.com readers?
The only thing I’d like to say is that anyone reading this interview can do this. Don’t believe people who say you can’t. Just know you can do it. These people [the super-wealthy] are no better or smarter than the rest of us. What you need is the thinking. Ignore more people than you follow. It’s like my book says: if you want to be rich, listen to rich people. The cause is the effect.