What can we learn from Cornelius Vanderbilt?

What can we learn from Cornelius Vanderbilt?

As part of our series “What can we learn from…?”, I wanted to talk about Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Yeah, THAT Vanderbilt.

The one who became a railroad magnate and left enough money for his family to build huge houses down the East Coast (which today people visit as museums). We are talking about the Vanderbilt who fought against monopolies and went to court to stop the government from getting involved in business. We are talking about a man who – when he died in 1877 was worth $143 billion in 2007 dollars (almost three times Bill Gates’ worth in the same year).

So what lessons can we learn from this titan of industry (known as the “Commodore” both professionally and socially)?

Let’s look at three lessons we can learn from the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.

1) Don’t be afraid to look like a fool. When he was just 16 years old, young Cornelius decided to start his own business ferrying people and goods between Staten Island and Manhattan. He could have let shyness or youth hold him back, but instead of worrying about what people may have though of this young kid trying to compete with men, he just went for it. Cornelius used an extra boat his father owned and kept 50% of the profits for himself.

While other kids were worrying about what their friends thought of them, Cornelius was out making his fortune.

2) Keep emotions out of business. On November 8, 1833, Vanderbilt was involved in the first recorded train accident that resulted in passenger death. An axle broke on a train that he was riding and the car derailed, breaking Vanderbilt’s leg and eventually killing two of those who had been aboard. Vanderbilt swore that he would never again ride a train until the day he died.

Flash forward a few decades later, to when trains were beginning to appear all over the East Coast. Even though he had sworn never to ever again ride a train, Vanderbilt recognized a good business opportunity when he saw it and decided to keep his emotions in check. He started buying up and operating local railways, eventually ordering the construction of Grand Central Station in 1869.

The mode of transportation that he had sworn to avoid forever eventually made him a household name.

3) When the world changes, change with it. For decades, Vanderbilt had focused on his shipping business, sending ships up and down the Hudson River and all over the tri-state area. But when the California Gold Rush made headlines he saw people going West on ocean liners and decided to focus more on large ocean-going vessels and not just regional boats.

It couldn’t have been easy to make new business contacts, move into unfamiliar territory, and to invest large amounts of money without seeing a return on his investment for weeks, months, or often even years. But Vanderbilt saw that the world he had grown up in was changing and was about to pass him by if he didn’t change soon.

These valuable lessons can help us if we put them in practice.

So often we let our fears hold us back, we let our emotions guide our investments, and we stick to the same old methods even though they no longer work.

But Vanderbilt rose above those common obstacles, and I’m convinced that you can too.


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