Home Successful 12 Business Lessons from John D. Rockefeller

12 Business Lessons from John D. Rockefeller




If your only goal is to become rich, you will never achieve it. ~ John D. Rockefeller

Life requires contradiction.

You have to save ruthlessly and yet sometimes you have to risk it all on yourself or your dream. (Read This: How to Spend Money Like a Winner)

You have to be steadfastly disciplined, yet you have to break your routine, turn it upside down if you’re going to fully grow.

You have to work hard, yet you have to not work at all to ensure that your hard work is effective.

I’m working my way through Titan, the book about John D. Rockefeller. The lessons are beginning to pile up and I haven’t even cracked 100 pages.

The book gets into the psychology of the man, which is interesting, though it sometimes evolves into theory and takes away from the reader’s ability to interpret what he’s reading. Still, the psychology behind the man who was at one point the richest man in the world is fascinating.

To understand why he did what he did, or at least to speculate with sound logic, forces you to reflect on your own life and decisions.

Rockefeller is wonderfully frugal. I love it. While the rest of society tries to show their success, he avoids and scoffs at such an attempt. He doesn’t feel the need to show off. He doesn’t want to be above anyone. He sees saving as a far more practical use of money than play, partying, or the acquisition of stuff – something our society is caught in.

Yet, he borrows.

He sees where the refinery business can possibly head and he continues to borrow large amounts to grow the business.

A man who meticulously scours the books looking for money owed or wasted or due, who will chase down someone if they owe his company a penny, or if they’re owed by his company for the same amount, doesn’t seem like the sort to borrow anything. But he does, continually and often.

He also wants control, complete control over every aspect of his company. That isn’t him, personally, but in the sense that he brings every aspect of their operation in house so they’re not dependent on someone else for a service, he even hires a plumber.

He also has an incredible work ethic, yet he breaks his work days up, going for walks, getting outside, going home for naps, all because he sees this approach to work, one not rushed, as far more effective than the put your nose to the books and don’t look up until 10pm approach.

He’s disciplined even in his non-disciplined areas of life.

In Rockefeller we have a guy we can take very simple lessons from, and if we’re gritty enough, we can use them to create immense wealth in our own lives.

12 Life and Business Lessons from John D. Rockefeller


1. Don’t get trapped by the desires of trivial people.

What many of us pursue in life, our goals, dreams, the status we want to inhabit, is a trap. It offers no real value. It gives us no meaning or purpose and it prevents us from giving something of ourselves to others.

We aspire to have, not to build. The images of what we should want are displayed in every corner of our lives. We compare ourselves to our neighbors, our friends, the people we follow or befriend on social media. What we want and who we want to become turns into something measured by what we can acquire, drive, live in, dress in, and what we wear on our wrists.

This stuff doesn’t actually matter. The clothes, the cars, the homes, the boats, none of it matters. Rockefeller knew this deeply. He despised it. As his wealth grew he built estates that paled in comparison to the gaudy estates of the Vanderbilt’s or other wealthy families. He didn’t host elaborate parties or buy anything remotely flashy.

It’s easy for us to look at a man of immense wealth and say, well that’s easy to do when you’re ‘there’, but this distain for the trappings of trivial minds has to start young because it’s so incredibly difficult to develop later in life.

Rockefeller saw the big picture, something that few are able to see. He saw that even by saving pennies, it would bring him closer to whatever end he sought even though that end may have been something so broad as ‘success’. A penny saved, not a dollar or a hundred dollars, but a penny was his focus.

One of his favorite maxims was It’s better to save now than to have to save later.

The best way to do this is to know exactly what you’re spending money on but also to have the clarity to know what’s worth the expense and what isn’t. Investing in acquiring knowledge, in a coach or a program or putting money back into your business is worth it. Buying stuff that clutters up your home rarely provides even remotely the same value.

2. Borrow to grow faster.

The hardest problem all through my business career was to obtain enough capital to do all the business I wanted to do and could do, given the necessary amount of money. ~ Rockefeller

The man borrowed. He borrowed often as a means to grow his business faster. It’s always a risk to borrow, and it’s something I’ve never been extremely comfortable doing, but the logic is sound, so long as you’re good at paying off your debts – which Rockefeller was extremely good at.

The thing about growth is that the faster you get to the top the more control you’ll have over your own operation and your industry. Slow and steady is great, but if you have a plan, one that has been proven to work, borrowing to increase growth, to be able to do what you can’t do with the capital you currently have is good business.

Being uneasy with borrowing is also good because you don’t want to be indebted to everyone. Rockefeller actually used loans to control everything in his organization, down to the plumber they hired rather than depending on another company who they’d have to haggle and bargain with every time they needed something to be done.

3. Know what coming in and what’s going out.

Keep a ledger.

I just started doing this. Every penny I spend, including daily fixed costs like my mortgage or food or Teddy’s food, along with every penny earned, are logged in a little book. Rockefeller so loved his little ledger, he put so much importance on this ledger for his eventual success, that he talked about the actual ledger with fondess.

Long after he’d made millions upon millions of dollars he kept his original ledger in a safe along with his most prized possessions.

If you don’t see exactly how you’re spending money you won’t know what habits to curb. It’s also incredibly difficult to understand expenses when you’re not tracking them.

Keep a ledger. Write every single expense in said ledger, and review to see where you can make cuts and improvements. Knowing what you’re spending money on clearly plays a significant role in your ability to save, especially if we’re using Rockefeller as an example.

4. Don’t work for ‘hours’, work for effectiveness.

I was surprised to read this, but Rockefeller, a diligent worker, prized his work breaks as much as his work time.

He who works all day has no time to make money. ~ John D. Rockefeller

He saw working in the yard or staying active, taking breaks throughout the day, even naps, as just as important as the actual work. Putting your head down and simply working, being busy for busy’s sake, or being busy to show others that you’re ‘working’, to give the appearance that you have stuff on the go, does more harm than good, to a point.

Effectiveness is king. It doesn’t matter the hours you work, but the work you get done. Work breaks, getting outside, taking your time, improves your ability to get quality work done. And just as important, it decreases your burn out rate. (Read This: How to Get Shit Done)

This has definitely rung true in my life. I’ll work like a mad-man for 10-12 days, then burn out, and need a full two days off to ‘get back into it’, especially with writing, something that relies so much on creativity. When, however, I do yard work, go for runs or hikes or work on the house during a work day, I have a dramatically increased focus in whatever I’m working on, as well as a vast improvement in the quality and quantity of work I can get done in less time.

The key is not to rush.

Don’t rush to the office, rush to open up your computer, rush to get stuff done, creating a long list of ‘to do’s’ that never really get accomplished.

Take your time. Slow things down. Enjoy the process. Have a list of things that need to get done that aren’t work, things that are ideally outside, that get your blood flowing and fresh air into your lungs.

People who are perpetually busy are rarely proportionately successful.

5. Get rid of people who don’t align with your values… eventually.

Rockefeller was partnered with people who didn’t share his values. They didn’t want to borrow to grow. They didn’t like risk, yet they loved spending money on frivolous things. He didn’t avoid them all at once, but when the time came he bought them out.

He was patient, analytical, methodical. He used them as long as he could, then when he’d had enough he quickly moved to push them out of the company, paying more than market value in the acquisition, but a move that spurred him to become the richest man in the world.

You don’t have to remove everyone all at once. Bide your time. But when that time comes that you can get people out of your life or out of your business that don’t share your vision, act decisively.

6. Accomplishment is important, don’t undervalue it.

We live in a society that doesn’t require accomplishment, or at least that’s the narrative they push. Rockefeller lived in a time where success was a necessity if you wanted to have power over your own life and to be able to care for your family.

I just got back from Africa where money is incredibly important. We live pretty high on the hog here in the west, ignorant to the necessity of money. It’s important. Sure, it isn’t the be all end all and after a certain point it doesn’t actually improve your chances at happiness, but accomplish does. Accomplishment is necessary for you to feel as though you’re earning your air, that you’re somehow paying back the gift of life and serving some purpose while you’re here.

Don’t fall into the nonsense of the hippie fools that are out there trying to ‘find themselves’. It’s a pursuit that will never end. No, create yourself instead. Create yourself by creating something, anything, a legacy, a company, a novel, a way of life.

Doing something great with the talents you’ve been given is to live, it’s to be of use, it’s to serve a purpose.

Never undervalue the necessity of accomplishment in life.

7. Always treat people with kindness.

Rockefeller was a devout Christian. He also treated every single human he came across with kindness. It didn’t matter their status in life, he’d greet them with a smile.

We get lost in our own pursuits that we – I – almost ignore people. Pay attention to people not because it’s a good business practice but because it’s how to be a human.

8. Don’t try to meet people to ‘get ahead’.

In almost every ‘self-help’ or business book you’ll find the advice that you are who you know, and that you should make it your business to know people who are where you want to be.

Fuck that.

You’re going to get to where you want to be regardless of who you know, and to follow people around like a yes man, to change who you are, to hunt people down because they have what you want isn’t what great men do.

It’s cunning. It’s conniving.

I read this earlier in the book, and it’s one of the best things I’ve heard in a long time because it goes against what so many do, and so many ambitious people especially do, which is to find a mentor by going where their mentors hang out.

In the instance of Rockefeller, this ‘hang out’ was church. Young, ambitious men began attending the churches of wealthier men in hopes of creating a connection. Rockefeller didn’t like this. Church was an actual place of worship for him. He loved the people of his congregation and wouldn’t sell them out because he wanted something someone else had.

Again, this counters much of what business or success books will tell you, but it takes some confidence, and confidence based on reality.

If you’re good with you money, if you hustle, if you take proper risks, you’re going to eventually make what you want and be who you want. Your success isn’t hanging on an introduction.

One day those same guys who younger ambitious fellas are chasing will come and introduce themselves to you.

Of course, if you’re not a worker, if you’re not smart, if you’re not good with your money, you’re going to fail regardless. So, don’t be a cunning snake after a relationship that will give you what you want. Instead, be the man who deserves what you want.

You see it in every industry, guys trying to suck up to older, more successful guys maybe to learn what they know or in hopes that they’ll ‘throw them a bone’, give them a hand, put them in the position they want to be in.

That’s a great strategy for mid-level guys. But men of honor, big winners, legends, they hold little doubt that they’ll eventually be worthy of what they desire.

9. Give religiously.

Giving should be entered into in just the same way as investing. Giving is investing. ~ John D. Rockefeller

Rockefeller was notoriously charitable. He gave when he had nothing. Then he gave more when he’d earned millions. He always walked the streets with crisp bills, handing them out to people as he walked by.

As soon as he was able, he began to give away 10% of his entire income. He gave to charities, to freed slaves, to churches – both his own and others. He gave and gave and gave.

He saw giving and earning as two things that didn’t oppose one another but things that went hand in hand. The more he gave he believed the more the Lord would bless him. He also saw the money he earned not as his own, but as a gift, and one that must be repaid.

Giving isn’t a duty, it’s not a necessity, it isn’t something you have to do with your money. It’s your money, do whatever you want with it. However, it is good to do. It is honorable. It gives a reason for your wealth, and not just providing jobs (which is the best form of ‘charity’ there is), but giving for the sake of giving.

He didn’t give for status or name, but because it was what he loved to do. He was a giver before he made a penny, and that giving only got greater as he made millions.

10Give intelligently.

Charity is injurious unless it helps the recipient to become independent of it. ~ John D. Rockefelle

Giving is useless if the recipient requires more and more and more. You’re just creating a dependent. This is how the government treats poverty, which is why poverty will always have a steady grip on socialistic societies.

Giving, true giving, must give power to the recipient in the form of skills or knowledge or a simple investment in their pursuit. (Read This: Don’t Give, Teach)

Giving intelligently is giving more than just money, but tools, knowledge, skills, and even time. The world is far better off with everyone contributing. The individual is far better off if they’re contributing.

To be a dependent is a horrible feeling, but people get accustomed to it. Don’t let them. Ask more of them. Show them their true value by enlightening them of what they’re capable of.

And it’s far better to give to someone with a little ambition than to give to someone devoid of it completely.

11. Win when others lose.

I have always tried to turn every disaster into opportunity. ~ John D. Rockefeller

Be up when others are down. Be positive when they’re negative. Work hard when they rest. Aim higher when they get discouraged. Find opportunity when others only see disaster.

It’s no secret that fortunes are made in disasters. When the masses sell, the few buy. When everyone’s in an uproar and a panic, distracted from what’s really going on, you’ve got to be searching for opportunity.

Creating opportunity is often a choice of perspective. It’s an attempt to solve a puzzle. Most people never attempt to solve the puzzle, they only see what’s wrong. They get lost in the disaster and never wake up to the opportunity that was hidden behind it.

Next time crisis hits, breathe, then begin your search for the opportunity that inevitably lies within it.

 12. Don’t rely on yourself for your income.

I would rather earn 1% off a 100 people’s efforts than 100% of my own efforts. ~ John D. Rockefeller

It’s silly to attempt to get rich off of your work and merits alone. Employ people. Have people who are smart and savvy and good at what they’re doing and get a cut from their work rather than only being paid for yours.

Having a little piece of a lot of people is better than relying solely on your own ingenuity.


Singleness of purpose is one of the chief essentials for success in life, no matter what may be one’s aim. ~ John D. Rockefeller

There’s a lot to learn from John D. Rockefeller. The guy knew what he wanted even if he didn’t initially understand how he’d get it. He wasn’t the first in the oil business, but he saw that the money and control was in refining the product, not in drilling for it.

I respect how he didn’t depend on others. He didn’t chase down mentors and he never undersold himself. He saw his value to his company, to any company he worked for, and he got what he thought he was worth, maybe not in the beginning, but eventually.

He was disciplined, both with his time and his money. He was ambitious, but giving and caring and unlike so many ambitious young men, he didn’t get trapped by the things that money could by, but the things that you could do with it.

About The Author

Chad Howse: Chad’s mission is to get you in the arena, ‘marred by the dust and sweat and blood’, to help you set and achieve audacious goals in the face of fear, and not only build your ideal body, but the life you were meant to live.

You can contact him at –


  1. I had always heard he was the antithesis of what this article presents so the first time it came up I passed over it, but the comments in this email made me check it out and I am glad I did because these lessons are epic. He was not the man I thought he was but is more like the man I try to be. Great job Chad.

    • I’m with you on that. Had a completely different idea of who he was, largely based on who his descendants are. Glad I looked into him a bit deeper.

    • Mícheál Ó Ruanaidh

      I have to say that I had the same opinion of Rockefeller and didn’t pay much attention to the article the first time Chad posted it. I just thought “Wall Street” and “New World Order” when I saw it at first, but that was my own ignorance. I’m glad I had a closer look too. Thanks for writing it, Chad, and for your second email.


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Chad Howse

Chad’s mission is to get you in the arena, ‘marred by the dust and sweat and blood’, to help you set and achieve audacious goals in the face of fear, and not only build your ideal body, but the life you were meant to live.

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