From Richard Tedlow's insightful group portrait of seven American entrepreneurs—from Andrew Carnegie to Sam Walton—a rough formula for titanhood can be educed.
Be born to a strong loving mother and a distant unsuccessful father. "Oedipal victory" acts as a sort of booster rocket of ambition, especially if, like Carnegie, who lived with his mother into his forties, you feel no guilt when you've finally got the old girl to yourself.
Don't go to an Ivy League university. Only two of Tedlow's subjects in Giants of Enterprise: Seven Business Innovators and the Empires They Built were college men. It's true that for Robert Noyce, the scientist who founded Intel, higher education was crucial. However, while Noyce did get a Ph.D. in physics from MIT, his undergraduate training at Grinnell, where he befriended a professor curious about transistors, left a far deeper mark on his career. "The tycoons in this book were far more important to the nation's credentialing institutions than those institutions were to the tycoons," Tedlow writes. He points to Carnegie, with no education, endowing Carnegie-Mellon, and to George Eastman, the high school dropout who founded Eastman Kodak, leaving millions to MIT. (Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, and Bill Gates all dropped out of college as well.) "The people in this book were born, not made." Self-credentialed, they sprung, like Jay Gatsby, from some Platonic conception of themselves.
Don't let failure dash élan. Henry Ford didn't; he led two companies that failed, including one, the Henry Ford Company, that bore his name. Thomas Watson was fired from his post as chief operating officer of the National Cash Register Company in his late forties. Sam Walton made the Ben Franklin five and dime in Newport, Arkansas, a huge success—only to have his landlord refuse to renew his lease. "It was the low point in my life," Walton later reflected. Nevertheless, he picked himself up, and, with his wife and four children, moved across the state to Bentonville, population 3,000 compared to Newport's 7,000, to start at the bottom again in a new store. In words to which Tedlow's giants would all say "Amen," he wrote, "I have never been one to dwell on reverses, and I didn't do so then." Ambition in these men was durable and long-acting. They were inner-directed, not needing outer ratification. None of Faulkner's books was still in print when Malcolm Cowley began to put together his Portable Faulkner in 1946. This did not stop Faulkner from continuing to write. Pace Tedlow, the world needs greatness more than greatness needs the world.
Surround yourself with yes-men. Henry Ford persecuted initiative. Returning from a trip to Europe he discovered that his engineers had made small improvements to the Model T. "It was a better, smoother-riding vehicle, and his associates hoped to surprise and please him," David Halberstam writes in The Reckoning.
Ford walked around it several times. Finally he approached the left-hand door and ripped it off. Then he ripped off the other door. Then he bashed the windshield. Then he threw out the back seat and bashed the roof of the car with his shoe. During all this time he said nothing. There was no doubt whose car the T was and no doubt who was the only man permitted to change it.