What a Billionaire Thinks Every Kid Should Know

And what a child thinks of that advice

Annalise Pasztor / The Atlantic

What has made Ray Dalio, the billionaire who founded the biggest hedge fund in the world, so financially successful? Dalio himself has offered an explanation: In 2017, he summed up his accumulated wisdom in a book called Principles: Life & Work, which was purchased by more than 2 million people worldwide and received testimonials from a phalanx of other billionaires, including Bill Gates, Mark Cuban, and Michael Bloomberg.

Now, so that an even broader audience may access his insights, Dalio has condensed the nearly 600 pages of Principles down to 157, in the form of a picture book released late last year called Principles for Success. This simpler version—a mostly abstract blueprint for accomplishing one’s goals—is intended, Dalio told me, for readers ages 6 to 60, and beyond.

While there is a long, rich tradition in America of books about how to be successful, most of them have been targeted exclusively to people who are old enough to read chapter books on their own. Principles for Success seems to belong to a new, somewhat anxious curriculum—right there alongside “entrepreneurial” schools and books about raising innovative, enterprising children—for equipping kids for the unforgiving labor market that likely awaits them in adulthood. It’s not always clear, though, who this philosophy actually benefits: Are kids at all interested in, let alone capable of understanding, such lessons, or do they just exist to mollify nervous parents and satisfy the authors’ desires to spread their beliefs about success?

The messages contained in Principles for Success are mostly reasonable and worthwhile, if a little unoriginal. The book follows an unnamed backpacking adventurer—a stand-in for Dalio—in pursuit of a shimmering diamond on a faraway mountaintop that represents success. The somewhat dull obstacles that the protagonist must navigate, such as a constantly forking river and a dense jungle, exist primarily as opportunities for Dalio to sprinkle in some of his “principles”: “Think for yourself while being radically open-minded,” goes one. “Dreams + reality + determination = a successful life,” goes another. At one point, he lays out a “5-Step Process” for attaining success, however the reader chooses to define it; its steps are titled “goals,” “problems,” “diagnosis,” “design,” and “do it.”

A page from Ray Dalio’s Principles for Success (Courtesy of Ray Dalio)

One hundred and fifty-seven pages of that would be difficult for young children to sit through, but Dalio told me he’s read bits of Principles for Success to his grandson, who, as a 6-year-old, is at the low end of the age range of the book’s intended audience. “Kids as young as 6, when it’s being read to them, digest it very well,” Dalio said, though he noted that they’d probably have to be a couple years older to really process the ideas in the book.

Curious to see how a young child might absorb (or totally ignore) the lessons of Dalio’s lengthy kids’ book, I tried reading Principles for Success to a picture-book aficionado, the 5-year-old daughter of one of my coworkers. As we made our way through it, she seemed more interested in the images than the words, pointing out that on one page the main character looked like he didn’t have a mouth, and that on another he looked like he was on the moon.

I tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to use the themes of the book to spark conversations about where she was headed in life. “Do you think for yourself?” I asked her at one point, referring to one of Dalio’s principles. “Sometimes,” she said, “but sometimes my parents have to make decisions for me that I don’t want to do. One time, they said that I had to wash the dishes, though I didn’t want to.”

As we read, I asked her what she thought of the book. “I like it,” she said, a little unconvincingly. I asked her if she liked it more than most books that she’s read. “No,” she said. “I think other books are better, but I do like this one a little.” I presented her an opportunity to tap out at page 30, and she took it. (Suspecting that her professed opinion of the book was shaped by her desire to be polite, I asked her mother to follow up with her at home, and received a more candid review: “It was kind of weird!”)

Kathleen T. Horning, the director of the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center, said that kids who are of picture-book age—generally, anywhere from six months to 7 or 8 years old—would probably have a hard time grasping the big ideas of Principles for Success, given its complex sentence structures and advanced diction. Dalio is well aware that the main lessons of the book will go over the head of most 6-year-olds, his grandson included. “It can be understood and loved by a smart 6-year-old if read and discussed in about three sittings,” he told me.

“The only way I could see a young child getting anything out of this is if an adult who really, really cared about what was in this book was sharing it with them, maybe bit by bit and talking about it with them in terms they could understand,” Horning said, after looking through the first few pages. “I would say 6-year-olds aren’t really thinking about success, not in big lofty terms.” So, in all likelihood, reading a book like this to a 6-year-old is going to do more for the parents—in giving them the feeling that they’re setting up their child for success—than the kid.

Perhaps Principles for Success is a better fit for older kids. “When they get to be 10, in that vicinity, they’re reading it to themselves; high-school kids fully get it,” Dalio told me, based on his communications with parents and teachers on social media. He thinks of his book as an attempt to compensate for what he says traditional schools don’t teach. “We learn math, we learn science, we learn all sorts of things [in school], programming. We learn, learn, learn,” he said. “But principles about how to approach life well are not taught." (He has made Principles for Success available for free to teachers, and the proceeds from sales of the book will go to DonorsChoose, an educational charity.)

Horning noted the popularity of graphic novels among teens, and said that she thought the book, given that its aesthetic doesn’t scan as being for young children, could be “something you would give to someone graduating from middle school or high school—a sort of Oh, the Places You’ll Go! type of book.” That said, she added, teens “are not terribly known for taking advice from adults, especially Boomers.”

If the book is too complex for young kids to fully grasp, and if older kids might be hesitant to follow its advice, maybe it works best as a SparkNotes-esque simplification of the 600-page Principles for success-hungry but time-crunched adults. “I’m finding that adults at any age find it helpful,” Dalio said, though he noted that the original text is much more thorough.

Adults reading Principles for Success would indeed miss out on some of the ideas in Principles, particularly some of its harder-edged material. In that latter text, Dalio compiled more than 200 axioms that he came up with while running Bridgewater Associates, a highly profitable hedge fund with an unorthodox, sometimes adversarial culture of “radical transparency.” It’s no surprise that some of those principles didn’t make the “all ages” cut; nuggets such as “Evaluate accurately, not kindly” and “Be willing to ‘shoot the people you love’” would probably go over better in meetings than at storytime (and even then, only barely).

Some of this bluntness seeps into Principles for Success, particularly in a “life arc”—presented as a checklist—at the end of the book that’s meant to prompt readers to think about the milestones that could be ahead of and behind them, such as being born, starting first grade, falling in love, going to college, getting a job, getting married, and having kids. The life arc, though, does not hold back on the gloomier aspects of getting older. It includes “friends die,” “spouse dies,” “have deadly illness or accident,” and, finally, “fight to live” and “pass away.” (Radical transparency can be kind of a bummer sometimes.)

Dalio told me that while he hadn’t walked his grandson through this life arc, he’s used the book to talk to him about the typical, natural course of a human life. “I’m going to go, and [my grandchildren] are going to continue, and for us to be able to talk about that, and realize the beauty of the life arc, is a very good thing,” he said.

I, however, tried introducing my 5-year-old reader to the life arc, once she had grown tired of the book’s central plot. I talked her through some of the major life events that awaited her in the decades to come, and asked her if any of the things I mentioned sounded like things she wanted to do. “I do want to retire, because that means I’m not going to work,” she said, without having to pause to think. “I don’t want to work, because it’s so hard!” It seemed to me that she was already enlightened, and had no use for a book about how to be successful.