Five hundred doors. That’s about how many Ryan D’Agostino knocked on—in 19 cities (including Las Vegas), cold-calling residents in some of America’s wealthiest neighborhoods—to ask rich people how they got that way. About 50 talked to him, telling their stories and dispensing their advice about life, work and money.
D’Agostino has compiled their wisdom in his new book Rich Like Them (Little, Brown, $26). Now an editor at Esquire, he recently spoke to the Weekly about his book, which he researched and completed before the economic meltdown. How, we wondered, have his subjects fared? “I’ve talked to a bunch of the people I met and said, ‘Do you still live in your big nice house, and is everything okay?’ And they all said 'yes.'”
If you had known the book was going to come out in this sour economic time, would you have asked them different questions?
I might’ve asked different questions, but I know now that I wouldn’t have gotten different answers. I mean, I might’ve asked, “What would your advice be in January 2009?” When I’ve asked that to people recently, they said it would be the same.
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The fact that the book is coming out now is actually great, because it’s simply meant to inspire. And there’s not a lot of inspiring news going on right now ... but, come on, this is still America. Opportunities come out of bad times.
How did you muster the nerve to stroll up to people’s houses and barge into people’s lives like that?
It took some nerve, I gotta tell ya. It’s not really my style. I kinda worked on my spiel as I went along. There were a lot of places where—well, I got chased by a dog one time, and people really looked at me strangely pretty much at every house where someone opened the door.
And sometimes I went on a stretch where I didn’t have any success, five or 10 people in a row telling me to get lost—I have one moment where this happened in Las Vegas. I was having no luck at all, and there’s gated communities everywhere, and I started thinking about my wife and kid, and I just wanted to get on a plane.
But then, within three houses, I’d meet some amazing person, and it would inspire me.
A lot of the advice in the book is stuff we might think we already know: “Never stop being a student”; “design a life, not a career.” What do people in the book know that the rest of us don’t that makes these more than just words?
The reason I describe these people’s houses in such detail, or their neighborhoods or lifestyles, is because when you’re sitting in a mansion on the water in Connecticut and they’re telling it to you in that setting, it’s a lot different than your high-school teacher telling you. More important, there’s often a twist. A good example: A lot of people said, “Don’t just go for the money, do what makes you happy.” I’m like, all right, I’ve heard that a billion times. But what I learned was the second half of that advice, which is: When you do something that makes you happy, you’re going to want to work harder. You’re going to make sure that if there’s a dollar to be made in whatever career you’ve chosen, you’re going to find a way to make it.
What did you learn from this?
Probably the thing that changed my life the most was the number of people telling me, Look, to succeed with an idea, or a job, or in life, you’ve got to go through every minute of every day trying to look at the entire world through the lens of whatever you’re trying to achieve. Because coming up with a good idea is like gold—whether you own a hardware store or are a doctor or a lawyer, if you have an idea about how to do something better, that’s what it’s all about.
So I was asking, “How do you do that?” And this one woman said, “You have to train yourself almost to say, ‘Okay, here I am at the grocery store, here I am on an airplane, here I am on the highway—what’s around me that can help me?’”
So I started walking to work every day. It’s about four miles. Usually I’d take the subway, read a book, come up and sit at my desk all day. Well, that’s not a way to think of ideas. Now I walk to work. I take a different route every day, and I try to see New York City in a new way—how is what I’m looking at going to help me? It’s totally changed my life. No joke.