In his new book, I Love Capitalism!: An American Story (Portfolio, an imprint from Penguin Random House, 2018), Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone shares his journey from kid hustler to Wall Street shark and entrepreneur. In this edited excerpt, he reflects on self-made success and how it is rarely so.
Some guys who get to be wealthy like to brag about being self-made men. I can't imagine they're not leaving somebody out of that equation. The thing I can't say and never will say is that I'm self-made. To make that claim would be to commit a grave sin against all the many, many people who helped me get to where I am; you could fill Yankee Stadium with them, and then some. My parents. Elaine. Her parents. My brother, who taught me my prayers. Russell Headley. Jack Cullen. Bindy Banker. All the young guys we brought into Unit 15 at Pressprich. Ross Perot. The Erlbaum brothers. Bernie Marcus. Marty Lipton. Ed Herlihy. Stan Druckenmiller. Bob Grossman. And let's not forget 400,000 associates at Home Depot.
That's how I got rich. Not by myself: I'm just one guy. I like to think I have a skill for assembling outstanding people, but the fact is also that I'm a collage of many people's efforts.
My mind goes back to the 12-year-old in blue jeans in 1947 selling Lenny Altman's cardboard liquor boxes for scrap; that was a clever kid. That was initiative. But Lenny saving up all the dollars he no longer had to pay me every week and giving them to me when it was time to go to college, that was even cleverer. That taught me a lesson I never forgot.
So many other people along the way have taught me important lessons. And if there's one lesson I could pass along to kids today, it's this: The opportunities in America today are the very best they've ever been. You might have to look harder for them than in my day, but they're there. Boy, do I wish I were 21 again and just starting out.
On the other hand, I have to admit that when I was 21, I was looking at the world one-eyed. Like so many college kids today, I wanted to go to Wall Street and get rich. That's a good way to make a lot of money; it's also a way to fail big. Not to mention burn out fast.
I learned early how essential it was to love the work I was doing. Sometimes, I look back and wonder, how did all this happen? Then the answer comes. Sh-t, I know how it happened: I was at a place where I was having the time of my life! I still remember what Hudson Whitenight said to me 60 years ago: "If you really love your work as much as I think you're going to, you're going to be a big success." So I'm saying to a kid, I learned that ex post facto; you should learn it in front!
Yes, I've been lucky, incredibly lucky, and you can't learn good luck. My old man used to say to me, "You could fall in a bucket of sh-t and come up with a gold watch and chain." But we all fall in that bucket from time to time. What distinguishes the winners from the losers is the ability to turn adversity around: resilience and creativity.
I still love my work today, all of it. At 82, I'm still excited to get out of bed in the morning, still charged up about what the next deal might bring. And though the money my enthusiasms has brought me has enabled me to live well and help others, I can honestly say that if it came down to it, I would pay to go to work every day.
How many people can say that?