What a life. In The Education of an American Dreamer Pete Peterson, billionaire founder of the Blackstone group and one of the most successful leaders ever in business and government, has given us a fast-paced look at a dynamic career. Hugely successful at a young age, in both advertising and also as the very young CEO of Bell and Howell, he moved on to Washington (Secretary of Commerce), Lehman Brothers, and, eventually private equity firm Blackstone. Along the way he was tapped to run numerous foundations, and later set up several himself. The book moves quickly, and , as an autobiography, it is sometimes difficult to get beyond the surface to the “WHY”…how did such success came so easily to this individual? I picked up a few principles as I read, and was gratified to see that, at the end of the book, Peterson himself dubbed them to be part of his key success factors.
First, it is important to note a bit of what Peterson might call “dumb luck”. Like Warren Buffett and Alan Greenspan, Peterson was spared military service and as such got a head start in university environments that were somewhat depleted of competition. A lot of bright young males were busy fighting in WWII and Korea while Peterson, Greenspan, Buffett, and others were already finishing business school.
But there was a lot more than luck involved in Peterson’s career. Peterson developed two key success factors early, perhaps partially due to his MBA work at the University of Chicago: he had an analytical bent, and an interest in communicating his ideas. It is interesting to note that, around the time of his attendance at U of C, economics was undergoing a transformation from a more “literary” to a “quantitative” discipline. And, in his early work at McCann Erickson, the advertising agency, he did much the same: he became a champion of research, as well as an expert at making that research client-centric. As far as communicating, it is interesting to note that the young Alan Greenspan, while immersed in his studies of American business statistics, was, like Peterson, eager to communicate the ideas he was uncovering. Both men strove to reach a wider audience through speaking and writing articles. Buffett also strove to teach.
Another two success characteristics are, interestingly, also highlighted as success drivers in Thomas Scwheich’s informative book Staying Power : a relaxed attitude toward career “pre-planning”, and a willingness to lead an “un-balanced”, career-centric lifestyle. Schweich’s interviews with successful people echo what Peterson also claims to be a key principle: avoid a restrictive set of career goals: “follow your bliss”. As far as the consequences of imbalance are concerned, Peterson suffers two divorces , most likely related to his career focus. In my own life, I’d tend to agree with the “work ethic” approach: “work/life balance” is not conducive to high achievement. That’s just the way it is.
I won’t reveal all of Peterson’s “lessons learned”, but I will mention that Peterson appears to be quite comfortable among all sorts of people, something we introverts envy. As I think back and wonder how his interpersonal skills might have developed, I focus on his many years of working in his father’s café. I wonder if being around so many different types of people at such a young age perhaps enabled the development of self-confidence. It’s one thing to be a great student (which he was) , and altogether another thing to be at ease and unafraid among the mighty of the earth (Rockefeller, Kissinger, etc.). Perhaps it all started at his dad’s café in Nebraska.
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