Building Wealth: What Key Practices Separate Millionaires From the Middle Class?

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Last Friday, my business coach invited me to the Union League in Philadelphia to hear Lewis Schiff speak. Lewis is an author, as well as the Executive Director of INC Business Owners Counsel, and he’s very fortunate because he gets to interview and hang with billionaires and ultra-successful entrepreneurs all day.

His talk was right up my alley, as he was discussing that our beliefs about how wealth is created are really in conflict with our reality. He shared the results of a national survey of middle class workers and self-made millionaires, which showed us how some of the most commonly held beliefs don’t jive with how the self-made folks really create their wealth.

Related: Why Never Taking ‘No’ For an Answer Will Make You Wealthy

I was able to connect with his description, as I started out with a lower than middle class income. Looking back, I know that a lot of what I believed back then wasn’t quite right, such as income being the main factor for building wealth.

In his book Business Brilliant, he actually discusses the seven best practices that lead to wealth, and some of these are pretty obvious, like having a coach.

Even billionaires have coaches. Professional athletes do too. So, why not you?

But on this bright early morning, Lewis was only going to discuss four of these best practices, and he used an acronym: LEAP.

  1. Learn – learn what you do best.
  2. Earn – earn money by doing what you do best.
  3. Assistance – find assistance with everything else.
  4. Persistence – have persistence to overcome adversity.

If you are like me, you’re thinking that’s pretty simple, right? Not so fast…

Let’s look at some of his data from the survey for each one. Keep in mind, the survey was taken from the middle class (average income of $50,000/year), millionaires ($1-10 million & self-made), high net worth individuals ($10-$30 million), and ultra-high net worth individuals ($30 million+). His first question was…

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Do you know what you’re exceptionally good at?

He actually asked us all to answer the question. I came up with one or two things, listing “sales” as my primary skill. As I waited for others to finish writing down their answer, I felt uneasy that I hadn’t listed more.

Then he revealed to us that in the original survey, only 55% of the middle class group actually knew what they were good at, and others would often list several things; whereas the ultra-high net worth folks would mostly just list one or maybe two things.

Lewis disagreed with the old saying, “Do what you love and the money will come.” He says that with the super wealthy, it’s more common to say, “Do what you love and follow the money.” There is a subtle difference.

Here’s another question:

Do you want to get better at tasks that you are not exceptionally good at?

How many times do our parents try to get us a tutor for a failing subject, or get us to play a sport we really don’t like?

Lewis said that the ultra-high net worth don’t ask people to be good at things they’re not good at. Instead, they believe in focusing on what you do best, and then hiring the smartest people you can find for everything else. In fact, they believed that you should devalue technical knowledge for yourself, spending as little time as possible putting out fires, and adjusting your focus to only the most important tasks at hand.

This is something my partners and I have had at the forefront of our plans for PPR. We aim to be the dumbest people in the room.

The next question was…

How do you make money?

This is pretty straightforward. Seventy-six percent of the middle class group answered that they made money through employment. At the other extreme, 96% of the ultra-high net worth group answered that they made their money through business equity. This could be pretty eye-opening for some folks, especially if they only focus on getting a better and better job.

Assistance: Create your own luck

If you really think about it, we’re really not taught to focus, to be owners, and to network with people we don’t know. Most of the middle class where I come from believe that you need to know things (for example, be highly educated) — whereas the wealthy know that you really just need a robust network. Then you can start to find luck in that network.

I completely agree that creating your own luck isn’t necessarily something you do alone.

When I think about when I first started out in real estate, I hadn’t joined any groups and was trying to find deals on my own. Once I started attending DIG (Diversified Investment Group) meetings, and then later after I started a Real Estate Investing Group (RING), I met so many people and learned so many unique strategies along the way, from investing to raising capital. I actually first became interested in investing in notes after I interviewed a featured speaker in the notes business at one of our RING meetings. Now I’m the president of a growing note company, and when we hire and when we build business relationships, we always keep in mind that you’re only as good as your people.

Related: Slow & Steady Wealth Building: A Case for Holding Long Term Rentals

Persistence: Have faith in failure

When asked what they did after a significant career setback, most of the middle class group said that they just gave up, whereas the ultra-high net worth went right back and tried again. Unfortunately for the middle class, their beliefs are really not a good environment for success.

While we might feel shame in failure, the ultra-high net worth folks have a high percentage of associates who’ve failed before around them. They tend to share and celebrate their failures.

This probably explains why I had to struggle most of my life until I began to change my belief system. For me, my failures taught me what I was good at over time.

Now, since my partners and I are in the middle of implementing a huge project at PPR, which should enable us to really grow and expand in the future, this timely information was just what the doctor ordered, and it was very validating for me.

So, if you’re thinking about taking your business to the next level, what limiting beliefs are holding you back? And, more importantly, are you and your coach ready to make the LEAP?

Leave your comments below!

About Author

Dave Van Horn

Since 2007, Dave Van Horn has served as president and CEO of PPR The Note Co., a holding company that manages several funds that buy, sell, and hold residential mortgages nationwide. Dave’s expertise is derived from over 30 years of residential and commercial real estate experience as a licensed Realtor, a real estate investor, and a fundraiser. As the latter, Dave has raised over $100 million in both notes and commercial real estate. In addition to his investments and role as CEO, Dave’s biggest passion is to teach others how to share, build, and preserve wealth. He authored Real Estate Note Investing, an introduction to the note investing business, helping investors enter the “other side” of the real estate business.


  1. Tyler Flagg

    Awesome post Dave, thanks for writing it. I just finished reading the book “The Millionaire Mind” by Thomas J. Stanley, and it reminded me a lot of that. I’ll be sure to pick up Business Brilliant as well…sounds right up my alley.

  2. Chad Carson

    Dave, love the article . I like your distinction: “Do what you love and follow the money.” That reminds me of the hedgehog idea by Jim Collins that says find the intersection of
    1) What you’re the best at
    2) What you’re passionate about
    3) What has a real economic need.
    I still like the idea of doing what you love, but no one has started paying me yet for eating ice cream. So I’ve got to choose passions that match up with my strengths and an economic need.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Dave Van Horn

      Hi Chad, thanks for your comment! The hedgehog idea is definitely discussed in a lot of circles as well, and I see similarities, especially to the Learn & Earn part of LEAP.
      I actually just read another good book by Jim Collins, “How the Mighty Fall.”

  3. Darrin Wesenberg

    This is one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read on BiggerPockets. That “ultra-high net worth” mindset of focusing on what you do best I learned a few years ago after discovering the Clifton Strengthsfinder–something that changed my whole outlook.

    • Dave Van Horn

      Hi Darrin,
      Thanks for the positive feedback!
      My partners and I have taken similar strengths finder tests. It was eye opening, as we could see how each of our strengths and weaknesses played a role in our day-to-day operations.

  4. Sarah W.

    Fantastic article! One thing that really resonated with me is the assistance section – knowing people instead of “things.” I met a very wealthy doctor who told me he worked his whole life in the medical field until he discovered that the money was in the business side. The more business people he connected with, the more opportunity that came his way… So he ended up investing in medical centers and made his fortune that way. This came late in his life, so I feel fortunate to have blogs like to read that reinforce that message. Create your own luck!

    • Dave Van Horn

      Hi Sarah,
      Thanks for the positive feedback and thanks for sharing this story!
      I agree that it’s really about who you know and not just what you know. I think that’s one of the main reasons I struggled when I was younger; I didn’t know the right people yet, and I was fed the wrong information.
      All the Best,

  5. Matt Aspen

    Great article. I’m wondering if the qualities that financially-successful people share (outlined above) can be learned or if these are qualities that one is born with. For example, can the average person, with true aspirations, who sucks at ‘selling’ become a great salesperson? If you’re comparing business to athletics, it would seem that no matter how much you wish to be a great runner & truly dedicate yourself to training, have the right coaching, diet, etc. if you’re not ‘built’ to be a runner, you’re probably not going to be a champion … ?

    • Dave Van Horn

      Hi Matt,
      Thanks for the positive feedback, and that’s a good question. I think it’s both – you can have natural talent and developed talent. How good you are at something or how much better you become at it may depend on how receptive you are to training in that field. Everyone has different underlying capabilities, and passion is really what drives those capabilities to become a specialty.

  6. Brad Shepherd

    Great insights, Dave. Thanks for sharing what you picked up at the luncheon. My real estate coach is always drilling it into me that he better not catch me with a hammer in my hand, or sheet rock dust on my face. The construction side of rehabbing is what is most intimidating about it and causes me to lose sleep at night, so I’m tempted to dig in and learn more. His advice aligns with what you’re saying – hire and empower the right people (most often found through my network), then focus on my business. It’s a hard lesson to swallow at times.

    • Dave Van Horn

      Hi Brad, thanks for your comment!
      I understand where you’re coming from, as I used to catch myself doing tasks that I shouldn’t have been doing (like plumbing and electrical).
      Also, because I used to be a painting contractor and a property manager, the hardest people for me to hire later on were painters or property managers. Now, I think of it as, what’s the best use of my time and money?

  7. Jace Mattinson

    Great post! This coincides with a lot of research published that the wealthy people in the world develop a niche skill set that allows them to be in the top 10% of their industry, which often results in very good compensation. A lot of times they own businesses that prosper in blue collar industries that have little to no competition.

  8. Shaun Reilly

    Wow Dave you hit it out of the park with this one.
    One of the best articles I’ve read in a while!

    Gives a lot of food for thought.
    I see myself with some of the High Net Worth mentality (Awesome!) and some of Middle Class mindset too (Not so Awesome…).
    Interesting to see how much of that innate programming I can rework to get myself on the right track.

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