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The #1 Key to Success According to a Self-Made Real Estate Billionaire

Philip Michael
6 min read
The #1 Key to Success According to a Self-Made Real Estate Billionaire

My first interaction with Larry Silverstein was on September 11, 2015.

The name may not buzz high on the Q rating, but the Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn native is one of the most important American entrepreneurs alive.

In case you’re not familiar with Silverstein, Larry is a self-made billionaire and the owner of the World Trade Center, who took over the complex just six weeks before the attack. Long before taking over WTC, Silverstein was a prominent developer who had racked up an enviable portfolio of New York City buildings, earning him the moniker Mr. Downtown.

In 2015, I called his office to get a comment on the anniversary of the attacks and ask how the rebuilding process was coming along. He told me the basic stuff from recent press releases. “Almost done, nearly leased out,” so on and so forth.

I’m a pretty crazy dude; I’ve stated publicly, on several occasions, that my goal is to own a skyscraper by the time I’m 40. I say this for a reason.

Like Larry, I’m in business with my father. (It didn’t start that way, but a trip to the U.S. last year made him want in.) And like many if the BP community, Larry did his first deal, OPM-style, in 1957, syndicating funds to pick up a “derelict building” on East 23rd Street in Manhattan for $600,000.

I went to meet Larry Silverstein for an interview in his office for the singular purpose of picking his brain, unlocking some gems; perhaps somehow, somewhere learn something that would help me get closer to where he is.

I’m a HUGE believer in the power of the mind. Forget believer; I’m a knower in the power of the mind, visualization, thinking big, and manifesting whatever you want. (And I have.)

One of the things that stuck with me during this conversation was how casually he spoke about dollar amounts in the billions.  On the heels of the attack, Silverstein engaged in a battle to recoup losses. Initially granted $3.5 billion, he scoffed at the amount.

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I sat there as this man spoke of billions in the same vein “regular” people speak of, say, $5,000? A decent chunk of money, but nothing unrealistic; nothing unattainable.

When I walked in, the first thing he did was take my coat and hang it up it in his closet. (There was an assistant present.) Then, he humbly, offered me cake. (It was delicious.) That stuck with me then and still does now. This man thinks of billions like it’s nothing…and then gives me cake?!

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So I wondered, how does one get mentally engineered to think of billions like most think of thousands? How do you become a self-made billionaire? What is the number one secret to his success? Here are some highlights from our 2015 conversation.

How to Achieve Goals

You need to set your sights on a goal using intelligence, good judgment, and good reasoning with respect to choosing that goal. But once you’ve chosen it, then your focus has to be total. It’s important not to be swayed from it. Set your sights on it, and go for it.

On Recovering From 9/11 Attacks & Desire to Rebuild World Trade Center

Early on — I remember — a couple of days after 9/11, I talked to the governor. And he said, “What do you recommend we do?” And I said, “Governor, to let it lie fallow would be a terrible tragedy.” This was an attack not on the World Trade Center, it was an attack on America — and everything America stands for. So not to put this back would be an absolute tragedy… Whatever we put back, we’ve got to make it bigger and better than what was there before. Not just like — let’s go for the bigger and better.

Not Giving in to Naysayers & Distractions

I stopped everything else to get [the World Trade Center] rebuilt. That’s all. [It was] the single focus of my life, because there was no way to divert my time to anything else — impossible! There may be many people who say “foolish,” and many others who say, “Dumb; you’re crazy,” or stupid, or whatever. But at the end of the day, once you’ve set your sights on something that is valid, [something] that is purposeful, that is meaningful, that has substance — then by golly, go like hell to achieve it!

Keeping Eyes on That Goal, in Spite of Major Obstacles

On the way, you also have to be able to take a very long view. You have to be able to take risks — that’s part of it. You can’t look for immediate gratification; that gratification will not come for a long period of time. If the goal is worthy, it’s going to take time to accomplish. And to overcome all the obstacles will take a lot of determination, a lot of guts, and a lot of resolve. But at the end of the day, if you really want to accomplish it, go for it, by golly. And don’t stop until you achieve it.

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When I signed in 2001, I was 70 years of age. I signed a 99-year lease, so that took a little bit of courage, because when you’re 70 years of age, you know your not going to live for another 99 years. But I said to myself, “OK, this is an interesting opportunity to own the Twin Towers and to do well with it — financially well.”

Maintaining Drive When Things Are Tough

Determination. Above all else, you’ve got to keep going. And don’t get dissuaded. So you’ll find on the road to that goal many bumps. Many changing currents. Many obstacles. Lots of naysayers. Don’t be dissuaded by them [or] by any of that. Set your sights on what you want to achieve — and go like hell to accomplish it. Which is essentially what we’ve been doing here the last 14 years in rebuilding the World Trade Center. Simple. Very simple.

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Avoiding Burnout & The Most Important Decision You’ll Ever Make

How did I keep from burning out? I had a great senior partner right by my side in my wife. She was the best. She was terrific. I tell young people all the time, the most important decision you make in your life is to marry the right spouse. Because the wrong one is a disaster. With the right one? There isn’t anything you can’t do with your life when you’ve got a solid relationship with your partner. Because together, whatever it is you’re going to do, you’re going to do together.

You’re totally dependent upon her, and she’s totally dependent upon you. And together is the way you function. And you know she’s always there for you, and she knows I’m always there for her. So it’s a togetherness; it’s solid as a rock.

Also, you have to understand that nothing worthwhile comes easily in life; the harder the goal, the more difficult it is, the longer it’s going to take, the greater the obstacles. But you have to be willing to accept challenges and succeed.

Overcoming Obstacles

I look back now, and I realize I’ve been through all kinds of very difficult times — a recession in the late ’50s, and then in the ’60s we had economic problems in the City of New York, and in the country. And then in the ’70s – 1973 — the Arab oil embargo and the world changed. And it meant you couldn’t get money; it was an extremely difficult time.

Once that happened, prices of everything began to rise, terrible inflation, so the prime rate — the borrowing rate — went to 17 percent, to 18 percent. It was unbelievable. So that was in the ’70s. Then in the early ’80s, there were some problems. Financial problems.

Advice For Overcoming Struggles & Coming Out on the Other Side

One of the ways we survived [downturns] is that we developed a superb name and reputation for integrity. Absolute integrity. You gave your word to somebody, and you stuck to your word. You made a commitment, you fulfill your commitment.

Once you blow your name — your reputation — to try to get it back is almost impossible. Because everybody becomes disappointed in you. And as a result of that disappointment, you’re chopped liver. You’ve had it. You’re done!

So, I realize I’ve spent a lifetime building a solid name — building a solid reputation — based on absolute integrity. Never, never screw that. Never change that. Don’t play with that. And people said, “Well, how do you know you’re making a mistake? How do you know you’re not making a mistake?”

I always tell them — I learned a long time ago — if you can put what you’re about to do on the front pages of the New York Times in bold print — and not be embarrassed about it — go ahead and do it! But if you put it on the front page of the New York Times, and ask yourself, Would I be embarrassed if I saw that? If the answer is yes, don’t do it. If you have any question at all, don’t do it. That’s how you protect your name.

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Note By BiggerPockets: These are opinions written by the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BiggerPockets.