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GOOD Q&A: Ryan D'Agostino

A couple of years ago, when the economic outlook was rosy and people were still spending out the nose, Ryan d'Agostino, an editor at Esquire, went on an oddball adventure. Determined to find out how, exactly, the rich get rich in this country, he started knocking on doors in some of the 20 wealthiest..

A couple of years ago, when the economic outlook was rosy and people were still spending out the nose, Ryan d'Agostino, an editor at Esquire, went on an oddball adventure. Determined to find out how, exactly, the rich get rich in this country, he started knocking on doors in some of the 20 wealthiest zip codes in America. The resulting chats resulted in his new book, Rich Like Them. Part advice book, part storytelling, D'Agostino's new book is full of stories he hopes are inspirational. But how are we supposed to be inspired at a time when contempt for wealth (and the wealthy) is probably at an all-time high? D'Agostino concedes that while not every millionaire he met is Lao-tzu, there is still great insight to be gleaned from these success stories. Don't believe him? Read on. You can also see d'Agostino, as a guest on GOOD News today, here.GOOD: Not everyone would agree with this, but this moment strikes me as a great time to read advice from rich people. Have any of the people you wrote about been hit by the economic downturn?RYAN D'AGOSTINO: I've called some people recently and asked, "Still living in that house?" They're all fine, because these are people who haven't lived their lives by the headlines. I said to them, "If you were going to give me advice today, given everything, would it be any different now in 2009?" They said "No." If they were doing business now instead of 40 years ago, they wouldn't do anything different.G: Is any advice particularly appropriate for these times?

RD: The advice from a stockbroker I met in Scottsdale is probably most fitting. He became a stockbroker in the late-1960s-early-1970s, which was a terrible time-the stock market was up and down, total roller coaster, and people were pulling out in huge numbers. And here he is trying to sell stocks. So he had this idea that he would get guys with a lot of money and get them to put money into this really safe, high-yield municipal debt. He would spend hours and hours a day calling people. If you worked it out he was probably making like $4 an hour. It wasn't paying off, but he was trying to build up a loyal client base. Sure enough, five years later, the market picks up, stocks come roaring back and a guy who owned coalmines all over the south calls him from his private plane and they just started going through the alphabet buying stocks. Because he had been there for him when things were bad, suddenly he had a new base.G: So he weathered tough times, didn't freak out, didn't make rash decisions?RD: That's the key. And these people are a pretty good cross section of America-a lot of them came from middle-class backgrounds, or were poor, but in terms of what they did and how they did things, they were smart. This is not a country that was built by people who crawl under a rock whenever something bad happens. You can't just put your money in the mattress. The Empire State building was built during the Great Depression. Crappy times are actually great times of opportunity. More so than when everyone is going gangbusters. You can't blame people for being scared, but you also can't blame someone for going out there and saying this is the best time to create a business. Because actually it might be the best time to create a business.G: So let's talk a little about your method. Was knocking on strangers' doors just a gimmick-a really good one, mind you-for the experiment, or was there another reason behind it?RD: I just thought, first, it hadn't been done before. And when I had the idea, I was working at Money, and it was late one night trying to think of story ideas and I thought, What do we do at this magazine? We tell people how to get rich. Who are the sources of this information? Get-rich gurus, financial planners, and mutual-fund managers. They all have decent advice, but I was thinking, What about rich people? But where do you find them? Knock on their door! Also, my wife and I, whenever we go to a new city or town, we'll walk around and see the big houses and think, Who gets to live there? Who are these people? Oh, they must just have inherited it or they are superheroes with magic powers, and we think we can never live like that. But then once I started knocking on their doors, I realized they were just people. … I also realized that the people I spoke with were going to be a self-selecting group. My hunch is that a lot of the people who said no to me either did inherit it or didn't have very interesting stories.G: At one point in the book, you even try to ring Bill and Hillary Clinton's doorbell.RD: I figured there's a 1 percent chance they'll be home and will talk to me on a lark. One of the ways I would get people to talk to me is to tell them, "This is kind of about your town, because it's a great town full of successful people and it would be great if you could be in the book." And they'd been sort of proud of Chappaqua and so I thought maybe they're there, and if they see their Secret Service guy talking to someone in the front yard, maybe they'll come out. But mostly I just wanted to see what would happen.G: So what happened?RD: So they supposedly were not home, and I'm about to ring the bell at the driveway and this guy pops out from behind a tree who looked like he could kill me. There was no gate. There was just a guy. He was literally behind a tree.G: Ha! One thing that I kept thinking as I was reading was that in the States there are sort of two versions of the American Dream: the rags to riches version-like a Jay-Z or something-and the "if you work hard enough anyone can get ahead" version, both of which I think are kind of false. RD: I think in the book you get a picture of a lot of different ways it works in America. There's the guy who worked his way up the ladder for 30 years at the corporation, and there's the guy who invented the shrimp-peeling machine. I think the answer has to do with the scale of your goals. I would say none of these people set out to be rich, but in a way they did because that's what everyone does in this country. But these people weren't driven by the house they one day ended up in. They were driven by doing something they loved the best the could, and the most they could. Because, like you said, none of those stories are true, and yet they're all true. There really is a Jay-Z. There are these Horatio Alger stories, but then there's the guy in Cleveland who was a company man for 30 years. Hundreds of thousands of people worked at that company over the years, but Joe got to be CEO, and there's a reason.G: There's no silver bullet, clearly, but something that emerges in the book is that a lot of these people were just following basic, sound financial advice. It's stuff you kind of know but-RD: It's stuff you kind of know, but you don't really know. And the tangible evidence is key. When you're sitting there in their living room overlooking the ocean in a giant house-whether it's tasteful or not-you believe the advice a lot more. You start to see that there's real truth in those pieces of advice we've all gotten but ignored.Rich Like Them is published by Hachette Book Group. Buy Rich Like Them on Amazon.

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