What Motivates Billionaires?

What motivates someone to amass a billion dollars – more wealth than they could ever realistically need for themselves or their family?

Theories include:

  • Executing some grand vision they are passionate about
    • Business goals (where wealth is a side-effect of execution)
    • Philanthropy (acquiring wealth to funnel it into a meaningful cause)
  • Power
    • Analyzing the motivations behind power is its own complex topic
  • Personal fulfillment (i.e. wanting to feel good about oneself)
    • Progression: acquiring more wealth becomes a game to challenge oneself
    • Achievement/status: wealth is a benchmark for success
  • Simple greed or material acquisition
  • Nothing; the wealth came through inheritance

Thoughts from Bismarck Analysis:

The wealthiest people in the world are not motivated by money. They are motivated by idiosyncratic ideological, personal, and prestige goals. Often, they simply want to be the most powerful and important person in a field. As a side effect, they become rich.

A motivation for empire-building is frequently mistaken as a motivation for money. Jeff Bezos’ growth philosophy is similar to Foxconn’s Terry Gou. Both men prefer growth to profit, even in the long-term. They would never sell business empires for mere money!

Others have much stranger motivations. Elon Musk really wants to colonize Mars. Larry Fink wants to control global economic decision-making. Masayoshi Son wants to make cyberpunk real. The Koch brothers really wanted to persuade everyone that libertarianism is good and true! And, of course, in one very notable recent example, FTX’s Sam Bankman-Fried was motivated by funneling as much money as possible into the Effective Altruism movement.

There is one notable exception to this rule: dead players are genuinely motivated by money. The most profitable companies in the world are essentially state-owned oil companies and banks, plus Apple, Google, and Microsoft. No innovators.