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Sam Zell, left, and Brad Keywell./Photo courtesy Chicago Ideas Week. 0

Sam Zell on success, mentors and what makes America great

October 23rd, 2016

When Sam Zell was asked last week what habits led to his success, he said, “If I had the answer to that, I’d be rich.”

That prompted a burst of laughter from the crowd at Cadillac Palace Theatre, where he spoke as part of Chicago Ideas Week.

He’s a billionaire after all.

Despite Zell’s shrug, he doled out plenty of pearls of wisdom during the half-hour Q&A with Brad Keywell, a Chicago entrepreneur and Zell protege. Here are the highlights.

On entrepreneurship:

“It’s very lonely. You’re operating alone and you have to have the self-confidence to believe in what you’re doing.”

“I’ve spent my whole life trying to make sure that I never reach my goals. and I keep adjusting the bar to make sure I never say I’m there.”

“I doubt anyone can be a successful entrepreneur if they haven’t experienced rejection. The more you deal with it the better you get.”

On business:

“Risk is all about defining the downside” whether or not you’re successful.

“If you’re really good at what you do, and you dress funny, then you’re eccentric. If you’re not so good at what you do and you dress funny, then you’re a schmuck.”

On mentors:

“We succeed or fail depending on our environment, our role models or what we see or observe. My father was driven and I saw that and that was my model.”

“Jay Pritzker (the late Hyatt founder) was one of the greatest entrepreneurs who ever lived. He he had this truly unique ability to listen to a very complex story and understand where the fulcrum of risk was.”

On government:

“The reason that America is exceptional is the fact that we are a country of immigrants and by definition are self-selected and have taken an enormous risk to leave wherever they left to start anew. We may be the oldest operating democracy but what we really are is the oldest operating entrepreneurship opportunity the world has ever seen.”

On Success:

“What matters is drive, ambition, self confidence and energy. If you look at who are successful entrepreneurs, it’s motivation that plays a much more important role in the definition of success than raw intelligence.”

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