What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence

By Stephen A. Schwarzman

“What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence” by Stephen A. Schwarzman provides life and business lessons from his successful entrepreneurial journey, emphasizing perseverance, vision, timing, and effective stress management. The book also includes 25 rules for work and life that offer insights into achieving excellence in both personal and professional spheres.

Being an entrepreneur

Every entrepreneur knows the feeling: that moment of despair when the only thing you are aware of is the giant gap between where you find yourself and the life and business you imagine. Once you succeed, people see only the success. If you fail, they see only the failure.

“The best executives are made, not born. They absorb information, study their own experiences, learn from their mistakes, and evolve.”

When people ask me how I succeed, my basic answer is always the same: I see a unique opportunity, and I go for it with everything I have. And I never give up.

If you want something badly enough, you can find a way. You can create it out of nothing. And before you know it, there it is. But wanting something isn’t enough. If you’re going to pursue difficult goals, you’re inevitably going to fall short sometimes. It’s one of the costs of ambition.

if you’re going to commit yourself to something, it’s as easy to do something big as it is to do something small. Both will consume your time and energy, so make sure your fantasy is worthy of your pursuit, with rewards commensurate to your effort.

Find the rights people

Being a strong and accurate assessor of talent is perhaps one of the most critical skills required of any entrepreneur.

When I interview people for Blackstone, I’m looking to understand whether an individual will fit our culture. At a minimum, this includes the airport test: Would I want to be stuck waiting at the airport with you if our flight were delayed?

The more I can get candidates out of interview mode and into a natural conversation, the easier it becomes for me to evaluate how they think, react, and might adapt to change.

8 Rules to follow for an interview

  1. Be on time. Punctuality is the first indicator of how much thought and preparation you have put into an interview.
  2. Be authentic. Interviews are a mutual assessment, a bit like speed dating; everyone is looking for the right fit. Be comfortable and natural, and chances are you will be liked for who you are. If you share who you are and the interview results in a job offer, that’s great. If it doesn’t work, it’s likely that the organization wasn’t right for you either. Better to know and move on.
  3. Be prepared. Learn about the company. Interviewers always enjoy discussing what’s happening in their environment. Plus it’s a good way for you to hear how enthusiastic an employee feels about the place where he or she works. Describe what draws you to the company and why. An interviewer wants to understand your motives and whether they fit with the organization’s culture.
  4. Be candid. Don’t be afraid to talk about what’s on your mind. Focus less on impressing the interviewer and more on being open and striving for an honest conversation.
  5. Be confident. Approach the situation as an equal, not as a supplicant. In most situations, employers are looking for someone who can hold the table. Provided they are not arrogant.
  6. Be curious. The best interviews are interactive. Ask questions, ask for advice, ask your interviewers what they enjoy most about working for their organization. Find a way to engage interviewers, and always make sure the conversation goes both ways. Interviewers like to talk too, so that they can share what they know.
  7. Avoid discussing divisive political issues unless you are asked. In which case, be straightforward. Describe what you believe and why, but don’t be argumentative.
  8. Mention people you know at an organization only if you like and respect them. Your interviewer will be judging your taste in people.


Card calling was a common practice at the UJA’s fundraising dinners. The chairman would call out the names of all potential donors, announce what they gave last year, and everyone would listen for what they were going to give this year. It was a way to create a level of expectation and apply peer pressure.

The importance of Network

Getting to know Jack and watching him in action reinforced my growing belief that the most important asset in business is information. The more you know, the more perspectives you have and the more connections you can make, which allow you to anticipate issues.

If you start at a great school or a big firm, crossing paths with the best people of your generation, you’ll keep running into them. Many of the friends I made at Yale, Harvard Business School, the Army Reserves, and in those early years on Wall Street have remained my friends. The trust and familiarity of those early relationships have enriched my life in ways I could never have predicted.

Managing stress

The fix, I found, was to focus on my breathing, slow it down and relax my shoulders, until my breaths were long and deep. The effect was astonishing. My thoughts became clearer. I became more objective and rational about the situation at hand, about what I needed to do to win.

Another trick I had learned for managing stress was to take a moment to slow myself down. People were always happy to let me have that extra moment. It even seemed to reassure them. They would be even more eager to hear what I had to say once I was ready. So I took a moment and then began.

Run and Manage a Business

I didn’t just try selling whatever it was I had to sell. I listened. I waited to hear what people wanted, what was on their mind, then set about making it happen. I rarely take notes in meetings. I just pay very close attention to what the other person is saying and the way he or she is saying it. If I can, I try to find some point of connection, an area of common ground, a shared interest or experience that turns a professional encounter into a more personal one. It sounds like common sense, but apparently in practice, it’s relatively rare.

There is nothing more interesting to people than their own problems. If you can find out what they are and come up with solutions, they will want to talk to you no matter their rank or status. The harder the problem and the scarcer the solution, the more valuable your advice is.

I had reached an important conclusion about starting any business: it’s as hard to start and run a small business as it is to start a big one. You will suffer the same toll financially and psychologically as you bludgeon it into existence. It’s hard to raise the money and to find the right people. So if you’re going to dedicate your life to a business, which is the only way it will ever work, you should choose one with the potential to be huge.

Businesses often succeed and fail based on timing. Get there too early, and customers aren’t ready. Arrive too late, and you’ll be stuck behind a long line of competitors.

The harder the problem, the more limited the competition. If something’s easy, there will always be plenty of people willing to help solve it. But find a real mess, and there is no one around. If you can clean it up, you will find yourself in rare company.

When I began my career, I was like most other ambitious young people: I believed success was achieved in a straight line. As a baby boomer, I had grown up seeing only growth and opportunity. Success seemed a given. But working through the economic ups and downs of the 1970s and early 1980s, I had come to understand that success is about taking advantage of those rare moments of opportunity that you can’t predict but come to you provided you’re alert and open to major changes.

As a salesman, I’d learned you can’t just pitch once and be done. Just because you believe in something doesn’t guarantee anyone else will. You’ve got to sell your vision over and over again. Most people don’t like change, and you have to overwhelm them with your argument, and some charm. If you believe in what you’re selling and they say no, you have to presume that they don’t fully understand, so you give them another opportunity.

He assured me that when you believe in what you’re doing, overwhelmed or not, you have to keep moving forward, even when the quest feels hopeless. Which it did.

Six months after we started and had met almost every prospect who would see us, we hadn’t raised a dollar since our original pledges from New York Life and Met Life.

“You know, that’s interesting. Put me down for 100.” It was so sudden, so casual. There was nothing legal I wouldn’t have done for that $100 million.

People in a tough spot will often focus on their own problems when the answer may lie in fixing someone else’s. By paying attention to Nikko’s needs rather than ours, a possible solution had materialized for both of us.

To be successful you have to put yourself in situations and places you have no right being in.

Financial advices

Let’s say you paid $100,000 for a house by putting down 40 percent in cash and borrowing 60 percent. If you sold the house immediately for $120,000, your profit would be $20,000, or 50 percent of the $40,000 in cash you initially put down. Alternatively, if you paid for the same house by putting down only $20,000 in cash and borrowing the remaining $80,000, then the return on your original $20,000 investment would double to 100 percent.

The success of any investment depends in large part on where you are in the cycle when you make it.

  1. Market tops are relatively easy to recognize. Buyers generally become overconfident and almost always believe “this time is different.” It’s usually not.
  2. There’s always a surplus of relatively cheap debt capital to finance acquisitions and investments in a hot market. In some cases, lenders won’t even charge cash interest, and they often relax or suspend typical loan restrictions as well. Leverage levels escalate compared to historical averages, with borrowing sometimes reaching as high as ten times or more compared to equity. Buyers will start accepting overoptimistic accounting adjustments and financial forecasts to justify taking on high levels of debt. Unfortunately most of these forecasts tend not to materialize once the economy starts decelerating or declining.
  3. Another indicator that a market is peaking is the number of people you know who start getting rich. The number of investors claiming outperformance grows with the market. Loose credit conditions and a rising tide can make it easy for individuals without any particular strategy or process to make money “accidentally.” But making money in strong markets can be short-lived. Smart investors perform well through a combination of self-discipline and sound risk assessment, even when market conditions reverse.

The way to avoid this type of situation is to invest only when values have recovered at least 10 percent from their lows. Asset values tend to increase as economies gain momentum. It’s better to give up the first 10 to 15 percent of a market recovery to ensure that you are buying at the right time.

Cycles are ultimately powered by all types of supply and demand characteristics. By understanding and quantifying them, you can be well positioned to identify how close you are to a market top or bottom. In real estate, for example, building booms are stimulated when existing buildings are being valued at significantly more than replacement cost because developers understand that they can build a new building and sell it for more than they paid. This is a brilliant strategy if only one building is being constructed. But almost every developer can see the same opportunity to make what they think will be easy money. If a large number of them start building at the same time, you can easily predict that supply will overwhelm demand and the value of buildings in that market will decline, most likely precipitously.

When you resign to accept a bad/ok idea: I had fallen into a trap common to many organizations. When people have to pitch ideas, they tend to address the great man or woman sitting at the end of the table. If their idea is no good, the great man or woman rejects them. Regardless of the quality of their proposal, they leave the room with their heads down. A few weeks later, they go through the same routine with a new proposal and leave the room even more slowly than before to show what they think of the decision. The third time, they’re gritting their teeth. The fourth time, the person at the end of the table now feels bad. The proposers aren’t horrible employees, just not that good. But if that fourth idea is near-okay, the boss will end up green-lighting it just to keep everyone happy.

It was the one thing they taught at Harvard Business School: everything in business is connected.

For someone from the financial world, chairing the Kennedy Center was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the connections I made would eventually prove immensely important to me, even leading to several future opportunities to develop institutions in this area.

“You’ll be unhappy with me when I don’t want to do things that aren’t consequential, things you know you can set up and that are going to make money. You won’t understand why I won’t do it. But I’m always going to want to keep our firepower for something that’s worthy.”

We are in the business of buying, fixing, and selling. We are managers and owners as much as we are investors. We try to improve the companies we buy and help them grow faster. The faster a company grows, the more someone else will pay for it. The perceived problems arise when we buy a company that is poorly managed and we have to fire people to make room for better ones, or change strategy. Even once we’ve improved the company, grown it, and hired more people than it ever had before, the people we fired tend to stay angry at us and become our critics.

We step into markets when we see a dislocation. A great company hits a rough patch and needs financing and operating intervention to help it through. An infrastructure project needs capital. A corporation wants to sell a division and invest its capital elsewhere. A terrific entrepreneur wants to expand or acquire rivals, but banks won’t lend to him or her. We enter these situations with financing, a strategy to transform the business, and expert operating professionals, and we invest the time needed to turn them around.

First, your idea has to be big enough to justify devoting your life to it. Make sure it has the potential to be huge. Second, it should be unique. When people see what you are offering, they should say to themselves, “My gosh, I need this. I’ve been waiting for this. This really appeals to me.” Without that “aha!” you are wasting your time. Third, your timing must be right. The world actually doesn’t like pioneers, so if you are too early, your risk of failure is high. The market you are targeting should be lifting off with enough momentum to help make you successful.

If you pass these three tests, you will have a business with the potential to be big, that offers something unique, and is hitting the market at the right time. Then you have to be ready for the pain. No entrepreneur anticipates or wants pain, but pain is the reality of starting something new. It is unavoidable.

Being a good Manager

It is so important that people understand how much you appreciate them and that you make them feel good about themselves. That self-confidence is the basis for great performance.

To be a good manager requires being emotionally open and direct about everything, good and bad.

I don’t feel a day over thirty-eight, the age I was when I started Blackstone and a year before my first trip to MIT. I sleep the same five hours I always have and am blessed with the same endless energy and unabated drive to engage in new experiences and tackle new challenges that I had when I was younger.


  1. It’s as easy to do something big as it is to do something small, so reach for a fantasy worthy of your pursuit, with rewards commensurate to your effort.
  2. The best executives are made, not born. They never stop learning. Study the people and organizations in your life that have had enormous success. They offer a free course from the real world to help you improve.
  3. Write or call the people you admire, and ask for advice or a meeting. You never know who will be willing to meet with you. You may end up learning something important or form a connection you can leverage for the rest of your life. Meeting people early in life creates an unusual bond.
  4. There is nothing more interesting to people than their own problems. Think about what others are dealing with, and try to come up with ideas to help them. Almost anyone, however senior or important, is receptive to new ideas provided they are thoughtful.
  5. Every business is a closed, integrated system with a set of distinct but interrelated parts. Great managers understand how each part works on its own and in relation to all the others.
  6. Information is the most important asset in business. The more you know, the more perspectives you have, and the more likely you are to spot patterns and anomalies before your competition. So always be open to new inputs, whether they are people, experiences, or knowledge.
  7. When you’re young, only take a job that provides you with a steep learning curve and strong training. First jobs are foundational. Don’t take a job just because it seems prestigious.
  8. When presenting yourself, remember that impressions matter. The whole picture has to be right. Others will be watching for all sorts of clues and cues that tell who you are. Be on time. Be authentic. Be prepared.
  9. No one person, however smart, can solve every problem. But an army of smart people talking openly with one another will.
  10. People in a tough spot often focus on their own problems, when the answer usually lies in fixing someone else’s.
  11. Believe in something greater than yourself and your personal needs. It can be your company, your country, or a duty for service. Any challenge you tackle that is inspired by your beliefs and core values will be worth it, regardless of whether you succeed or fail.
  12. Never deviate from your sense of right and wrong. Your integrity must be unquestionable. It is easy to do what’s right when you don’t have to write a check or suffer any consequences. It’s harder when you have to give something up. Always do what you say you will, and never mislead anyone for your own advantage.
  13. Be bold. Successful entrepreneurs, managers, and individuals have the confidence and courage to act when the moment seems right. They accept risk when others are cautious and take action when everyone else is frozen, but they do so smartly. This trait is the mark of a leader.
  14. Never get complacent. Nothing is forever. Whether it is an individual or a business, your competition will defeat you if you are not constantly seeking ways to reinvent and improve yourself. Organizations, especially, are more fragile than you think.
  15. Sales rarely get made on the first pitch. Just because you believe in something doesn’t mean everyone else will. You need to be able to sell your vision with conviction over and over again. Most people don’t like change, so you need to be able to convince them why they should accept it. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.
  16. If you see a huge, transformative opportunity, don’t worry that no one else is pursuing it. You might be seeing something others don’t. The harder the problem is, the more limited the competition, and the greater the reward for whomever can solve it.
  17. Success comes down to rare moments of opportunity. Be open, alert, and ready to seize them. Gather the right people and resources; then commit. If you’re not prepared to apply that kind of effort, either the opportunity isn’t as compelling as you think or you are not the right person to pursue it.
  18. Time wounds all deals, sometimes even fatally. Often the longer you wait, the more surprises await you. In tough negotiations especially, keep everyone at the table long enough to reach an agreement.
  19. Don’t lose money!!! Objectively assess the risks of every opportunity.
  20. Make decisions when you are ready, not under pressure. Others will always push you to make a decision for their own purposes, internal politics, or some other external need. But you can almost always say, “I need a little more time to think about this. I’ll get back to you.” This tactic is very effective at defusing even the most difficult and uncomfortable situations.
  21. Worrying is an active, liberating activity. If channeled appropriately, it allows you to articulate the downside in any situation and drives you to take action to avoid it.
  22. Failure is the best teacher in an organization. Talk about failures openly and objectively. Analyze what went wrong. You will learn new rules for decision making and organizational behavior. If evaluated well, failures have the potential to change the course of any organization and make it more successful in the future.
  23. Hire 10s whenever you can. They are proactive about sensing problems, designing solutions, and taking a business in new directions. They also attract and hire other 10s. You can always build something around a 10.
  24. Be there for the people you know to be good, even when everyone else is walking away. Anyone can end up in a tough situation. A random act of kindness in someone’s time of need can change the course of a life and create an unexpected friendship or loyalty.
  25. Everyone has dreams. Do what you can to help others achieve theirs.

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