Historically, the paths toward billionaire fortunes in business originate from only two actions: trailblazing and disruption. No one, in any given field of industry or commerce, amasses grandiose wealth just by ‘working hard.’ Steady, honest, hard work can lead to a comfy bank account, but not to an embarrassment of riches.
To earn a fortune, one must become an industry trailblazer, exploiting what no one has before—hence the exploration-age moniker for a geographically bounded role. Or one must disrupt entirely an existing endeavor, impacting not only how things are done in a given market or industry but also what they mean economically, conceptually, and even philosophically for a society. In other metaphoric words, a wealth-creator-to-be either makes up a whole new sport or completely changes the rules of the league they’re in.
Most of the Robber Barons of the Gilded Age did the former: they found new, virgin resources to exploit and turned them into industries that they owned almost exclusively. Oil, steel, railroads, and finance banking were the industrial equivalents of new lands to explore and conquer—to be civilized into economic systems and marketplaces. Similarly, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Apple have been trailblazers of ‘personal computing,’ precipitating both the advent not only of the information economy but also of the philosophical reconsideration of what ‘knowledge’ means.
Henry Ford, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and some of the latter Robber Barons did the other option: they disrupted established industries, deconstructing, challenging, and re-envisioning the rules and expectations inherent to those. Ford disrupted manufacturing, turning it from quasi-artisanal to generic and mechanical. Musk participated in the disruptive digitization of banking, and has moved on to disrupt car-making, space travel, and solar power. Bezos spearheaded the Internet shockwave that disrupted not only bookselling but retail as a whole system. Examples of disruptors may be more seemingly abundant than that of trailblazers, for improvements upon an existing system usually stand out as more obvious (but not more easily accomplishable) than the ready potential for novel industries.
Despite their many differences and nuances, trailblazers and disruptors alike share a fundamental similarity beyond wealth: the impact of their endeavors entails a distinct and difficult set of moral, ethical, and social challenges that ‘average’ jobs do not carry and that any aspiring billionaire-to-be ought to recognize and reckon with. After all, a cobbler, a teacher, a small town dairy farmer, or most graphic designers don’t have to grapple with questions of whether the job that they do today will destroy the lives or livelihoods of thousands of fellow humans or endanger the health and wellbeing of the entire world—but for the creators of new industries or the managers of multi-million corporations, such questions are a duty, a destiny, and sometimes a Faustian curse given to them for their accolades.
First, there’s the question of the manner of acquiring wealth: is it created or extracted as a ‘rent’? Is the trailblazing or disruption enriching the world not only with ‘new money’ but also with new knowledge, new technology, and new benefits for humankind overall? Or is the wealth coming simply from exploiting a virgin natural resource? Or is it from maximizing profits by overcharging, overcomplicating, and/or monopolizing an existing system, such as higher leases for land or exorbitant prices for 70-year-old life-saving medicine? Truly creating wealth ethically and morally goes well beyond money; it must directly and consciously have a positive impact on society and the world with knowledge and economics, rather than just a hope and a promise that the financial wealth will de facto and ‘naturally’ have a good effect in the end. At the same time, extraction and exploitation for wealth purposes can take many more (and more subtle) forms than sweatshops, price-gauging, and gross inequality. The ethical and moral failures of trailblazers and disruptors can also manifest as their offhand dismissal of partial/incremental solutions to perennially broken systems such as education or welfare; as their blind trust that “the market will sort itself out” when dealing with thousands of jobs disappearing in short timeframes due to their innovations; and even as their skewed reward logic of bonuses and philanthropic giving that often subsidizes individuals and ongoing issues rather than teams and actual solutions.
Second, there’s the question of benefits and justice—who gains the most from the trailblazing or disruption in the short and long terms? Does anyone lose something valuable (to them, at least) in the process? If so, is there an offset for them and for society? Philosophically and economically speaking, personal liberty and free will are what lead to trailblazing and disruption and their copious rewards, yet the latter can generate such wealth only because markets and industries develop through communities within a larger society—all of which demand compensations and compromises in any and all transactions and interactions to reach a just equilibrium. “Because this change benefits my investors and partners” should never be enough of a moral or ethical answer for a trailblazer or disruptor aiming for mere sustainable wealth, let alone those yearning for grandeur and transcendence by ‘changing the world’—so why not ‘improve the world’ by design and self-determination instead of changing it haphazardly (for instance, facilitating rapid and widespread misinformation under the guise of ‘free speech’) and hope for the best?
Lastly, there’s the question of legacy: what world will the trailblazing and disruption leave to future generations? Will their actions be noble exemplars or abhorrent cautionary tales? For instance, becoming a titan of technology today, while producing a barren planet or deranged society for tomorrow, should be neither an acceptable nor an excusable story arc for trailblazer and disruptors. The well-being of the planet, the prosperity of human health, and the betterment of society as a whole should all be considered priorities and intended consequences at every stage of trailblazing and disrupting endeavors, big or small; ideally, though, those three should be the reasons and motivations for trailblazing and disrupting the status quo. Blunders and omissions from the past of similar or greater magnitude must not become excuses or inspirations for present faults or negligence when creating wealth under questionable circumstances in order to craft impactful legacies. Slave-owners founding exceptional countries, ruthless billionaires donating their tainted millions to long-lasting charities, or arms dealers supporting artists,museums, and universities do not provide examples of how the end result of their legacies justify the means to their wealth; rather, such cases of misguided ‘success’ and delayed redemption prove that the means to one’s wealth will forever suffuse, darkly or brilliantly, the legacies accomplished. In other words, knowingly blazing a new trail towards Hell or carelessly disrupting what could be a Paradise is not a means to a legacy, but rather the work of a Devil and a surefire shortcut to damnation.
Ultimately, all trailblazers and disruptors, whether by merit, luck, or Divine will, share a single yet prominent burden of moral, ethical, and epic proportions. A burden distinguished by a simple, powerful provocation already suggested by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and paraphrased thus: whether a decade or five hundred years from now, when history and the moral arc of the universe keep bending unrelentingly towards Truth and Justice, how will the actions, legacy, and impact of trailblazers and disruptors be remembered?
Alex Garcia Topete
The Industrioneer Papers No. 1
October 2014/January 2020. Dallas, Texas.