In a message he wrote shortly before dying, legendary oil magnate T. Boone Pickens recalled the lessons he learned on how to succeed in business and in life after nearly a century on Earth.
The oil prospector died on September 11 at 91. Pickens made his billion-dollar fortune after founding oil and gas company Mesa Petroleum, and later started the hedge fund BP Capital Management.
Pickens wrote a letter on the lessons he learned over the course of his professional life, recently released by the T. Boone Pickens Foundation. Chief among them, Pickens said to take responsibility for your own failures (and successes). Recalling his grandmother’s advice, he said he never blamed other people for his mistakes in the 50 years he ran his business.
“My failures? I never have any doubt whom they can be traced back to,” Pickens wrote. “My successes? Most likely the same guy.”
He addressed the letter to his “followers” — 1.9 million on LinkedIn and 145,000 on Twitter, the latter which he credits to a viral “feud” he had with the rapper Drake in 2012. He said he would give up his “success, my 68,000-acre ranch and private jet” for a chance to start his life over.
The oil magnate also wrote that he aimed to be as generous as possible with his wealth during his life. The philanthropist donated his money to various Republican politicians, and he signed The Giving Pledge in 2010, promising to give his wealth to charity after death.
“I liked knowing that I helped a lot of people,” Pickens said. “I received letters every day thanking me for what I did, the change I fostered in other people’s lives.”
T. Boone Pickens’ full letter is below:
If you are reading this, I have passed on from this world — not as big a deal for you as it was for me.
In my final months, I came to the sad reality that my life really did have a fourth quarter and the clock really would run out on me. I took the time to convey some thoughts that reflect back on my rich and full life.
I was able to amass 1.9 million Linkedin followers. On Twitter, more than 145,000 (thanks, Drake). This is my goodbye to each of you.
One question I was asked time and again: What is it that you will leave behind?
That’s at the heart of one of my favorite poems, “Indispensable Man,” which Saxon White Kessinger wrote in 1959. Here are a few stanzas that get to the heart of the matter:
Sometime when you feel that your going
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions
And see how they humble your soul;
Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining
Is a measure of how you’ll be missed.
You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop and you’ll find that in no time
It looks quite the same as before.
You be the judge of how long the bucket remembers me.
I’ve long recognized the power of effective communication. That’s why in my later years I began to reflect on the many life lessons I learned along the way, and shared them with all who would listen.
Fortunately, I found the young have a thirst for this message. Many times over the years, I was fortunate enough to speak at student commencement ceremonies, and that gave me the chance to look out into a sea of the future and share some of these thoughts with young minds. My favorite of these speeches included my grandchildren in the audience.
What I would tell them was this Depression-era baby from tiny Holdenville, Oklahoma — that wide expanse where the pavement ends, the West begins, and the Rock Island crosses the Frisco — lived a pretty good life.
In those speeches, I’d always offer these future leaders a deal: I would trade them my wealth and success, my 68,000-acre ranch and private jet, in exchange for their seat in the audience. That way, I told them, I’d get the opportunity to start over, experience every opportunity America has to offer.
It’s your shot now.
If I had to single out one piece of advice that’s guided me through life, most likely it would be from my grandmother, Nellie Molonson. She always made a point of making sure I understood that on the road to success, there’s no point in blaming others when you fail.
Here’s how she put it:
“Sonny, I don’t care who you are. Some day you’re going to have to sit on your own bottom.”
After more than half a century in the energy business, her advice has proven itself to be spot-on time and time again. My failures? I never have any doubt whom they can be traced back to. My successes? Most likely the same guy.
Never forget where you come from. I was fortunate to receive the right kind of direction, leadership, and work ethic — first in Holdenville, then as a teen in Amarillo, Texas, and continuing in college at what became Oklahoma State University. I honored the values my family instilled in me, and was honored many times over by the success they allowed me to achieve.
I also long practiced what my mother preached to me throughout her life — be generous. Those values came into play throughout my career, but especially so as my philanthropic giving exceeded my substantial net worth in recent years.
For most of my adult life, I’ve believed that I was put on Earth to make money and be generous with it. I’ve never been a fan of inherited wealth. My family is taken care of, but I was far down this philanthropic road when, in 2010, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates asked me to take their Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest to dedicate the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. I agreed immediately.
I liked knowing that I helped a lot of people. I received letters every day thanking me for what I did, the change I fostered in other people’s lives. Those people should know that I appreciated their letters.
My wealth was built through some key principles, including:
- A good work ethic is critical.
- Don’t think competition is bad, but play by the rules. I loved to compete and win. I never wanted the other guy to do badly; I just wanted to do a little better than he did.
- Learn to analyze well. Assess the risks and the prospective rewards, and keep it simple.
- Be willing to make decisions. That’s the most important quality in a good leader: Avoid the “Ready-aim-aim-aim-aim” syndrome. You have to be willing to fire.
- Learn from mistakes. That’s not just a cliché. I sure made my share. Remember the doors that smashed your fingers the first time and be more careful the next trip through.
- Be humble. I always believed the higher a monkey climbs in the tree, the more people below can see his ass. You don’t have to be that monkey.
- Don’t look to government to solve problems — the strength of this country is in its people.
- Stay fit. You don’t want to get old and feel bad. You’ll also get a lot more accomplished and feel better about yourself if you stay fit. I didn’t make it to 91 by neglecting my health.
- Embrace change. Although older people are generally threatened by change, young people loved me because I embraced change rather than running from it. Change creates opportunity.
- Have faith, both in spiritual matters and in humanity, and in yourself. That faith will see you through the dark times we all navigate.
Over the years, my staff got used to hearing me in a meeting or on the phone asking, “Whaddya got?” That’s probably what my Maker is asking me about now.
Here’s my best answer.
I left an undying love for America, and the hope it presents for all. I left a passion for entrepreneurship, and the promise it sustains. I left the belief that future generations can and will do better than my own.
Thank you. It’s time we all move on.