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Five Minutes With Jordan Belfort

Jordan Belfort was the inspiration for the movie The Wolf of Wall Street. He talks to Jake Millar.

5 October 2021

Autumn 21

Stockbroker Jordan Belfort is known all around the world as the Wolf of Wall Street.

He was portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie of that name, directed by Martin Scorsese in 2013.

He’s famous for having made over US$50 million a year while heading his brokerage firm Stratton Oakmont, where he raised over US$1.5 billion, employed more than a thousand stockbrokers, and started more than 30 million-dollar companies, from scratch.

Now Belfort is an author, business coach and motivational speaker.

Here he talks to Jake Millar about his famous story, including the greatest lessons he learned from his years in the world of investing.

What emotions come to you when you hear the stories from the ‘old days’?

It seems surreal, like it never really happened, but you know, the things that make sense to you when you’re 25 years old don’t really make as much sense when you’re 55 years old.

I look back now as a sober person, hopefully wiser in my decisions. I’m very careful now about each decision I make and understand that decisions have consequences, and that you better really think things through and make sure that your ‘why’ is pure. Are you doing things for the right reason? What’s your ethics behind it? My life and everything I did brought me to this point where I am now, which has given me a platform to really give a message that empowers people in what to do and what not to do.

Do you ever party as hard as you used to?

No way, never. I got sober in 1997 and I never looked back, it’s just not what I do.

Was the 10-year-old Jordan Belfort incredibly driven?

When I was in my teens, I’m like, “So, wait a second, the guy with the Ferrari on TV’s got all the hot girls and the businessmen and the people in Dallas and Dynasty have all the girls.” I’m like: “I want that life.”

Your business selling meat and fish door-to-door, earning US$500 a week, went under when you were 24. What did you learn?

I guess the biggest lesson I learned is not to go into business without knowing how to be in business. I was naturally a great salesman, but I wasn’t born knowing how to start a business, how to grow a business, how to take risks the right way. That’s a skill set you have to learn.

About a year later when I kind of got my mojo back, I had a chance to go into the brokerage industry. I was able to apply a different meaning to the experience, which was: “I learned a lot from that, and I’ll make sure that I surround myself with the right people this time and I don’t make those mistakes that I made.”

And all the mistakes I made the first time I didn’t make the second time. I picked a much better business model and the rest, as they say, is history.

Is there something you would’ve done differently?

The first mistake I made was instant gratification – my desire to make money quickly, and I cut a few corners and then once you do that, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because, number one, your own line of morality moves.

So, things that you once thought were not OK suddenly seem OK and every human being is like that, they become desensitised to things.

What’s your advice to people now?

It’s hard to remain morally correct, when you’re surrounding yourself with people who are doing things that are not morally correct, because we start to define our own universe by what we surround ourselves with.

The mistake that people make, when they’re young especially, is they walk into a situation and, because it’s operating, they assume, well, it must be legal. They don’t understand that if something’s going on and it’s making money, they can be breaking a thousand laws.

I didn’t even know what penny stocks were, so how would a kid, 24, smart as I was, how’d I possibly know that something is illegal?

But then you figure it out pretty quickly, but before then you then get the taste of the money and then greed starts and that’s when again, some people will run, but many people, they get baited. You can’t take the first step and as they say with ethics, you can’t be half-pregnant. It’s either you’re ethical or not.

Now you’re working all over the world, inspiring people, educating people…

It feels totally different. When you know there’s something wrong, you almost feel like a compulsion to spend the money. It’s like, “I’ve got to get rid of it.” It’s this compulsion to spend money that you don’t really think you earned, versus money that you work hard for and you value.

You spent 22 months in prison…

I think I changed tremendously. I began the process of writing my book... I re-examined every step of my life, and I got to really see my own strengths, and my own weaknesses and what I did right, what I did wrong. It allowed me to become a much more profound teacher when it came to inspiring people about taking control of their lives.

You had a thousand stockbrokers who would’ve done anything for you. What did you learn about leadership?

The overarching principle behind leadership is that people are not going to follow you for a goal; people follow vision.

There are two aspects to being a visionary. One is having a vision inside your own head, and the second is the ability to sell that vision to other people.

The huge mistake I made is I didn’t ground the idea in ethics and integrity. Anything that’s not grounded in ethics and integrity will always fail.

You’ve said there’s a very thin line between ambition and greed. Where is that line?

Ambition is the driving force behind progress, while greed is about, “I want to make as much as I can, as quick as I can. I don’t care who gets hurt along the way.” So, they’re very different things. The line where you cross over from one to the other is when ethics leaves the equation.

What inspires people?

Every person has their own ‘why’. The most powerful ‘why’ I’ve ever had in my life, was when I was in jail and I had lost everything and my biggest, crushing blow was my two young children.

I imagined the faces of my kids and said, “I will do anything to make this right for them.”

You’ll always do more for someone you love unconditionally, or a cause that you believe in. Identify your ‘why’ and integrate that into your vision and then you have power.

If your sole ambition today were to make $1 billion ethically, how would you do that?

Wall Street is probably still the best way to make it. The most viable pathways to getting rich are real estate and the stock market.

What’s the biggest difference on Wall Street today versus in your day?

Well, there was no Internet, there was no access to information. So, more information. And it’s more ethical, I hope. In the wake of the global financial crisis (GFC), things got much worse – and they were bad when I was there. I think that the ethics have improved.

A lot of people say there’s another GFC coming…

There’s a difference between a GFC and a stock market crash. I’m sure there’s a stock market crash coming because there’s always going to be.

There’s going to be bubbles and busts, because that’s human psychology, and it’s the nature of markets. But the GFC was a fundamental breakdown of the banking system where there was fraud that was endemic on every level.

I think what will much more likely happen is there’ll be some sort of world event that causes a shock to the system. That causes things to start to unwind on Wall Street and you have a massive devaluation of assets.

What is your billion-dollar advice for the world of business, entrepreneurship, and making things happen?

You need to aim so much bigger than everyone else around you, that even if you’re only one-quarter right, you’re still going to be awesomely great in life. You can’t think small.

There’s no nobility in thinking small. You’ve got to play big, and think big, and don’t be scared to put a huge vision out there and be wrong.

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