Where Wealth Begins

Richard Connor

AT A RECENT FAMILY event, some of the younger adults were asking their uncle what investments they ought to buy. The uncle is a veteran finance professional with a background in alternative investments.

The young men, all in their early 20s, were just starting their careers. They wanted his opinion on hot stocks, cryptocurrencies and nonfungible tokens (NFTs). One of them had recently made several hundred dollars buying and selling an NFT of an NBA image. He had $800 in cash and was looking for the next big thing.

Afterward, I thought about the conversation and wondered how I’d have answered. My conclusion: The best investment these young men could make was building their own human capital.

They’re uniformly smart, healthy and willing to work. I’d argue their greatest asset is the ability to earn an income for decades to come. There are numerous ways to enhance that ability—formal education, training, internships, jobs, informal education. I’m a big believer in lifelong learning.

I’d also encourage them to learn from others. People love to talk about themselves, about what they do and how they got ahead in their careers. You can learn so much from others by asking questions and listening.

Finally, I’d advise these 20-somethings not to be afraid to try new things—and not to be afraid to fail. That’s one of the main ways we grow.

The event that precipitated the original conversation was the funeral for the grandfather of these young men. He was a fantastic example of someone who developed and utilized his human capital to build successful businesses and provide for his family. His life was also a fine example of the American dream.

The grandfather had been born in 1929 in Gromaca, Croatia, a small mountain village just north of Dubrovnik. In his early years, he worked on the family farm and as a butcher in the village. In 1954, he fled the former Yugoslavia by crossing the Adriatic in a small boat. He led eight cousins on this journey, traveling for two nights. They suffered a broken motor and had to row most of the way.

After arriving in Bari, Italy, he found work as a merchant sailor, traveling to the Middle East and South America, while waiting for approval to immigrate to the U.S. In 1956, he settled in Watsonville, California, where he found work in the local orchards. He learned the apple business and ultimately started his own apple farming business. If you like sparkling apple cider, there’s a good chance you’ve tasted his apples.

He also started his own real estate business. With his wife, he bought small houses, which they’d fix up and then sell or rent. The family moved numerous times before finally settling on a 10-acre site in Aptos, California, building a lovely ranch home themselves. By now, they had five children.

Over the 65 years he lived in California, his businesses provided jobs and housing for many people in California’s Central Coast. He worked at least part of every day, whether that meant exploring new properties, repairing a rental home, or climbing a ladder and pruning an apple tree. He remained active in his businesses until age 91.

During the funeral sermon, the priest spoke directly to the grandchildren. He challenged them to think about the many fine qualities their grandfather possessed, and pick one to embrace and emulate. I thought that was great advice. Building wealth takes most of us a lifetime of work—and it’s our human capital that makes it possible.

Richard Connor is a semi-retired aerospace engineer with a keen interest in finance. He enjoys a wide variety of other interests, including chasing grandkids, space, sports, travel, winemaking and reading. Follow Rick on Twitter @RConnor609 and check out his earlier articles.

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