Secret to Success

Authors in the cottage industry of “Get Rich Quick” books offer bullet-pointed plans, secret schemes, and peppy mantras promising to help make you a millionaire. What finance magazine writer Ryan D’Agostino ’97 found far more intriguing, and potentially valuable to readers, were first-person accounts of how real Americans became wealthy.

Mega-success stories—Trump, Gates, Buffett—have already been well documented. D’Agostino wondered about everyday residents in prosperous burgs and ’burbs. What wisdom could they impart?

To investigate America’s Average Joe and Jane Millionaire, D’Agostino reinvented himself as a “door-to-door journalist.” He designed a quixotic project: Show up unannounced at houses in America’s 100 wealthiest ZIP codes and talk to well-heeled homeowners. His hypothesis? “If I knocked on enough doors in enough preposterously rich enclaves, I might gather enough insight and guidance to help me . . . understand how to get rich,” he writes. His secret weapons? A pen and $1.79 steno pad always in hand.

D’Agostino chronicles his quest in Rich Like Them: My Door-to-Door Search for the Secrets of Wealth in America’s Richest Neighborhoods (Little, Brown and Co., 2009). It’s a breezily written account of his blistered-filled journey, from scorching sidewalks in Paradise Valley, Arizona, to the shivering wintry seashore of Westport, Connecticut. Ultimately, he hit 19 towns in 11 states, walking almost 60 miles and knocking on 500 doors to get 50 interviews.

Only the more adventurous residents “bothered” to chat with him, D’Agostino asserts, those “operating on the theory that infinite possibility exists in the unknown.” The author admits his “sampling of people was sparse and thoroughly unscientific.”

Nonetheless, the unusual approach yields fascinating and informative results. “Knocking on strangers’ doors reveals a town’s fiber, its small glories, its rust and dents, its quiet spots,” D’Agostino muses. By observing the affluent-American species in its natural habitat, the author focuses on understanding the sociology and psychology of individuals who prosper, rather than merely distilling business or financial tips from them. The people he meets inspire him, and he hopes that “their stories might inspire you to rewrite your own.”

D’Agostino organizes their tales around five themes: connections, luck, obsession, risk, and humility. Copious subheads within each chapter bristle with bold-faced maxims, often straight from the Corporate Cliché of the Month Club. (Connect the People You Meet!) The narrative’s vigor comes from anecdotes that illustrate the traits and truisms. Some interviewees have traveled delightfully unorthodox paths while putting prosperity platitudes into practice.

In Beverly Hills, California, retired character-actor Harvey Jason memorably connects people and passions. His small used-book store became an “inadvertent networking triumph” as former Hollywood colleagues came looking for film-related books, one of Jason’s special interests. They also happily autographed movie literature related to their own careers, and Mystery Pier Books fast became the place to find rare industry-related merchandise.

Frank Heurich, of Lake Forest, Illinois, vividly illustrates Chapter Two’s topic: Luck Doesn’t Exist. For more than 50 years, his company has manufactured just one machine, which peels and deveins shrimp. The firm doesn’t sell the pricey, propriety device, instead leasing the expensive equipment to clients month-to-month, maintaining and upgrading it continually. “By assuming all the risk, we’re announcing that we have confidence in our product,” says Heurich. “And that we can keep the customer happy.”

Jason, Heurich, and most of D’Agostino’s interviewees come across as earnest and unassuming. Becoming “rich like them” seems accessible. They aren’t all that different from you, the author asserts, just “smart people with motivation and a few good ideas.” Especially during tough economic times, it’s a refreshing take on the American Dream.

 **

Island Light (MacAdam/Cage, 2010) is the final novel in the trilogy written by Katherine Towler, MA English ’84, which includes Snow Island and Evening Ferry. Unlike most trilogies, this one plays loosely with a wide range of characters and instead keeps central the small and isolated island off the coast of New England upon which all of the stories take place. (And as this reviewer had the fortune of reading all three, it’s a personal indulgence to review this final story in its sequence—though certainly it can be read and enjoyed on its own.)

In a well-choreographed dance between time and place, Towler has moved her story from the first novel, which takes place in the early 1940s, through the second in the mid-’60s, to the final installment in 1990.

In addition to the now familiar island terrain, the common thread of turbulent war and equally stormy relationships also connect the three tales. World War II was the catalyst in Snow Island, spreading its shadow over a group of young people coming to terms with their isolated life on a remote island amidst a suddenly exposed worldview. The cultural and political disillusionment of Vietnam pervades Evening Ferry, revealing a lackluster and emotionally paralyzed cast of characters. And in Island Light, the strange and somewhat surreal news bulletins of the burgeoning Persian Gulf conflict—in which disembodied voices reported from the bombed and darkened city of Baghdad in a new language of “tracers” and “desert storm”—incongruously connects a comfortably detached community.

This final story focuses alternately on three main characters—Ruth Lambert, Nick McGarrell, and Nora Venable—each tied to the island in an inextricable way, each struggling with issues of relationships and identity in a way that ends up being somewhat inconclusive by the end. Nick is a Vietnam veteran and has returned with his quiet pain to live near his parents and toil as a carpenter while engaging in a dead-end affair with a married woman. Ruth has come back to the island to consider the future of the less-than-majestic Snow Inn, inherited from her deceased aunt. And Nora is an openly gay older woman, more than comfortable with her sexuality and only wanting to find a quiet peace on the island to live out her days with the woman she loves.

It’s a gentle clashing of cultures and personal needs, but an intriguing and engaging story throughout. A significant occurrence is the fire that rampages through Nora’s family mansion and intertwines the lives of the islanders in a way that jars their typical comfort level of perfunctory nods and ferry-dock conversations.

In the end, it is a story of unremarkable beauty depicting life as it unfolds in a small place far from everyone and everywhere else. A tidy epilogue goes so far as to capture their lives, one by one, in their utter unchanged-ness. The most aged of the characters, George Tibbets, who made his first appearance in Snow Island, notes of his leaving the island—perhaps for the last time—“The place would wait for him, as always had.” And so the island remains.

Recently Published

  • Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League (Lawrence Hill Books, 2010) by Martha Ackmann, MA English ’79
  • The Wish Stealers (Aladdin, 2010) by Tracy Trivas, MA English ’04
  • Damage Control: How to Tiptoe Away from the Smoking Wreckage of Your Latest Screw-up with a Minimum of Harm to Your Reputation (McClelland and Stewart, 2010) by David Eddie ’84
  • Living with Crohn’s and Colitis: A Comprehensive Naturopathic Guide for Complete Digestive Wellness (Hatherleigh Press, 2010) by Dede Cummings ’79 and Jessica Black, ND
  • How Tía Lola Learned to Teach (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) by Julia Alvarez ’71

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