21 Surprising Quotes & Anecdotes from the life of John D Rockefeller

The word I first conjure up when I think of the name, "Rockefeller" is "money." Others soon arrive, "Robber Barron", "Monopoly" and "Industrialist." Words that didn't come close to popping into my mind: "Austere", "Devout", "Thrifty" and "Giver". 

After listening to the fair-minded Rockefeller biography, by Ron Chernow, I walked away struck by how wrong my picture of Rockefeller was. I was so shocked by my new found revelation of the man that I wanted to help others get acquainted with him, without having to commit 40 hours of listening/reading time. 

So, I pulled together 21 surprising quotes and anecdotes from Rockefeller's life. I hope this gives you a new perspective on the man who became the most generous philanthropist in American history.

Note: Many of these quotations are taken directly from Chernow's book. Unless otherwise noted, assume the author's voice.

First, to understand Rockefeller, you must understand the time in which he lived. Chernow illuminates that the Zeitgeist of Rockefeller's day was that work was the greatest adventure life afforded. Mark Twain (a contemporary and friend of Rockefeller and son) even remarked, "To the young American, the paths to fortune are innumerable and all open. There is invitation in the air and success in all his wide horizon." This is where we find Rockefeller.

1) John D Rockefeller's beliefs on money formed by a Christian minister

John D. rememberers when the financial plan for his life was formed. It was given to him by a minister who said, 

"Get money. Get it honestly and then give it wisely." 

John D. wrote that down in a little book and reflected on it often.

John Wesley said something similar, "If those who gain all they can and save all they can will likewise give all they can, then the more they will grow in grace."

2) Rockefeller cautioning himself as a young man after his first few successes

"Because you have got a start you think you are quite a merchant. Look out or you will lose your head. Are you going to let this money puff you up? Keep your eyes open. Don't lose your balance."


3) Rockefeller was not a workaholic

Rockefeller bridled at the notion that he was a business obsessed drudge, a slave to the office. 

"I know of nothing more despicable and pathetic than a man who devotes all the waking hours of the day to making money for money's sake."

4) Rockefeller on Work-Life Balance & Productivity

Rockefeller worked at a more leisurely pace than other executives of his day. He napped daily after lunch and often dozed in a lounge chair after dinner. Rockefeller, who lived to 98, explained the reason for his longevity, "I'm here because I did less work, lived more in the open air, enjoyed the open air sunshine and exercise."

By his mid-30s, he had installed a telegraph wire between home and office so he could spend three or four afternoons each week at home planting trees, gardening, and enjoying the sunshine. Rockefeller didn't do this in a purely recreational spirit, but mingled work and rest to pace himself and improve his productivity.

"It is remarkable how much we all could do if we avoid hustling and go along at an even pace and keep from attempting too much."

There was a clockwork regularity to Rockefeller's life that made it seem mechanical to outsiders, but that he found soothing. Each hour was tightly budgeted whether for religion, business, family or exercise.

5) The power to make money is a gift like any other

"I believe the power to make money is a gift from God just as are the instincts for art, music, literature, the doctor's talent, the nurses, yours; to be developed and used to the best of our ability for the good of mankind. Having been endowed with the gift I possess, I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money and to use the money I make for the good of my fellow man according to the dictates of my own conscience." 

Rockefeller would go on to give away $530 million dollars  (nearly $7 billion in today's money)

6) Rockefeller (a devout Christian) was concerned, not with making buckets of money, but with bringing the then wild and speculative oil market under control and providing stable prices for customers and producers 

What's most striking is that every time Rockefeller explained the rationale for Standard Oil he resorted to patently religious imagery. "The Standard was an angel of mercy reaching down from the sky and saying get into the ark, put in your old junk, we will take care of all the risks." Rockefeller sensed that this was his calling and the proof of it was in the growing success of the Standard Oil company.

7) Two of Rockefeller's most cherished maxims 

"Success comes from keeping the ears open and the mouth closed."


"A man of words and not of deeds is like a garden full of weeds."

Rockefeller equated silence with strength. Weak men were those who exhibited loose tongues.

8) Rockefeller on the power of concentration and persistence

"Do not many of us who fail to achieve big things, fail because we lack concentration? The art of concentrating the mind on the proper thing to be done at the proper time and to the exclusion of everything else?"

9) Rockefeller on the importance of routine and rest

Rockefeller adhered to a fixed schedule, moving through the day in a frictionless manner. His post-prandial nap was designed to conserve energy and help him strike an ideal balance between his physical and mental forces. "It is not good to keep all the forces attention all the time."

10) What Rockefeller's employee's thought of him

An early biographer said, "He was the best employer of his time, instituting hospitalization and retirement pensions."

His employees tended to revere Rockefeller and wanted to please him, as one said, "I have never heard of his equal in getting together a lot of the very best men on one team and inspiring each man to do his best for the enterprise. He was so big, so broad, so patient. I don't believe a man like him comes to this world oftener than once in 500 or 600 years."

A Standard Oil exec had this to say, "Rockefeller always sees a little further than the rest of us, and then he sees around the corner."

11) Rockefeller on the importance of people skills

Far more than a technocrat (a highly skilled expert of an elite group), Rockefeller was an inspirational leader who asserted a magnetic power over workers and especially prized executives with social skills.

"The ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee. And I pay more for that ability than for any other under the sun."

12) Rockefeller on training and developing his team

"Often the best way to develop workers, when you are sure they have character and think they have ability, is to take them to a deep place throw them in and make them sink or swim. They will not fail."

13) Rockefeller and his wife were devout Christians and didn't represent the Gilded Age excesses like other contemporaries of his day 

Amid the murky temptations of Manhattan, the Rockefeller home was a tranquil island of missionary work, temperance work, and prayer vigils.

14) Rockefeller on why some men fail & economic equality

"The failures that a man makes in his life are due almost always to some defect in his personality, some weakness of body, mind or character, will or temperament."

15) Rockefeller practiced the principle of hiring only the best

Rockefeller placed a premium on hiring the best people for leading positions. 

"John, (referring to his son, Jr.) we have money, but it will have value for mankind only if we can find able men with ideas, imagination and courage to put it in to productive use."

16) Rockefeller and his austerity 

Rockefeller's life struck many observers as strangely cramped given his gargantuan wealth. He had an annual income of $58 million in 1902 ($1 billion in our money today), yet Rockefeller spent just $439,000 that year.  

Rockefeller engaged in strenuous rituals of austerity and he grimly sought to simplify his life and reduce his wants. He liked to say that, "A man's wealth must be determined by the relation of his desires and his expenditures to his income. If he feels rich on $10 and has everything else he desires, he really is rich."

17) Rockefeller the biggest giver in US history

Rockefeller far surpassed Andrew Carnegie and others in his charitable contributions and ranks as the greatest philanthropist in American history. 

18) Rockefeller on thrift

When playing golf, and around water holes, Rockefeller insisted his foursome switch to old golf balls and marveled at profligate players who used new balls in these treacherous places. "They must be very rich," he'd say.

19) What Henry Ford saw when he met John D Rockefeller

Henry Ford upon meeting John D Rockefeller, "As soon as I saw his face, I knew what had made the Standard Oil company."

20) Rockefeller and his dimes & nickels

Rockefeller was a celebrity in his twilight years. Kids would approach him all the time as he strolled down the street. He was known for handing out dimes and nickels and admonishing them to save and invest and not spend haphazardly. On passing out dimes, he remarked, "I think it is easier to remember a lesson when we have some token to recall it by, something we can look at which reminds us of the idea.

21) John D Rockefeller's legacy

The great bulk of John D Rockefeller's wealth was ultimately plowed back into worthwhile projects and the public purse. It would be difficult to find another family who has done more for the American people than the Rockefeller's. To be sure, he was far from perfect, but, after conquering the 700 page biography from Chernow, I believe him more a saint than scoundrel. 

His descendants also learned well from their Patriarch and were worth more than $6.2 billion in 1996 and many of them very active in philanthropy.