Sam Zell Quotes on taking risks, learning and being self-made

Last updated: May 19, 2023

I’ve always been fascinated by outspoken entrepreneurs, especially those that have built a massive empire but aren’t necessarily household names.

Sam Zell fits that bill perfectly.

Sam Zell: Am I Being Too Subtle? Straight Talk From a Business Rebel


Sam Zell made his fortune through real estate. I’ve been learning a lot more about real estate lately. I still don’t really understand it, but I’m trying!

The book “Am I Being Too Subtle” by Sam Zell was full of great zingers and stories. I found his attitude and advice particularly refreshing in a sea of “me-too-business” books talking about real estate and investing. 

Sam Zell quotes from the book Am I being too subtle

Here are some of my favorite quotes and insights from the book.

“I have little patience for small talk; I didn’t then and I don’t today.”

Comic of two businessmen having small talk

“Risk is the ultimate differentiator. I have always had a deep and complex relationship with it. I am not a reckless person, but taking risks is really the only way to consistently achieve above-average returns—in life as well as in investments.”

“Reputation is your most important asset. Everything you do, everything you say, is a part of the permanent record. Your name reflects your character.” 

“You don’t go wheeling and dealing for the money, you do it for fun. Money is just a way of keeping score.”

“The environment you spend most of your waking hours in reflects who you are and the type of people you want working with you and for you.”

“There is tremendous value in being a good listener.”

“All the opportunity in the world means nothing if you don’t actually pull the trigger.”

“I grew up believing that anything is possible. And when you’re not aware there are any limitations, nothing stops you from trying”

“I believe the fundamentals of business — supply and demand, liquidity equals value, good corporate governance , and reliable partners , to name a few — apply across the board.”

“The bottom line is if you’re really good at what you do, you have the freedom to be who you really are.”

“Where there is scarcity, price is no object. This basic tenet of supply and demand would later become a governing principle of my investment philosophy.”

“An entrepreneur is anyone who is independent, creative, inventive, and willing to take risks.”

“I realized my legal education was invaluable; it taught me how to assess, how to think, and where to draw the line.”

“I’m seventy – five; I work out every morning at 4:45, I’m at the office by 6:30 a.m., and I don’t get home from work until 7:00 at night.”

drawing of bird that says early bird gets the worm “I also read risk for a living. I am very focused on understanding the downside.”

“Frankly, there’s no substitute for limited competition. You can be a genius, but if there’s a lot of competition it won’t matter.”

“One of my favorite quotes, paraphrased, is “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

“Risk is the ultimate differentiator. I have always had a deep and complex relationship with it. I am not a reckless person, but taking risks is really the only way to consistently achieve above – average returns — in life as well as in investments.”

“History shows that businesses get buried when they don’t delegate enough — but also when they delegate too much.”

“There’s a baseline IQ level needed to work at my firm, but I don’t need rocket scientists. After that, what best predicts your success in my world is drive, energy, attitude, judgment, conviction, and passion . And an ability to cut to the center of an issue. I’d trade another twenty IQ points for those qualities any day.”

“With today’s access to an overwhelming amount of information, most of it drivel, you have to focus on what’s meaningful.”

“When I interview new candidates for jobs, the first question I always ask them is “How hungry are you?”Hunger equals drive — an ever – present alertness that is always reaching , always stretching. It is priceless.”

Dog and guy with newspaper

Is Sam Zell self-made?

“People always want to know whether I am “self – made.” Usually when they ask the question , they mean were my parents rich ? The answer is no, my parents weren’t rich. When they got to the United States they had about the equivalent of $ 10,000 today. As I was growing up, my father reestablished himself as a successful entrepreneur. 

And by the time he died, my parents were wealthy, partly because of my father’s business and partly because of my own. 

But the question is still interesting, because they actually left me with so much more than money. It was an inheritance of intelligence, curiosity, drive, resilience, and self – determination. 

They instilled in me a commitment to learning and an understanding of how to apply it in real life, to challenge convention — to leave when others stay, to be aware of risk and prepare for it. I certainly feel “self – made” in one sense, but in another I recognize the incredible contribution of my parents in shaping my values and success.”

“The value of how much you learn by seeing people in their own environments. Today I could probably get just about anybody to come to my office for a meeting, but that wouldn’t tell me much. Instead, I spend over a thousand hours a year on my plane traveling around the world to meet with people. I want to see what they are like on their home court, how they treat their people and the examples they set.”

“I was driven to be productive. From my parents I had learned that economic success equals freedom and I realized my legal education was invaluable; it taught me how to assess, how to think, and where to draw the line.”


I liked it! Am I Being Too Subtle by Sam Zell gets a thumbs-up from me.

For more information check the Tim Ferris episode below

Some other books that I liked which are like this include: The Outsiders and The Safari.

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