Spotlight: Keith Cameron Smith

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Want to get to the top financially? Take advice from those who are already there.

Financial guru Keith Cameron Smith, author of the best-selling “The Spiritual Millionaire” and himself a self-made millionaire at age 33, invested $100,000 and two years of his life to meet face to face with some of the world’s wealthiest people to learn what makes them tick.

Overwhelmed by the life lessons they imparted, Smith holed himself up in a North Carolina cabin and, in one week, distilled their wisdom into a 100-page crib note for successful thinking, “The Top 10 Distinctions Between Millionaires and the Middle Class.”

Some of the distinctions are common-sensical (millionaires think long-term, the middle class, short-term; millionaires take risks, the middle class avoids risk). Others are quite illuminating (millionaires ask themselves empowering questions, the middle class ask themselves disempowering questions; millionaires learn and grow, the middle class, not so much).

At a glance
Name: Keith Cameron Smith
Hometown: Ormond Beach, Fla.
Education: Calvary Christian Academy, Ormond Beach, Fla.
Career highlights:
  • Author of the national best-seller, “The Spiritual Millionaire” and “The Top 10 Distinctions Between Millionaires and the Middle Class.”
  • Entrepreneur and self-made millionaire at age 33.
  • Hosted “Flames of Truth,” a motivational radio program, for five years.
  • Hosts seminars and teaches success principles to individuals, churches and companies across America.

Smith, who became independently wealthy with a string of furniture stores in his hometown of Ormond Beach, Fla., continues to seek opportunities in networking and real estate as he travels the country teaching financial success principles to individuals and companies.

Smith spoke with Bankrate to share his insights into how to think like a millionaire.

You were not born wealthy.

(Laughs) Oh no. I grew up on the lower end of the middle class. My dad never made more than $25,000 a year. He sold auto parts to different garages. He had different routes to a couple of different towns around Florida.

Did you attend college?

I went to college for two weeks and said that’s not for me. I’m on the list of millionaires that just did it in the real world and didn’t go to school. School is phenomenal for some people. Some people absolutely need to go to school as part of their purpose. But some people don’t need to go to school. They don’t need to get a good job so the government or your corporation can take care of you, because as we know, that formula doesn’t work anymore.

When you go through failures like I have and like other millionaires have, you learn something on an emotional level that you cannot learn when you go to college. When you get intellectual knowledge from a book or a lecture, it’s not the same as investing money in something and then seeing all that money disappear. When you learn something on an emotional level, that is what really starts making you stronger.

Your original goal was to be a golf pro, right? What happened?

I had an apprentice position at the LPGA International in Daytona Beach when they first got started. I helped them get their pro shop up and running, and I had my handicap down to about a 4 and I thought for sure I was going to pursue golf as a career. I took the PAT, the player’s ability test, a couple of times — that’s where you have to play a couple of rounds and shoot like 150 between two rounds of golf. And I could never do it; my nerves just couldn’t handle it. But that was one of the turning points in my life. I sat down with the pro there at the time and asked how long it was going to be before I could really start making good money. I was making $20,000 a year as an apprentice. He said, “I’m going to be honest with you. It’s going to be at least five or six years before you can move up.” And I said no way, I’m not going to sit here and make $20,000 a year for five or six years.

How did you lift yourself out of the middle class?

Education. I started learning, but it wasn’t education in the school system. It was education from my real-world experience as an entrepreneur and taking risks and having some good successes and some failures, too. Those are always tough when you go through them, but I honestly can say, thank God for those, too. Because those are the situations I really learned the most from, so I had some new knowledge to apply on the next endeavor.

Your book seems to strip down dozens of motivational books to their essence.

What I tried to do in my book was to stay away from specific areas like real estate or stocks or small businesses and instead encourage people to pursue their own passion to create wealth. What would they love to do to wake up and make money every morning? That’s the key to it. By far, one of the biggest things I learned talking to all these millionaires was they really enjoyed whatever they were doing.

You maintain that the wealthy expect different things from money than the rest of us. How so?

The very poor and the poor are stuck in survival mode; they just want to survive. The primary goal of middle-class people is comfort; I just want to have enough; I just want to be comfortable. When you get into the rich and the very rich, their primary goal is freedom; I’m going to do whatever it takes to experience freedom. That’s the biggest difference. It’s OK to have a plan for survival. It’s OK to have a plan for comfort. But just make sure that most of your mental energy is focused on freedom. Then you’ll start experientially understanding the old saying, “Seek and you will find.” If you seek to survive, you will. If you seek to be comfortable, you will be. But if you seek freedom, you will find it. It just takes longer to create freedom in your life than it does to create survival. Does it take longer to grow a weed or an oak tree? Financial freedom is like an oak tree, where survival or comfort is like growing a weed or a little bush; it doesn’t take too long.

Do you remember when you turned the corner and began to think like a rich man?

Yeah, I do. I can remember banging my head against the inside of an elevator. I had just worked 11 hours at a golf course as an assistant pro, and I was going to work at a high-dollar restaurant that night from 7 until midnight, and I was banging my head against the elevator, thinking, “God, there’s got to be an easier way to make money than this.” Shortly after that, I decided I was done working for somebody else. I was going to learn how to earn profits. That has made all the difference. From the age of 15 to 25, I worked for wages. At 25, I started working for profits, and at 33, I became a millionaire for the first time.

Many would ask, what’s wrong with wages?

When you’re working for wages, your income can only go up a little bit over a long period of time. But if you work for profits, your income can go up dramatically in a much shorter amount of time. I really think people can become financially free in the next four to six years if they learn to earn profits. But if they’re working for wages their whole life, chances are they’re never going to become financially free. It is possible, but it takes 30 to 40 years. There’s nothing wrong with working for a paycheck, working for wages, but just make sure some of your mental energy is going toward learning how to earn profits and the day will come when you will become financially free.

You make a case that playing it too safe keeps most people from financial freedom. How do you overcome the fear of risk?

As one of the mentors I spoke with, Nido Qubein, told me, “Keith, if you take risk out of life, you take opportunity out of life.” A lot of people don’t understand that risk is opportunity. You overcome the fear of risk with three questions: What’s the best that could happen? What’s the worst that could happen? And what’s most likely to happen? If you ask those questions when an opportunity arises, the answers can give you some insight. If the most likely thing to happen will get you closer to your goals and if the worst thing that could happen does happen and you’re OK with that, you’re willing to live with it or go through it, then you go for it and you take action. But if the most likely thing to happen is not going to get you any closer to your goals, and if the worst thing that could happen does happen and you’re not willing to go through it, you simply don’t do it.

Most millionaires have made mistakes and learned from them. What’s your worst mistake?

A Barney’s Coffee franchise. I started one and lost about $300,000 in it about two years ago. I found a double drive-through location and I thought it just could not fail. A lot of people think franchises are sure things, but they absolutely are not. I put about $250,000 to keep this thing up and running, and after about 18 months, I finally pulled the plug. There comes a time when you have to pull the plug, cut your losses and go on to the next thing. I had to pay another $50,000 to pay off some equipment leases just to get out of the business.

Some people reject the idea of wealth, “It’s lonely at the top” and so forth. What do you say to them?

A lot of people are still stuck in the comfort mode. They just want to have enough, and they think if they pursue all that money, they’ll lose their family; they’ll lose their health. That’s not me at all. God, family and finances are my priorities. I never wanted to be somebody that went after financial freedom and lost my health or lost my family. I refuse to go down that path. But I’ve known people that do that. They put money as such a high priority in life that they lose the things that matter most. But if you keep your priorities in order and focus on financial freedom, it’s a wonderful world. I love people and I use things. There are some millionaires out there that love things and use people, and that is definitely the wrong formula.

Do you manage your own money?

I did everything on my own, yes. I never went to a professional to handle my money for me. What I’ve come to find out is, while some of those guys are great, a lot of those guys just put on a front. They’re making $50,000 a year and they’re trying to tell someone who is making a million dollars a year how to invest their money and they really don’t know; they’re just doing what they’ve been told to do. I’m not knocking anyone. If you’re going to use one, make sure you find a good one who is doing very well financially themselves.

What do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?

There are some things we do for money that are only good for a certain reason. That’s why we have to keep our eyes open for new opportunities. I’m constantly polishing my portfolio and looking at different forms of income. I never got heavily involved in the stock market. I am still dabbling in real estate but nothing real serious right now. I’m still a young entrepreneur. I still have a lot to learn. I haven’t mastered all those principles; I’m still living them on a daily basis. When I focus on them, it seems like opportunities come my way and I make some better decisions. It’s not just about the money. It’s about the learning process.