Kirk Kerkorian Part 5: The Conclusion

I finished reading Kirk Kerkorian’s biography. His journey and what he managed to accomplish are inspiring. When I started this book, I wanted the answers to a few questions:

Why did Kirk become so successful?

Kirk Kerkorian was a learning machine. His formal education ended in eighth grade, but he learned to be a pilot, an aviation entrepreneur, a public market investor, a casino entrepreneur, and a mergers and acquisitions maven. He had a thirst for knowledge around topics that excited him.

Kirk started out trying to make enough money to survive. But after that box was checked, he began thinking bigger. He became an entrepreneur with a vision. He fell in love with Las Vegas in the 1940s and saw what the city could become: an entertainment and leisure travel mecca, an adult Disneyland. His vision led to decades of pursuing projects in Las Vegas that set records and were massive successes. Each moved him closer to turning Vegas into the place he envisioned. Many successful entrepreneurs have mercenary motivations in the beginning, but those who have outsize success are visionaries. Kirk was one of the rare founders who successfully shifted his thinking from one to the other.

Some entrepreneurs are builders. They love turning nothing into something and going from zero to one. Others enjoy optimizing existing companies and taking them from one to ten. Kirk was unusual in that he was good at both. He built massive casinos from the ground up. But he also bought private and public companies outright and optimized them.

Kirk became a shrewd investor. He bought and sold public and private companies. People are usually skilled investors or skilled entrepreneurs, not both. The rare ones who excel at both often realize outsize success. Warren Buffett famously said, "I am a better investor because I am a businessman and a better businessman because I am an investor.” That holds true for Kirk too.

What kind of entrepreneur was Kirk?

Kirk was fair. He didn’t believe in zero-sum games and was adamant that both parties win. He even returned subordinates to the negotiation table after the deals they cut were too favorable to him.

Kirk always kept his cool in the direst of circumstances. He loved the thrill and embraced risk in a major way. He once bet $1 million on a single roll of the dice in the French Rivera. And won! As a pilot, he almost died serval times.

Kirk was grounded. He hated public attention and refused to give speeches or do interviews. He liked that he could go anywhere and no one knew him. The freedom to go anywhere and do anything without being disturbed was priceless to him. As a billionaire, he wore a Timex watch, drove himself around Los Angeles in a Ford Taurus, and lived in a 1,800-square-foot home.

He wasn’t perfect by any means. The book highlights his flaws and gives detailed accounts of some crazy stories from his personal and professional life.

What can entrepreneurs learn from Kirk?

Continuous learning is key to outsize entrepreneurial success. The more you learn and the faster you learn (and figure out how to apply what you learn), the more you increase your chances of success. Wisdom compounds, and you can win by learning faster than everyone else.

You can’t control your starting position in life, but you can control your personal velocity and distance traveled. If you were dealt a bad starting position, get comfortable with the idea of needing to move faster and travel further to end up in the same place as others. It’s not fair, but neither is life. If you want to surpass others, like Kirk did, move even faster and travel even further.

Control matters. Understand the situations in which you could lose control of your company and try to eliminate them.

Last, keep doing what you enjoy. Kirk was still playing tennis and building record-setting development projects in his eighties!

Prefer listening? Catch audio versions of these blog posts, with more context added, on Apple Podcasts here or Spotify here!