Leadership

How one man went from felon to self-made millionaire by age 40

At the age of 16, Mark Erwin was behind bars. He had been caught committing fraud, forging his mother's signature on checks to get cash.

"I was sitting in jail for a felony that I did in fact commit," Erwin told CNBC.

The teenager had been kicked out of high school. His mother suffered from alcoholism and the family was squandering an inheritance from previous generations.

He couldn't even vote yet and he was close to screwing up his life. While awaiting his sentencing, he prayed for a second chance.

He got one. When Erwin entered the courtroom, the judge offered him the opportunity to trade four years of jail time in exchange for court-ordered service in the military. Erwin accepted, and during his time at the Air Force, he read two books that changed his life.

"Somebody gave me two dog-eared paperback books," Erwin recalls, "and said, 'You need to read these books.'"

The books were "The Power of Positive Thinking" by Norman Vincent Peale and "Think and Grow Rich" by Napoleon Hill.

"I started reading them and I couldn't stop," he says.

Those books taught him some key lessons.

Stop making excuses.

In "Think and Grow Rich," Hill writes, "You can make your life what you want it to be." That resonated with Erwin.

"The first and only thing that matters is, your history doesn't matter," Erwin says. "It's what you make from today forward that really matters."

As a teenager, Erwin blamed his family's mistakes for his own problems. But in order to make his own financial success, he knew he had to take ownership of his life.

"'It's up to you,'" he recalls telling himself. "'If you're a loser from here forward, it's because of you.'"

Set goals and have a vision for achieving them.

"The other thing I learned was the importance of setting goals and having a vision," Erwin says.

The author of "The Power of Positive Thinking" writes, "Formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously."

For Erwin, that vision, as he describes in his book "The Powers: 12 Principles to Transform Your Life from Ordinary to Extraordinary," was to become a millionaire.

"At 18 years of age, I developed my vision while still in the Air Force," Erwin says. "My vision was to restore my family's wealth and prestige."

He was going to be a millionaire by the time he was 40, he decided, despite having "no education, no resources, no prospects and a [criminal] record."

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Be persistent.

To achieve his goal, Erwin decided he would have to work hard. After his time with the Air Force, he landed a job managing real estate for UPS. "When I got there, I outworked everybody," he says. "I out-planned everybody and I rose through the organization."

And while Erwin advanced in his career, he saved as much as he could. Once he had accumulated what felt like a good amount, he began investing in real estate. Soon his money was working as hard as he was.

"Persistence is absolutely critical," he says.

At age 38, he became a millionaire. And he kept going. By his early 40s, he was a multimillionaire.

He worked in banking and even served as the U.S. Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros. Today he manages an investment capital firm and is a motivational speaker.

Erwin says that he hopes his book, which details the lessons he learned, inspires others to make real changes the same way Hill's and Peale's books inspired him.

Video by Zack Guzman.