According to my "Rich Habits" study, in which I spent five years observing and documenting the daily activities of 233 wealthy individuals (all had at least $160,000 in annual gross income and $3.2 million in net assets), I found that there are four main paths to becoming a multimillionaire:
- The Saver-Investors path: No matter what their day job is, individuals in this group make saving and investing part of their daily routine. They're constantly thinking about smart ways to grow their wealth.
- The Company Climbers path: Climbers work for a large company and devote all of their time and energy to climbing the corporate ladder until they land a senior executive position — with an extremely high salary.
- The Virtuosos path: This group is among the best at what they do in their profession, and they're paid a high premium for their knowledge and expertise. Formal education, such as advanced degrees (e.g., in law or medicine), is usually a requirement.
- The Dreamers path: The individuals in this group are all in pursuit of a dream, such starting their own business, becoming a successful actor, musician or best-selling author. Dreamers love what they do for a living, and their passion shows up in their bank accounts.
About 28% of the individuals in my study were Dreamers. They had an average net worth of $7.4 million — far more than any other group in my study — and they were able to accumulate that wealth over a period of roughly 12 years.
This is the fastest, most rewarding path to wealth — and it's also the one that guarantees the most money. Consider this year's Forbes 400 list, for example: Seven out of the 10 richest billionaires in the world, including Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Michael Bloomberg, are all Dreamers who got rich by starting their own company.
The Dreamers path, however, also happens to be the hardest, riskiest and most stressful one. "At worst, it's a daily walk through hell," one Dreamer told me. "It's riddled with hurdles, letdowns, mistakes, disappointments, rejections and financial struggles."
It takes enormous physical and mental endurance to walk the Dreamers path. Here are some of the biggest reasons why:
- Long work hours: The Dreamers in my study worked anywhere from 65 to 75 hours per week before finally achieving their dreams. Weekends and vacations were almost non-existent. These long work hours impacted everyone in the Dreamer's immediate orbit. Family and friends were hit the hardest by their absence.
- Stressful lifestyle: Until the "dream" begins to pay off, making ends meet can cause almost intolerable financial stress. It's especially hard for those who have a family to support. Early into the path, getting a steady paycheck is nearly impossible. Some of the Dreamers I studied even had to dip into their retirement savings.
- High risks: Dreamers, by nature, are gamblers; they're willing to put everything they own on the line — their homes, their cars, their savings. Also, there's absolutely no guarantee of success. In fact, more than half the Dreamers I studied said they failed several times. And failure can often lead to bankruptcy.
- Demotivating: Because Dreamers have such highly ambitious goals — many of which may seem nearly impossible to achieve — some people (with good intentions, of course) try talking them into pursuing another path. Dreamers also hear the word "no" a lot. A handful of them told me that there were several times when they considered giving up altogether.
If you're risk-averse, this path may not be for you. But if you possess any of the traits or habits below, you might just succeed as a Dreamer:
- Working for a boss isn't an option. Dreamers prefer to work for themselves, rather than under the direction of a manager or employer. They can't stand being given orders, and they like to do things their own way.
- You are goal-oriented. You set daily, monthly, annual and long-term goals. To Dreamers, the definition of a goal is, "Something I need to accomplish," rather than, "Something I will try to accomplish."
- You engage in self-improvement every day. Are you constantly working on how to become stronger, smarter, faster and better than your competitors? No matter how busy they were, the Dreamer in my study spent at least 30 minutes a day doing things like reading, exercising, attending seminars, taking classes and networking.
- You live a lifestyle of moderation. Dreamers don't spend on things they don't need. You'll rarely find a Dreamer dining out at a fancy restaurant or splurging on a fancy car in the early days of his or her career.
- You accomplish your daily tasks. Dreamers have a "must do it now" mindset when it comes to getting things done. The wealthy individuals in this group completed at least 70% to 80% of the tasks on their daily to-do list. This isn't easy for the average person. "Procrastination is never an option," one Dreamer noted.
- You don't dwell on your failures. While you know the importance of learning from your failures, you tend to focus more on your successes. The Dreamers I studied all kept some sort of "victory log" — a list of every impressive thing they accomplished. And when they're faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, they revisit that list. The victory log is the firewall that prevents doubt from holding Dreamers back.
Dreamers stay in the game because they are extremely confident that they'll succeed — and they're willing pay huge dividends down the road to make things happen. So the next time you see a millionaire entrepreneur, don't envy them for what they have. Envy them for their relentless persistence.
Tom Corley is an accountant, financial planner and author of "Rich Kids: How to Raise Our Children to Be Happy and Successful in Life" and "Rich Habits: The Daily Success Habits of Wealthy Individuals."
Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!