Long before David M. Rubenstein became a billionaire, before he began donating millions to the National Zoo and millions more to help repair the Washington Monument, he was just a kid looking for a way out of his blue-collar neighborhood in Baltimore.

“I realized that if you’re going to get somewhere in life, you’ve got to be able to communicate what you want,” said Rubenstein, 62. “So I tried very hard to learn how to be a speaker, how to write and talk intelligently, and also read a lot to learn as much about the world as possible.”

Rubenstein went on to co-found the Carlyle Group, a global asset-management firm based in Washington. Since then, far more attention has been paid to how much money he makes and how much he gives away than on how he developed the drive and talent to succeed.

So, as the nation’s political leaders wrangle over ways to create more economic opportunity, here’s how one man went about creating his own. Education is the key. For even if the country does become a place where “everybody gets a fair shot,” as President Obama likes to say, it won’t amount to much if you don’t know how to shoot.

“I tended to do schoolwork by myself and didn’t need a lot of help,” Rubenstein recalled. “My parents would say, ‘If you work hard enough, you’ll figure it out yourself.’ ”

Kennedy Center board chairman David Rubenstein photographed at his Carlyle Group office on April 27, 2010 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post) (Ricky Carioti/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Rubenstein did not receive the kind of education that addles the mind, where teachers “teach to the test” and students learn by rote, as happens in so many public schools. He learned to think for himself — and the teaching began at home.

“I was fortunate to have a loving set of parents who were committed to my education,” Rubenstein said. “They wanted me to do well in school, and their approval meant a lot. When your parents tell you, ‘We are proud of you,’ and they tell the neighbors what a good job you did, that’s incentive.”

Rubenstein’s father, Robert, had dropped out of high school to join the Marines during World War II. After returning from Europe, he got a job as a postal worker and married Bettie, who worked at a dress shop. He was 20; she was 17.

To this day, parents need not have lots of formal education to make sure that their children learn to read, write and think.

Rubenstein grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. At the time, restrictive covenants prohibited Jews and African Americans from buying homes in white neighborhoods. “Until I was 11 or so, I thought everybody was Jewish,” Rubenstein recalled. “I’d see people working hard and getting well-educated so I always felt that’s how you get ahead.”

A supportive community where neighbors live by middle-class values — regardless of income, race or religion — is second only to the family as an incubator for success.

Rubenstein won an academic scholarship to Duke and attended the University of Chicago Law School. At 27, he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter as deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy. Through it all, he maintained a habit that began even before he entered high school: reading four or five books a week and “speed reading” through at least a half-dozen newspapers a day.

In 1987, a light bulb went on and, “just to try something different,” he and two others started the asset-management firm. Roughly 20 years later, a uniquely American phenomenon had occurred: Rubenstein, born into the lower end of what has come to be called the “99 percent” of income earners, had catapulted himself into the upper echelons of the “1 percent.”

Few would likely pass up on a chance to do the same.

“Look, I know capitalism has its problems; it’s not always fair,” Rubenstein said. “I helped to start a company with virtually no money, and now I have more than I ever anticipated.” Last year, he gave away more than $26 million — most of it to schools and other charitable causes in the Washington area.

Rubenstein calls himself “lucky,” but some might argue that we create our luck through rigorous study, hard work and determination.

And if, like Rubenstein’s parents, we don’t hit the jackpot ourselves, we can always do more to improve the odds for our children.

For Courtland Milloy’s previous columns, go to postlocal.com.

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