A retailer or a restaurant owner might work 18 hours a day--but the landlord makes just as much money from that effort, often more. The cheeseburger gets paid for once, but the rent bill comes every month.
Real estate is an obvious and simple form of asset. In 1928, my great grandfather traded his real estate assets for the sure thing of the stock market. The biggest difference between the rental houses he owned and the worthless stocks he bought was that the houses paid rent every month, while the stocks offered merely the promise of a later payoff.
Some of the assets you can build, not just buy:
Your brand. A brand isn't a logo. It's a promise and an expectation. When you overdeliver, you earn trust, trust that can bring you repeat business, access to new opportunities and the privilege of being able to count on your customers coming back. (Yes, it does hurt to ask).
Permission. The privilege of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to the people who want to get them. People who would miss you if you were gone.
Expertise. You might lose your job, but they can't take away what you've learned. If all you've just done is what you've done before, you might get paid, but you didn't earn an asset.
In just three words, then, there's the huge chasm between the trusted, experienced freelancer, the one you're happy to hear from when she has a new idea, and the newbie or the short-term maximizer. Those guys have to start from scratch, each and every time.
Think about the individual, the entrepreneur or the small organization that has built up trust with a given market, that has permission to talk to that market and that has the expertise to execute on what it promises... Once you have those three, you call the shots. If, on the other hand, you're merely a hard-working employee, doing what you're told, you're never going to get what your effort ought to produce.
Other assets companies can build include processes or machinery and a loyal and talented workforce. Individuals, though, can pay attention to, protect and amplify the first three as they do their work. They don't take care of themselves, because there's always pressure to trade them in for short-term rewards.
One of the biggest shifts the connection economy has brought is that assets are no longer reserved for companies and organizations. Now that everyone has the ability to own a slice of the attention paid to media, now that everyone can build and nurture a network, assets are no longer off limits to people who work for a living.
Your choice: intentionally build and nurture your assets, or ignore them in the pursuit of the next thing...