EDITOR’S NOTE: I wrote the below review in 2014, after reading the book because it makes many Top 10 lists of favorite or best business books of all time. I still stand by my review, BUT was fascinated to read a long piece of research in December 2016 on Napoleon Hill’s life career. Hill was, it turns out, a complete con artist. Passing bad checks, setting up fake charities and pocketing the money, engaging in securities fraud and fake stock issuances, marrying five times and leaving each of his wives and children in the lurch, and running from the law throughout his life. It’s a fascinating account, and changes the context of this book. In all likelihood, he completely invented the “Andrew Carnegie personally asked me to research this” justification in his book. He made up his connections to famous people, including Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt. He serially lied and cheated his way through life. In that light, the purported ‘effectiveness’ of his advice is a complete fabrication of his imagination. But hey, who am I to say what works?]
Can you simultaneously find something personally un-appealing, yet respect its effectiveness, when considered on its own terms? Of course you can. For example that’s my summary view of Miley Cyrus’ amazing career so far.
I did not enjoy reading Napoleon’s Hill’s Think and Grow Rich – indeed some parts are pretty darn annoying – but I’m intrigued that wholeheartedly embracing the book could help you grow rich. I’ll explain why I didn’t like it, but if some eager-to-get-rich kid asked me for a short-list of book recommendations for that purpose, I’d include this one.
I’m not alone in thinking this one deserves to be ranked at the top of the genre-. I’m making my way through the most highly recommended personal finance books of all time; Think and Grow Rich cracks the Top 10 of most lists.
Napoleon Hill wrote his motivational book in the 1930s, after interviewing hundreds of successful men of business that he met under the imprimatur of Andrew Carnegie. Written in the depths of the Depression, and published in its final period (1937), the book proved a popular tonic to what must have been the gloomy national mood regarding wealth and opportunity.
Think and Grow Rich launched both the self-help and the get-rich book genres and Hill became a pioneer of the motivational-speaker-circuit. Hill’s book is credited as the intellectual predecessor to self-help gurus such as Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) and Tony Robbins (Awaken the Giant Within) as well as get-wealthy gurus such as Dave Ramsey (The Total Money Makeover), and Robert Kiyosaki (Rich Dad, Poor Dad).
The self-help-and-get-rich progeny of Think and Grow Rich might be reason enough for me to trash this book, as I have a severe allergic reaction to finance gurus. I could not stand reading Secrets of the Millionaire Mind by T. Harv Eker for example, as, stylistically, his book oozes snake-oil, alongside some reasonable ideas.
What else did I not like?
A lack of doubt
Unlike 21st Century probabilistic thinkers – Nate Silver is my paragon here – Hill does not admit any doubt in his thought process.
In fact, his “Think and Grow Rich” method requires the suspension of disbelief. He writes in the first chapter that if you doubt his wisdom, his wisdom cannot work for you.
A friend of mine, who recently attended a Tony Robbins “Business Mastery” seminar, told me that this faith component forms a key starting point for Robbins’ classes as well.
“Look,” Robbins explained at the outset of his weekend seminar, “You can decide this is all bullshit. And maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. But for it to work for you at all, you have to suspend disbelief and embrace this. Otherwise you should just go home now.” My friend stayed, and found Robbins utterly compelling.
(I probably would have walked out then. In a related news item, I skipped Catholic mass this past weekend.)
While I find Robbins’ moxy impressive, intellectually I rebel. I remember a lesson from my academic advisor in college about thought-systems that cannot be criticized from within, such as Marxism or Freudianism, without the critic immediately facing intellectual exile from the system – as a member of the bourgeoisie in the former example, or utterly repressed, in the latter.
If you can’t question it, how do you test its reliability? Intellectually, I’m more of a test-your-assumptions kind of guy.
Hill – like his self-help progeny – combines utter certainty in his methods with an early 20th-Century “scientific” style. His style reminds me – and not in a good way – of a more confident age in which “science” and “progress” promised to unlock human motivation, imagination, and self-confidence.
Here’s a sample of Hill’s prose, in which he references his ‘research.’
“From my research, I have concluded that the subconscious mind is the connecting link between the finite mind of man and infinite intelligence. It is the intermediary through which you may draw upon the forces of infinite intelligence. Only the subconscious mind contains the process by which mental impulses (thoughts) are modified and changed into the spiritual (energy) equivalent. It alone is the medium through which prayer (desire) may be transmitted to the source capable of answering prayer (infinite intelligence).”
I mean, read that over again. What can we do with this? This falls somewhere between “certain” science and mystical gobbledygook.
As you can see from that sample, the problem is not just his early 20th Century mode of thought, but also his clunky writing. This gets tedious after a while.
But can this book help you get rich?
Tony Robbins would say that question is far more important than my distaste for pseudo science, unearned certitude, and semi-mystical psychological jargon.
Getting rich is not easy. To go from not-wealthy to wealthy does not happen by accident. Most of us find the process mysterious, the road uncertain, even our own personal agency in the process unknown.
Can we make it happen ourselves? Or is it all mostly luck?
If Hill has a method that helps, who am I to carp?
Here’s why I suspect Hill’s book can help.
His step by step approach, which I’ll outline below, seems to set the right mental conditions for an individual dedicated to pursuing wealth. And if you adopt the attitudes and activities that he warns against, achieving wealth is probably impossible.
He presupposes no particular level of education, or any special leg up in the world for his readers.
Interestingly, for his particular moment in time – and our own moment in time for that matter – Hill sees no structural barriers to wealth creation.
He admits to no insurmountable economic conditions, no vast inequality gaps, no barriers of gender, race, and class standing in the way of an individual getting ahead in the world.
While his disregard of barriers seems naïve – many people do have a much easier starting point and journey than others – the mental attitude of “no barriers” probably is the right one. Even though these barriers exist, a modern Napoleon Hill would probably urge his readers to reset their mental compass and ignore the barriers.
Said another way, few people who self-conceive as victims of a rigged game have the right starting mind-set for pursuing wealth, the way Hill recommends doing it.
It’s all in the mind
Interestingly, Hill specifically declines to spell out in his book what the ‘Secret’ of getting wealthy is, claiming that readers need to open their mind to an unstated, read-between-the-lines message woven throughout his chapters and anecdotes. He claims that readers should, upon finishing his book or upon re-reading it, experience a flash of intuition that will guide them in their journey to great riches. Maybe I’m too prosaic for hidden secrets, but I found his lessons not hidden secrets at all. They are, in fact, easy to summarize, for your benefit.
Hill’s steps to wealth – or any other difficult-to-achieve success.
1. Mastery over your own mind is a key – no, the key – to success. Fears, doubts, procrastination, negativity, defeatism – all of these must be conquered.
2. If you want to get wealthy – or achieve other difficult-to-achieve non-monetary goals – you need to set extremely specific goals: How much money you will obtain down to the precise dollar amount, by what precise date, and through what process. Write it all down, say it out loud, commit it to memory, and post it in a place where you can see it every day.
3. Decide, very specifically, what you are willing to sacrifice in order to achieve your goal – since nothing in life comes for free.
4. Repeat out loud to yourself the goal from step #2 as a mantra, upon waking up in the morning, and upon going to sleep at night, and then probably in the middle of the day as well, until you lather yourself into a white-hot obsessed state of mind, focused intensely on your goal.
5. Seek out and attract a team of experts who know more than you, or have complementary skills to you. Hill calls this team your personal ‘Master Mind,’ – a kind of board of directors willing to work with you toward your set goal. Figure out a way to compensate your Master Mind team, as nobody works for very long without some benefit.
6. Acquire, by your own efforts and the inputs of your Master Mind team, the specialized knowledge you’ll need to succeed.
7. When failure and setbacks thwart you – and they will – understand that failure is just an intermediate step toward ultimate achievement of your goal.
8. Commit to a continuous program of clearheaded self-analysis and self-improvement. To lead your team most effectively you will need to adopt and embody traits that make you deserving to lead.
I may be doubtful about some of Hill’s style, but I don’t doubt that these instructions – more fully explained in the book’s few hundred pages – would help anyone on their road to either riches, or some other large ambition.
Can anyone get wealthy just reading Think and Grow Rich? Well, the book sold 60 million copies and something tells me that not everyone has made it. On the other hand, not everyone has committed as fully – without any lingering doubts – as Hill urges. Including me.
But I wrote down my own mantra. I posted it on my bulletin board. I’m saying it out loud to myself. I’m working on it.
Please see related book reviews
Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise
T. Harv Eker’s Secrets of the Millionaire Mind
 There’s no evidence whatsoever he interviewed any women.
 I spontaneously break out in hives around my chest, neck, thigh and back area if I walk too close to that section of the bookstore.
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