Napoleon Hill has a lot to answer for. As if the 1980s’ and 1990s’ surge in the self-help book market wasn’t enough, you can now hardly move around the internet without the offer of a get rich quick scheme or the opportunity to build an amazing lifestyle with barely four hours of work a week. That isn’t to say, that Hill was the first into the market, but he was, perhaps, the first and most important contributor to our literature on personal success.
Napoleon Hill was born into a fairly impoverished Virginia family, in 1883. He was 10 when his mother died, and quickly became something of a local menace, roaming the locality with a six-shooter, trying to emulate his then hero Jesse James. It was his stepmother who pointed him in a new direction. He was to find new heroes in America’s great industrialists, and to learn that the typewriter is mightier than the handgun.
At 15, he started a journalistic career, writing articles for local papers, which led, in 1908, to his first big interview, with ageing steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Over a couple of days, Carnegie shared his philosophy on how he became successful, while Hill sat rapt. At the end, so the mythology goes, Carnegie challenges Hill: if Hill would dedicate himself, unpaid, to researching a philosophy of success, Carnegie would get him started with letters of introduction. Hill accepted and got a personal introduction to Henry Ford. This led to further introductions that allowed Hill to interview such ‘great men’ as Alexander Graham Bell, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Edison, and Elmer Gates.
In a short biography, we don’t have time to detail the many achievements and setbacks that Hill encountered in his life, including his work as PR advisor to US President Woodrow Wilson. But lasting success appeared to have arrived when, in 1928, Hill was able to publish his eight-volume analysis of everything he had learned on the quest Carnegie had set him. With the proceeds of The Law of Success, Hill bought an impressive new family home. Sadly, another reversal came in 1929, when the Wall Street crash took book sales with it. The Hills were destitute.
There followed a series of ventures and adventures in a colourful life that saw Hill working for another US President, FD Roosevelt (and, it is claimed, penning the famous ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself’ line), launching several magazines (that all folded in a variety of circumstances) and surviving, by pure good fortune, an attempted assassination attempt by prohibition era gangsters.
But let’s cut to the chase. In another attempt to revive his fortunes, Hill re-wrote and shortened his Law of Success ideas into a new book. Hill did this at the prompting of his second wife, who also suggested the (early 2000s -sounding) title ‘The Thirteen Steps to Riches’. His publisher rejected this with a suggestion of his own – which was mercifully abandoned. The book we now know of as Think and Grow Rich, was very nearly titled: ‘Use Your Noodle to Win More Boodle’.
More good fortune and ill were to follow, as were more magazines and more books. Perhaps the most significant of these reads a little like a summing up. Teaming up with businessman W Clement Stone from the early 1950s, the two men taught his philosophy of personal achievement. In 1960, they co-wrote Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude. More books were to follow – including some finished and published posthumously.
In 1970, Napoleon Hill died. He had arguably achieved even more than his mentor. Whilst Hill was never remotely as rich as Carnegie, it is Hill’s book that is constantly re-issued and labelled as a classic.
The Cores to Hill’s Philosophy of Wealth and Success
At different times, Hill appears to have had a different ‘secret’ in mind. There are a thousand self-help volumes that repeat much of what Hill has said, but often, he did say it first. He has also spawned an industry of internet memes – lush pictures with Napoleon Hill quotes attached. Among my favourites are:
Strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle.
Patience, persistence and perspiration make an unbeatable combination for success
Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.
Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.
and, of course, the most famous may well be
What the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve
But there is more to Hill than pithy quotes. In his evocation of ‘brain capital’ in Think and Grow Rich, Hill arguably foresaw the growth of Charles Handy’s Triple-i Company.
It is also important to acknowledge that Hill’s philosophy (like many of the men he interviewed) was rooted in an early twentieth century Judeo-Christian tradition of hard work, male dominance, and biblical foundation. Some of his writing may seem ahead of its time, but other aspects are very definitely of the past. His focus on a will to succeed (compare this to Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’) as a transmutation of male sexual energy reads as nothing more than bizarre to a modern reader.
But his concept of a group of intelligent, challenging individuals surrounding you as a means of accessing knowledge and wisdom, which he called a Master Mind, is probably the origin of modern Mastermind groups, which doubtless are responsible for much business success today.
Napoleon Hill’s Secret(s) to Success
In Think and Grow Rich, Hill alludes to his secret of success, without making it explicit. Most people therefore infer it to be some variant of a passionate, almost ungovernable urge to succeed. This is certainly a theme that recurs. It is also worth mentioning that Hill defined wealth far more widely than financial success, but as the quality of your friendships, the harmony of your family life (coming from a man twice divorced), and good working relationships. This last point is vital.
In the Law of Success – actually, 16 lessons – he argues that:
Only by working harmoniously in co-operation with other individuals or groups of individuals and thus creating value and benefit for them will one create sustainable achievement for oneself.’
This is a variant, of course, on the oft-cited and truly multi-cultural Golden rule: that you should treat others as you would wish them to treat you.
But it was in the 1950s and with the publication of Success through a Positive Mental Attitude that Hill described his settled opinion. People who succeed tend to be those who view setbacks as nothing more than a step on the road to success. A positive mental attitude, which finds its modern form in Positive Psychology, Learned Optimism, and a Growth Mindset is Hill’s final secret to success. And it seems a fitting one. Because few people in our Great Thinkers and Doers series have suffered so many setbacks, and mounted as many comebacks as Hill. His final success serves as one data point in the anecdotal confirmation of Hill’s self-help secret.