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Napoleon Hill: Positive Mental Attitude

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
Napoleon Hill

Short Biography

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.

You may like The Growth Mindset Pocketbook and The Positive Mental Attitude Pocketbook.

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Andrew Carnegie: Rail, Steel and Books

Born in poverty, Andrew Carnegie became the richest man in America and then gave away most of his wealth. His business success story embodies eternal truths of business success, and modern innovation too.

Andrew Carnegie

Early Years

Andrew Carnegie was born in Dunfermline in Scotland, in 1835. The family struggled to make ends meet and, in 1848, emigrated to the United States, settling in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, just outside Pittsburgh.

Very soon, Carnegie started earning money, first in 12-hour shifts at the local cotton mill, then as a Telegraph boy, and then at the Pennsylvania Railroad. Starting as a secretary to the Superintendent,Thomas Scott, Carnegie thrived. He was to maintain his association with Scott for many years and it was the springboard for much of his later success.

The Railways

Scott both promoted Carnegie as a Railway executive and introduced him to the opportunities to invest in stocks. Today, many of Carnegie’s early investments would be considered insider trading, but then, it was simply exploiting the knowledge and connections that he and Scott had created. This investment gave him the capital to start his own businesses.

During the Civil War (1861-65), Scott and Carnegie continued to thrive – largely because the railroads needed to move vast quantities of raw materials, men, and munitions. At this time, Carnegie also invested in the growing Pennsylvania oil industry.

Rising to Superintendent of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Carnegie forged the connections that would make him vast wealth, when he moved into the Steel Industry. After the war, he set up a number of iron works and formed The Keystone Bridge Works and the Union Ironworks, in Pittsburgh. His connections in the rail industry gave him a ready market.

King of Steel

Iron bridges were notorious for failing, but on a trip back to Great Britain, he met Sir Henry Bessemer, who had developed an industrial process for converting iron into high grade steel. Carnegie brought the Bessemer Process back to the US in 1870. This innovation gave him the ability to manufacture vast amounts of high grade, but low cost steel, which he sold to the railways for bridges and rails. It is said that Carnegie girders built the skylines of the northern states.

He also innovated by creating what we now call ‘vertical integration’. He bought up the ability to manufacture the coke for his Bessemer Furnaces, made the steel, and used it to build and sell finished products from bridges to steamships. At the same time, he was also creating ‘horizontal integration’ – steadily bringing together various businesses into one centralized corporation, the Carnegie Steel Company. These two developments led to huge efficiencies.

Not all efficiencies were equally good. Carnegie fell out with long term business associate, Henry Frick, when Frick – going against Carnegie’s instructions – employed armed Pinkerton agents to support strike breakers in 1892. The ensuing loss of life was a stain on Carnegie’s reputation as an ethical businessmen and, whilst he felt he had to publicly support Frick, led to him buying out Frick’s shares in the business.

Sale of Carnegie Steel

In the 1890s,  James Pierpoint (JP) Morgan’s steel holdings were growing rapidly. Carnegie saw the wealthy banker as his primary competitor. As the twentieth century began, Carnegie weighed his options: compete or not? Wanting to retire, he opted not to compete but to offer to sell to Morgan. Accounts differ as to whether Carnegie wrote down the sale price on a piece of paper and passed it to Morgan or whether he asked Morgan to write a price on a piece of paper and return it to him. Either way, the resulting transaction of nearly $500 million (equivalent now to over $13 billion) made him the richest man in America (and if we equalize the value by spending power, by far the richest ever).

Carnegie’s Philanthropy

Early on, Carnegie had talked of giving away surplus income to benevolent purposes. Now he set about giving away vast amounts of his capital. The list of organisations that received massive endowments seems almost limitless. Of all, his most famous approach was to endow the creation of many, many libraries. As a boy, he educated himself, reading from the personal library of Colonel James Anderson, who opened it to working boys each Saturday night.

Now he was able to create public libraries throughout the United States, Britain, Canada and other English-speaking countries. He opened the first Carnegie library in 1883, in Dunfermline. He would build and equip libraries on the condition that the local authority matched his commitment by providing the land and funding its ongoing operation and maintenance.

He led a trend, in the early twentieth century, of huge works of public philanthropy. The idea of giving away most of a vast wealth was reinvigorated recently. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and more recently Mark Zuckerberg, today’s giants of personal wealth, have all made commitments to give away much of their wealth, perhaps mindful that Carnegie once said that ‘the man who dies rich dies disgraced’.

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