FREE NEWSLETTER

Wrote and Grew Rich

John Goodell, 2:16 am ET

IF YOU GOOGLE “best business books of all time,” you’ll find Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich at or near the top of the search results, ahead of works by luminaries such as Ben Graham and Jack Bogle.

Truly helpful business analysis requires the reader to pay attention to evidence backed by boring data, a formula that’s hard to sell to the masses. Books like Think and Grow Rich or Jim Collins’s Good to Great offer the reader questionable assumptions built on anecdotal evidence, but these books satisfy our human preference for stories over data.

Think and Grow Rich posits that if you persistently visualize becoming wealthy, the power of your subconscious mind will help make it so. Napoleon Hill claimed he wrote his 1937 book at the behest of Andrew Carnegie, who purportedly challenged Hill to interview wealthy folks with the goal of discovering a simple formula for success. This claim was made after Carnegie’s death, so it’s impossible to refute. Still, Carnegie’s biographer says that there’s no evidence the two ever met.

Also, it turns out Napoleon Hill had serious grifter-like issues prior to writing his book. Thirty years before the publication of Think and Grow Rich, Hill cofounded a lumber company that would be subject to bankruptcy proceedings and allegations of mail fraud. Hill would then go on to found businesses in the automobile education and advertising industries, both of which failed. The former was effectively a multilevel marketing scheme, which collapsed, and the latter resulted in two warrants for Hill’s arrest.

Grifters use aspects of the truth to gain the trust of the consumer. Think and Grow Rich uses the power of positive thinking, a valid concept that aids in everyday well-being, and repurposes it as a powerful tool to manifest better results in the form of lots of money.

While Think and Grow Rich purports to be a business book, it’s actually a self-help book. Self-help books appeal to us because our egos enjoy the fantasy of imagining what life would be like if we could be the person that the book envisions us to be: confident, strong, popular or, in this case, rich.

To top the Google search for “best business books of all time,” it’s reasonable to assume that hundreds of thousands of people have read Think and Grow Rich—probably millions. Yet I would wager that only a tiny fraction of the book’s readers ever became truly rich. After all, fantasizing about getting rich isn’t the same as working very hard and enjoying some measure of luck, both of which are required to become wealthy.

Self-help books can offer escapes from reality that insidiously stroke our egos at the expense of our pocketbooks. In the case of Napoleon Hill, he indeed became very rich—after countless people bought his book, not before.

Browse the Blog

Subscribe
Notify of
11 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Gene Simmons
Gene Simmons
2 months ago

This holds true for many of the current self-help financial gurus on TicTok and YouTube. When I see how people prefer the likes of Hill and Kiyosaki over Graham and Malkiel, it is not unlike the high school kid on TicTok giving options trading advice and racking up millions of followers versus measured and well researched advice from Morningstar or Humble Dollar that might garner a few hundred views.

I guess the idea of becoming a Kardashian in a week is more appealing than building financial independence over decades of sacrifice and hard work.

Dwain Sims
Dwain Sims
2 months ago

Nice article. I will still sing the praises of Professor Malkiel’s “A Random Walk Down Wall Street” as the best book on wealth creation. I just wish I had read it when I was 18.

Andrew Forsythe
Andrew Forsythe
2 months ago

Interesting article, John. Maybe from hanging around the criminal courts for 40 years, I likewise am inherently suspicious of self-help salesmen and the like. As your article points out, before buying whatever they’re selling, it can be illuminating to dig into their own backgrounds.

UofODuck
UofODuck
2 months ago

Unfortunately, far too many people subscribe to a one or more of a variety of common investment myths: mostly based on luck or magical thinking. There really is no substitute for saving, time, compound growth and appropriate asset allocation for building wealth.

Jo Bo
Jo Bo
2 months ago

Thanks, John, for doubling down to “working hard and enjoying some measure of luck”.

In many years of investing, I never read a self-help book on the subject. For me that’s odd as I love books and always read manuals. Early on, I avoided stocks and perhaps that is why. (Building a nest egg then, with fixed income in a declining rate environment, was quite possible if the goal was to stay ahead of inflation.) Now in my winding-down years, I recently read The Prudent Professor by Bridges and Bridges. I’d recommend that book to anyone, in any field, but especially as they near retirement.

I do miss print copies of newsletters from financial firms and the columns that Jonathan wrote for the Sunday paper. The personal vignettes featured in the T-CREF newsletters of old, most of which boiled down to investors staying the course, helped solidify my financial common sense. We are lucky to have this site that help do that for today’s readers.

Arnold Hold
Arnold Hold
2 months ago

Nice post, and never really felt comfortable this guy was on the level as nothing ever seemed to corroborate his claims. Point is, especially when it comes to financial claims, check it out. Hill figured the public would never find out who he really was.

William Ehart
William Ehart
2 months ago

Excellent post. Here’s the old secret to getting rich: Post an add promising to tell people how to get rich if they send $10. When they send the money, you answer that the secret to getting rich is to place an ad and charge everyone $10 …

Will
Will
2 months ago

and consider the Hedge Fund Manager… I am not in a hedge fund, but it seems the Manager makes the big bucks and is in line ahead of everyone else. “I would wager that only a tiny fraction of the (Hedge Fund Investors) ever became truly rich.”

Newsboy
Newsboy
2 months ago

Ouch – this was a pretty dark read. Admittedly, the historical background on Mr. Hill’s early business “missteps” prior becoming an author were interesting. With that said, I have an inkling from the post that John is not a fan of Mr. Hill’s work.

I’m comforted that he left untouched the works of the late (great) Earl Nightingale (and his “strangest secret” formula for success). A personal favorite, Earl is also high up there in “business book” rankings every year, Though he passed away in 1988. His audio recordings of “the Strangest Secret” and follow-up “Lead The Field” are both personal favorites, particularly when things seemed bleak early on in my professional journey. I give copies of both as gifts to my students when they graduate from HS.

Alas – to each his own. I don’t mind the historical scrutiny of authors to provide more context, but there’s a fine line between scrutiny and cynicism.

Last edited 2 months ago by Newsboy
steveark
steveark
2 months ago
Reply to  Newsboy

The coolest thing about Earl is that he was on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor when it exploded and sank. One of only a relative handful of survivors. He had a strong reason to believe positive thinking worked.

John Goodell
John Goodell
2 months ago
Reply to  Newsboy

I sincerely appreciate your comment. Honestly, I haven’t listened to or read Earl Nightingale, and therefore have no reason to doubt his intentions and some other well-known self help authors.

I first encountered my mistrust of the self-help genre in college when I took a class called positive thinking in modern religion and science.

What really concerned me was the insidious premise underlying much of these works: if you don’t improve your lot in life, it’s because you didn’t do the things I told you to do or you didn’t try hard enough. It’s a message you’ll find buried within many of these works. I think “insidious” is the right word because of the purported purpose of the genre and the desperate nature of some of those who seek help and are willing to pay vast sums in some cases for this help.

To sell books, videos, conferences etc., you have to have an out when people don’t get better, richer, happier etc. Many self help gurus therefore shift the burden back onto the consumer, which has the potential to cause extraordinarily negative results compounding the lack of confidence they had to seek this type of material in the first place.

Again, I’m not opposed to the power of positive thinking; I think it’s an extraordinary superpower. Moreover, I commend you for taking that approach with your students because of the numerous benefits of seeing the glass half full. It’s the repurposing of positive thinking into something else that I find objectionable in some cases.

Last edited 2 months ago by John Goodell

Free Newsletter

SHARE