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.