Because no one has asked yet it seems some people are getting the wrong idea.
I don’t hate Hill or think he was evil or a scheming con man.
I’ve read the single biography of him.
Anyone who does has to wind up asking, “Well, how could a guy who had the ‘secret’ to success fail so many times?”
I think the answer lies within Hill himself.
If his biography is true, he grew up uneducated in the deep country. He was undisciplined and had no respect for learning until his stepmother instilled it in him. (Right there you can see the seed of, paraphrased, “Every setback has an equivalent benefit.” The unfortunate death of Hill’s mother contained a hidden benefit for him.)
Imagine growing up in the backwoods and seeing the filth and back-breaking struggle to survive — and contrast that to the life of Haanel, who never got his hands dirty and made a fortune for himself simply by giving advice.
Hill wanted something like that for himself.
Again, he was a backwoods boy. He was a naif who had zero idea of how cutthroat the real world was, how people lied, how they cheated.
Several of his failures came from being lied to and cheated (again, if his biography is true).
He published a magazine called Hill’s Golden Rule.
“Golden Rule” as in the Biblical one.
What kind of person would hold up the Biblical Golden Rule as a model for business?
Someone who was very, very naive.
The titans of wealth back then were ferocious in their acquisition of money in ways that make today’s sociopaths look like weak sissies. Lying, cheating, stealing, double-dealing, back-stabbing, insider trading, outright fraud — and even sometimes murder — were the common tools of their trade.
“It’s just business.”
Hill, apparently foolishly believing that wealth was always a blessing from God, very unfortunately never looked any deeper into how the titans actually made their money. He really believed in the Golden Rule. He didn’t see he was living in an American Babylon.
Besides, he wanted to be like Haanel. Make money and be seen as important.
So he tried to bring to everyday people what he thought were the common — legal — factors that helped all titans gain their wealth.
Setting aside the worship of money, there’s not much wrong with what Hill advocated. Having initiative, being clever, being prepared, going the extra mile, stick-to-itiveness, and more — those are things that should be taught in every school. There are things Hill wrote about that really can be beneficial.
And that they can be — and were — beneficial to at least one person matters. Because it was businessman W. Clement Stone who retrieved Hill from obscurity — and likely another bout of poverty — and gave him not only a job with his company, but gave the world Napoleon Hill on film talking about his book. Stone vouched for what Hill wrote. (He obviously didn’t think the philosophy was complete, however; he added to it with his own books.)
The trouble arises when people believe they have followed everything Hill (and Clement) wrote about — yet still fail.
It’s entirely possible to do everything Hill and Clement (and others before and since) have said and fail.
Because that’s how real life works.
There’s a great element of luck that’s never acknowledged by anyone — least of all by the rich! I’ll go as far to say that luck is the major factor in whether or not a person — or product or idea — succeeds or fails.
But people don’t want to hear that.
Because it makes life a very scary thing to deal with. It means that even doing every thing right can be fruitless.
Yet that’s how it is. There are no guarantees except death.
You can go the extra mile, work like a dog — but guess what? That doesn’t matter if the people above you never notice it or think it’s nothing. How is a failure like that your fault? It’s not.
Andrew Carnegie advanced so quickly because he had an intelligent and aware boss who could appreciate Carnegie’s initiative, cleverness, autodidacticism, and willingness to do what needed to be done.
Carnegie didn’t have only “self-help.” He had help.
Carnegie would have gone nowhere without Thomas A. Scott.
Just like so many people today are going nowhere, stuck in dead-end jobs despite their best efforts.
In fact, it’s even worse today. You can be absolutely better than your boss — smarter, faster, overflowing with initiative and ideas — but to the corporate machine, that’s irrelevant. Your boss has the fancy degree, you don’t. All that matters is that fancy degree.
That’s also a reason why “self-help” has become a booming business. People can see they’re frustrated in their pursuit of a better life, so they’re seeking reasons or answers.
What they wind up with is a dose of unearned guilt when they apply all of it — yet still fail.
The roadblocks people face today — such as “the right degree” — didn’t exist in Carnegie’s time. Nearly everyone was “formally uneducated.” Most businesses weren’t worldwide operations, either, with Human Resources departments armed with a checklist to adhere to before they could pass along a job candidate to a potential boss. It truly is a “machine” now out there.
Aside from “self-help,” this is also why tales of tech startups enchant people.
The people who can pitch to a venture capitalist (VC) and succeed in getting funding are basically in the position Andrew Carnegie was under his boss. VCs can overlook great opportunities too — but at the very least they can understand what’s being pitched to them and appreciate the thinking behind the ideas. Generally speaking, it’s the ideas that matter, not the degree.
That’s an experience very few people have in their own work lives. How many have tried to make suggestions for bettering things at work only to be ignored or ridiculed by an ignorant boss or jealous co-workers?
Carnegie didn’t have to deal with that. He was a Golden Boy to his boss.
And Hill had to be appreciated by Stone, too, to have another shot at spreading his ideas.
Like Carnegie, Hill’s own “self-help” wasn’t enough. He needed Stone’s help.
Note that I’ve addressed only those who are employed. Today there are millions sending out record-setting numbers of resumes yet getting nowhere. They can’t even get in the door to be appreciated — or ignored. They did everything right — were loyal, obedient, productive — and still lost their jobs.
As a preface to every self-help book should be this verse (9:11) from Ecclesiastes:
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Boldfaced emphasis added by me.
Do the very best you can. But understand you can still fail.
You’ll at least succeed in learning new things. And learning is never a waste.
And when you fail — failure is more likely than success — understand that no matter what anyone else says (especially the rich and politicians) it’s not your fault.
That’s just how life is.