Napoleon Hill died a great man–if you measure greatness by book sales. Hill is the author of one of the all-time bestselling business/self-help books Think and Grow Rich, which has sold more than 10 million copies since it was published, in 1937. But was Hill a great man?
He spent thirty years writing that book and making speeches about the power of positive thinking, but he left behind a series of failed businesses and broken marriages. Like hard-living rock stars, he achieved his greatest fame after death. You can visit the Napoleon Hill World Learning Center in Hammond, Indiana, or take his "Positive Mental Attitude" class online through Purdue University, Calumet.
Hill says the idea for Think and Grow Rich originated with industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1908, who challenged the young reporter interviewing him to turn his questions on other successful capitalists of the day, and use their insights to develop a science of success.
"In every chapter of this book, mention has been made of the money-making secret which has made fortunes for hundreds of exceedingly wealthy men whom I have carefully analyzed over a long period of years," Hill writes in the book. "The secret was brought to my attention by Andrew Carnegie, more than half a century ago…. He asked if I would be willing to spend 20 years or more preparing myself to take it to the world, to men and women who, without the secret, might go through life as failures."
In this paragraph, Hill reveals the secret to his own success, and the secret behind that of the Depression-scarred motivational gurus of his time. Books like Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People and Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking harnessed the twin demons of self-doubt and fear of failure to teach millions how to stop worrying and love themselves. It was a secret formula that would be repeated hundreds of times to sell books in the burgeoning business/self-help genre, from Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to Suze Orman's The Courage to Be Rich. Not only was greed good, but you could be good at it and still "fulfill your desires with effortless ease," Deepak Chopra wrote in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success.
These books "peddled a sort of inner Taylorism or 'personal efficiency' to an army of insecure executives," writes Tom Frank in One Market Under God. It is a particularly American form of personal efficiency, which traces its roots to Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac and the Calvinistic teachings of the Puritans.
But Hill did what few writers had done before: Add rigorous research to back up his findings and translate the results into rules that any Joe could follow. The business/self-help instruction manual wouldn't make another evolutionary leap until the early 1980s. It took the onset of baby boomers' thirtysomething ennui to reinvent the dusty business-management genre, long an academic backwater, into a sexy personal-development genre with Tom Peters and Robert Waterman's In Search of Excellence in 1982.