Napoleon Hill was a failed businessman, an unsuccessful con man and grifter who left a string of bad debts and failed businesses over his decades long career. (Click here for a summary of what we know of Napoleon Hill’s life and legacy). Ultimately, he wrote a book, in which he lied about that very book’s own inception and purpose. And stumbled on to a lot of wealth based upon a lot of lies.
The book he wrote, Think & Grow Rich, used techniques and ideas that were familiar to clairvoyants, magicians, hypnotists, swindlers, psychiatrists, philosophers, astrologers and many others. Here are a couple of examples:
- He drew credibility from stories and interviews to legitimize this work. Most of the interviews we can safely presume never happened. He never met the ‘patron’ of his work Andrew Carnegie, and there is no evidence that Carnegie even knew of his existence, let alone furnished him with hundreds of introductions. (See the link at the top of this article for more details on this). Many of the stories we have since learnt aren’t true or accurate. Even in the context of when the book was written there was no attempt at verification or journalistic integrity. Not only does he use appeals to authority as proof, they’re false appeals!
- The book doesn’t say anything yet tells you what you want to hear. By never stating the ‘secret’ and claiming it will be discovered by those who are ‘ready’ for it, it is impossible to argue or even rationally analyze any claim because he refuses to make a claim clearly. Additionally by telling people that it will become clear when they are ‘ready’ it absolves all responsibility for its own content. If things haven’t worked it’s because you aren’t ready, not because the book hasn’t furnished you the tools. In philosophy this would be akin to Russel’s tea pot. In science it would just be laughed at – to be considered a hypothesis or a workable idea something has to be both testable and falsifiable- the book goes out of it’s way to avoid this.
The entire self help industry that spawned from these ideas is fed by an availability heuristic bias that essentially helps a sliver of the population that happens to be lucky enough to be in the right place, at the right time for it to work for them. At the same time spewing nonsense about self affirmations that don’t work but increase guilt, anxiety and can cause people to be fundamentally at odds with their core values leads to stress and illness, ultimately making most people who are drawn to these sources, those who are already is some form of distress, worse, as it creates a false sense of certainty and centres blame upon the individual. (Some reading here, here and here).
Many self help programs worsen anxiety, depression and psychosis while some do help – those that help tend to be based on mindfulness, CBT and similar methodologies rather than the faith based Napoleon Hill kind of nonsense. Please note that no therapy, self help or similar program is a panacea for everyone and depending on a person’s situation a book may either help, do nothing or hinder. I don’t think, however, following advice written by a liar with the express purpose being to misrepresent a book about success as being successful is a good place to start.