How believing in the wrong mindset nearly destroyed me

“Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill

In the quest of reading my unread pile of books, last year I decided to include re-reading at least 1 book every year. And this year I thought to myself what better book to re-read than timeless classics? This is when I choose to re-read a business classic, Think and Grow Rich.

The last time I read this book I was fresh out of high school and was still very naive about the state of the world. And as an idealistic teenager with endless possibilities in front of me, I read the usual “gateway drug” to the cult of millionaire obsession: I read Robert T. Kiyosaki’s books. Which in turn recommended me to this book.

Right on cue with the millionaire obsession cult, in this book Napoleon Hill often mentions about the “secret” to becoming rich. That once we discover this secret, riches will come in abundance. In fact, according to this very book Henry Ford used one of the steps in the secret and bam! Millionaire! So, what is exactly the secret? Well, luckily for us Hill just happens to know them and willing to share with us.

Here’s the summary of it. There are 13 steps towards riches, with every step analysed and elaborated into a great length in the book:

1. You must have a burning desire 2. Absolute faith that you can reach your goal 3. The importance of self talk and self motivation 4. Have specialised knowledge 5. Imagination: don’t be afraid to dream about your success 6. Organized planning 7. Take big decisions 8. Be persistent 9. Surround yourself with people who share your vision 10. Transform sexual desire into a fuel to achieve your goal 11. The subconscious mind: master positivity and let go of negative emotions 12. Associate with smart people and learn from them 13. The sixth sense: listen to your gut feelings.

So, as you can see there’s nothing secret about the whole thing, it’s just some pointers within the usual checklist for success reframed into something mythical. Moreover, I didn’t recall that this book have so many unnecessary paragraphs, with old-school 1930s style of writing that fills its empty spaces with gibberish nonsense. Or worse, plenty of the cliche catchphrases in the book have since been overused so much in marketing gimmicks for get-rich-quick schemes (by the Robert T. Kiyosaki cult, naturally) that the significance of the actually good messages become diluted.

This comes as a shock for me, because I remember loving this book when I was a teenager and it became fundamental to the way I think and approach life in general. But in retrospect, this might not be a good thing after all. Now that I think of it the first step of BURNING DESIRE to get rich, for example, disabled me more than enabled me during my youth. I was so obsessed with the success RESULTS of the millionaires and daydreaming about it for myself (aka step 5) that for the longest of time I focused on the wrong things and not on what actually matters: the grounded PROCESS which made these millionaires rich.

Furthermore, letting go of negative emotions and just be happy-go-lucky positive all the time has contributed to my naive approach on risks. Taking big decisions are also reckless if they are uncalculated ones and just based on your [inexperienced] gut instinct (and I had my fair share of them). And also, being persistent but persistently wrong isn’t helping either, no matter how much I believed in myself. So, with all these catastrophes, it does makes me wonder whether the book taught me the wrong lessons or was it I who learned it the wrong way?

Because to be perfectly fair, organized planning did become my number 1 tool in tackling anything, it still is. Surrounding myself with smart people and learn a lot from them have become my default setting (whether directly or through books and podcasts). Meanwhile, having a specialised knowledge has brought me this far in life, a happier, more in control, and more fulfilled life from what I had imagined back then.

So I guess despite the now-cliche lessons, some key messages of the book remain solid today 84 years since publication, 2 decades since I first read it. 3 stars though, down from 5 at first reading, because in the end of the day I really cannot stand the abstract approach. Not once that the book mention about having the right ideas, in the right market, that solve the right problems, at the right timing, with the support of the right government regulations, receive the right funding, and working hard in the day to day process. You know, the non-magical path to success.

No, instead the examples in the book – from the story of US Declaration of Independence to the story of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) – mostly have indirect lessons and have no practical know-how of actually getting rich. Heck, even the secret ingredient for Coca-Cola according to Napoleon Hill is IMAGINATION. And so, all we ended up having as the key to becoming rich is to think hard enough that we will eventually succeed, to visualize the money we intend to accumulate, that we have to dare to dream to become ridiculously rich, even write it down on a piece of paper how rich we want to be, and read it and imagine it every, goddamn, morning. It’s about faith and persistence and the law of attraction. And soon enough it will happen, it will strike like magic.

No wonder that a lot, but not all, of the readers of this book (and its derivatives) mostly become a get-rich-quick junkie, as I did back then, with the usual attitude that “I’m all equipped with the 13 secret steps, all I need now is just the idea” (yes Einstein, that’s the first thing to figure out in the road towards riches). You really are what you read.

In the end, it’s true what they say about reading the same book at different stages in your life, it can expose you to different sets of perspectives that you missed or wasn’t ready to learn the first time around. Or specifically for me, re-reading an old book serves as a review for some of the main principles I hold dearly when I was a teenager, principles that became the root-cause of my past mistakes, mistakes that at one point provide me with huge ambition but no clue to the concrete thing to do next and ended up leaving me stuck, jobless, and directionless for a year after graduated from university, before a certain Jim Rogers book completely altered my life (but that’s a re-reading review for another day).