From everything I can tell, it is the pursuit of suffering that Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich is really about. It is a step by step guide on how to transform your life into a desire fuelled cesspit of despair.
Ok ok, I might be slightly exaggerating that, but when you look at everything that Hill suggests in his book, everything centres around the idea of generating an unwavering desire that will drive you to success no matter the odds.
The problem is that he is actually right. Mathematically speaking, if you have enough drive to push through multiple failures and learn from your mistakes, then eventually (thanks to the laws of probability) you will succeed. This approach is so “fool proof” that the only thing that could stand in your way is the little inconvenient thing called death. If you lived for ever and maintained an insatiable desire for “success”, then eventually you would succeed.
So what’s the real problem behind this approach? The first problem is that it’s rooted in the fallacy that Success is the ultimate goal of life (ala that Success is Happiness). Secondly it forgets that we do not live forever, and in fact that death looms nearer to us all than we think. And finally, it goes against much ancient wisdom from the Buddhists that desire leads to suffering.
Desire: The Root Of Suffering
Buddhist Philosophy is centred around the idea of suffering; namely, that it exists, that we can find its root causes and that they can be cut off to free us from suffering. When we reflect on how our minds work we can discover that desire is one of the root causes of suffering. Desire is wishing that reality to be different from how it is. This is both a powerful tool for change that has uplifted mankind to the top of the animal kingdom, but on the flip side, it is a dangerous emotion that brings about mental anguish. I think it is safe to say that for all the prosperity that desire has brought mankind, it has delivered equal amounts of suffering.
Buddhism observes that our minds are fickle and flighty things, and that when we let our desires go unrestrained they can wreak more havoc on our lives than good. We can easily spiral down the path of desiring bigger and better material possessions which end in nothing but an empty void in which we desperately try to fill. To prevent this, Buddhist practice detachment; the process of letting go of our fickle desires and becoming at peace with the world around us.
This view on desire is in stark contrast with Napoleon Hill’s method for success. Above all else, he encourages us to develop an insatiable desire for wealth and riches, one that when combined with sound processes can deliver us to Success. The risk here is that in the meantime as we make our way towards Success, we are in a constant state of fervent desire, one that more likely than not brings with it an underlying current of suffering and anxiety. More importantly, this burning desire causes us to miss out on all the beauty that is before us since we are so intently fixated on the future.
Death Looms Near
Despite our best attempts to ignore it, death creeps up on us all. Depending on which way you look at it, some are “lucky” and see it coming, while for others it creeps up on them in surprise. Regardless, the only thing we know for certain in life is that, sooner or later, it will come to an end.
So when death looms near (as it does for us all) why should we spend our lives kindling an intense desire for earthly success? Why should we waste away the precious and limited moments that we have, fixated on a future reality that does not yet exist. What good will your mountains of gold be when you only need a handful of coins to live? Worse still, the price you paid for those mountains of gold was your precious days and nights. It was the moments with friends and loved ones that you weren’t really with because your mind was far away scheming and planning for success. It’s the limited days of youth that were spent behind a desk, rather than out in the world living. It’s the harsh fact that many people today have forgotten how to enjoy the “simple” joys of nature and life, instead searching for happiness in material possessions.
Success Isn’t Happiness
The manner in which Hill speaks about Success make it out to be some holy grail. He speaks as if there is no greater good that one can devote their life to other than the accumulation of wealth. He pulls countless examples from history of men who defied the odds through desire, perseverance and self-will, to leave the realm of mere mortals and enter the ranks of Gods.
However, many of his examples are obnoxious, selfish, greedy men who did achieve material greatness, but were by no means moral guides that we should base our lives of. They were men who mastered the art of selling, business or inventing, but were perhaps deficient in more important areas. Since when is a man’s worth tied to his ability to sell cars?
What Hill appears to be doing is conflating Success with Happiness. If you have read my recent book you would know that Happiness is really the ultimate goal in life. It is what we fight revolutions for, why we go to work every day, why we look for our true love. When you investigate the root of all other goals (success, health, etc) they all end in Happiness; everything we do as rational animals is geared towards our happiness.
The risk then when Hill conflates Success with Happiness, is that he deceptively encourages us all to create burning desires within ourselves to achieve some material outcome. He sells the idea so well that many people will actually follow his advice and pivot their life around this burning desire for wealth. They will work smart, hard and long to build their ’empire’ but what happens when they get to the end, when they achieve everything that Hill said they would? What happens when they realise that Success really just means more zero’s in the bank, more responsibility and even less time for living?