In 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression, Napoleon Hill published Think and Grow Rich, a book that would sell millions of copies. In it, he writes that he has learned the key to becoming rich from industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Hill writes that we have complete control over only our own thoughts and must begin our journey to riches by using that control to inflame in ourselves a desire for money. With characteristic exuberance, he concludes,
The Master Key is intangible, but it is powerful! It is the privilege of creating, in your own mind, a BURNING DESIRE for a definite form of riches. There is no penalty for the use of the Key, but there is a price you must pay if you do not use it. The price is FAILURE.1
Hill prescribes a daily practice that will keep the flame burning. He instructs readers to write down the amount of money they want, when they want it, and their plan for getting it. The statements are then to be read aloud twice per day, once after waking in the morning and once before sleeping in the evening, while readers visualize themselves in possession of the money.
If you truly DESIRE money so keenly that your desire is an obsession, you will have no difficulty in convincing yourself that you will acquire it…. You may as well know, right here, that you can never have riches in great quantities, UNLESS you can work yourself into a white heat of DESIRE for money, and actually BELIEVE you will possess it.2
The valuable insight at the heart of the book is that our desires do not simply happen to us. Hill saw that we can shape our desires, and by shaping our desires, we can shape our circumstances. However, the idea that we can shape our desires long predates Hill, and some of the implications recognized by others are in tension with his guidance.
Our contentment reflects the relationship between our circumstances and our desires. We are more content when our circumstances more closely match our desires. By inflaming in ourselves a desire for more money, we decrease our contentment and motivate ourselves to change our circumstances. Pursuing money more fervently is likely to make us wealthier, so the technique Hill prescribes is likely to succeed.3
However, pursuing money more fervently may not be our best option. Our ability to choose our desires plays a central role in various religions and philosophies, but those traditions do not generally prescribe exploiting that ability to get more money. Hill premises his analysis on the goal of becoming rich, but, if our goals follow our desires and we can choose our desires, we need not accept that goal.
Rather than pursuing riches or some other change in our circumstances, we may even pursue contentment itself. We see this idea perhaps most clearly in the writings of the Stoics. Hill writes that we should use our complete control over our thoughts to obtain the things we desire. In contrast, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus teaches that we can achieve contentment by shifting our desire to things under our complete control.
Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and…whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and…whatever is not of our own doing…. Remember, then, that if you regard…that which is not your own as being your own, you’ll have cause to lament, you’ll have a troubled mind, and you’ll find fault with both gods and human beings….4
Epictetus teaches that instead of pursuing riches, we should pursue virtue. If we fall into desire for riches, we may fail to obtain them, or, if we obtain them, we may lose them. If we choose to desire virtue, we can always experience the contentment achieved by attaining it.
Remember that desire promises the attaining of what you desire, and aversion the avoiding of what you want to avoid, and that he who falls into desire is unfortunate, while he who falls into what he wants to avoid suffers misfortune. If you seek to avoid, then…only…those things that are within your own power, you’ll never fall into anything that you want to avoid; but if you attempt to avoid illness, or death, or poverty, you’ll suffer misfortune. Remove your aversion, then, from everything that is not within our power, and transfer it to…those things that are within our power….5
Hill prescribes an exercise to inflame a desire for more. Epictetus prescribes an exercise to improve contentment with less.
With regard to everything…of which you are fond, remember to keep telling yourself what kind of thing it is, starting with the most insignificant. If you’re fond of a jug, say, ‘This is a jug that I’m fond of,’ and then, if it gets broken, you won’t be upset. If you kiss your child or your wife, say to yourself that it is a human being that you’re kissing; and then, if one of them should die, you won’t be upset.6
What it means to be rich varies by context. When we imagine ourselves to be rich, we imagine ourselves having what someone else already has. Others imagining themselves to be rich may imagine themselves having what we already have. Our contentment will be greater if we assume the perspective of those who lack what we have rather than those who have what we lack. The Stoic Marcus Aurelius writes,
Treat what you don’t have as nonexistent. Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them. But be careful. Don’t feel such satisfaction that you start to overvalue them—that it would upset you to lose them.7
Hill saw that by training ourselves to burn with desire for more money, something that requires no special resources or abilities, we can “think and grow rich.” However, becoming rich is even easier than Hill realized. Each of us already has much that we might wish for if we did not have it, and we can become more content by learning to appreciate what we already have. We can think and be rich.
- Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich (Meriden, Connecticut: The Ralston Society, 1937), 374.
- Hill, Think and Grow Rich, 43 – 44.
- Hill also links desires to outcomes through an unusual model of the universe that involves our thoughts connecting us to an “Infinite Intelligence” through vibrations in the ether (pp. 299 – 301).
- Epictetus, Discourses, Fragments, Handbook, trans. Robin Hard (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 287.
- Epictetus, Handbook, 287 – 288.
- Epictetus, Handbook, 288.
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Gregory Hays (New York: Modern Library, 2002), 89.