Napoleon Hill, pioneer in the study of the American philosophy of personal achievement, was born in 1883 in Wise County, Virginia, a region in the Blue Ridge Mountains where illiteracy and superstition were widespread. His father was a blacksmith, and the family lived in a one-room, dirt-floor cabin, common in the region.
Young Napoleon Hill (named after a rich uncle) was an unruly, aggressive child. When he was 9, his mother died, leaving him with his father who had difficulty disciplining the boy. Napoleon enjoyed playing pranks on neighbours. As he grew more daring, he carried a six-shooter (he idolized outlaw Jesse James). He was the toughest boy in the country, and proud of it.
Fortunately, his stepmother took him aside, and calmly and compassionately said something to the boy that would cause a dramatic reversal in him.
“She called me into the living room in private.” Hill later recalled, “and not only changed the course of my life, but also planted in my mind a desire to become self-determining by rendering useful service.”
“She said that people misjudged me – I was not the worst boy in the country, only the most active, and I needed a definite purpose to which I could direct my attentions. She told me that I had a keen imagination and plenty of initiative. She suggested that I become a writer, saying that if I would devote as much time to reading and writing as I had been to causing trouble in the neighbourhood, I might live to see the time when my influence would be felt throughout the state.”
At age 15, Hill completed grade school and began to work part time as a newspaper reporter, writing local items for a dozen small town papers throughout Virginia. Looking back he admitted that his writing wasnt “brilliant,” but that it was “readable because it was written with so much enthusiasm.”
After completing his school, Hill enrolled in a one-year course at a nearby business college.
At 18, fascinated by legal work, Hill felt he would make law a career and hoped to enter Georgetown University Law School. But there was an obstacle: he had no money to finance his education.
To earn his tuition, he decided to return to journalism and to specialize in biographical stories about successful people, something several magazines of the period were publishing.
In the fall of 1908, as Hill described it, “The Hand of Destiny reached out.” He was on his way to Pittsburgh. Andrew Carnegie had granted him an interview.
Hill went directly to Carnegie’s office and started the questioning: “Mr. Carnegie, to what do you attribute your phenomenal success?”
The industrialist, then 73, opened up quickly and, with wit and his unrivalled gift for anecdote, began to relate the story of his achievements.
Hill could hardly keep up his shorthand notes when Carnegie then began to expound on his own and others’ theories of personal achievement.
Then Carnegie lamented, “It’s a shame that each new generation must find the way to success by trial and error when the principles really are clear-cut.” He suggested to Hill that the world needed a practical philosophy of individual achievement that would help the humblest worker to accumulate riches in whatever amount and form he might desire.
After a three-hour session, to Hill’s astonishment, Carnegie invited him back for three days, Carnegie elaborated on his idea, describing how one might go about the organization of such a philosophy.
“You now have my idea of a new philosophy”, Carnegie said, “and I wish to ask you a question in connection with it, which I want you to answer by a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
“If I give you the opportunity to organize the world’s first philosophy of individual achievement, and introduce you to men who can and will collaborate with you in its organization, do you want the opportunity, and will you follow through with it if it is given to you?”
Hill stammered for a few seconds and then blurted out with characteristic enthusiasm, “Yes! I’ll undertake the job – and I’ll finish it.”
Carnegie drew out a stop-watch and told Hill that it had taken him exactly 29 seconds to respond to the question, and he had been giving him a maximum of 60 seconds to reach his decision. If he had gone over that time, the opportunity would have been withdrawn: “It has been my experience that a man who cannot reach a decision promptly cannot be depended upon to carry through any decision he may make. I have also discovered that men who reach decisions promptly usually have the capacity to move with definiteness of purpose in other circumstances.”
“Very well. You have one of the two important qualities that will be needed by the man who organizes the philosophy I have described. Now I will learn whether or not you have the second.”
“If I give you this opportunity, are you willing to devote 20 years of your time to research the causes of success and failure without pay, earning your own living as you go along?”
Hill was stunned. He had assumed that Carnegie would subsidize him from his enormous fortune.
“It is not unwillingness to supply the money,” Carnegie explained. “It is my desire to know if you have in you the natural capacity to go the extra mile – that is, to render service before trying to collect for it.”
Napoleon Hill met Carnegie’s second test. He would go on to write the American philosophy of personal achievement. He would also become an esteemed lecturer, educator, and confidential adviser to two presidents, as well as a prolific author on the subject of personal achievement.
Throughout Hill’s years of research, Carnegie remained stead-fast. He did not reimburse Hill for his efforts, compelling the young man to work to support himself, and later a family. As a result, Hill’s professional life took many turns.
When the United States entered World War 1, President Woodrow Wilson (who, when he was head of Princeton University, had met Hill through Andrew Carnegie) asked Hill to come to the White House to serve as his public-relations advisor. Hill jumped at the opportunity. He was at Wilson’s side in 1918 when a dispatch announced that the Germans were requesting armistice, and he helped the president formulate his reply.
With the election of a new administration, Hill left Washington and spent a brief stint editing and publishing Golden Rule magazine. But his thoughts began to turn back to the field of education and, after a year, he left Golden Rule to spend his time teaching and lecturing. Soon he became a widely acclaimed and much-sought after speaker.
He always spoke on the “Law of Success,” spreading the ideas and philosophy that he was gleaning from his study of the factors that produced success and failure.
In 1923, Hill began to transcribe his voluminous notes to manuscript form, and in 1928 the 16-lesson course, Law of Success was finally in print. It had taken Hill 20 years to complete this project, exactly as Carnegie had predicted.
With the publication of Law of Success, Hill’s star sky-rocketed. His royalties hit $2,500 per month and stayed there for years. The book was eventually distributed worldwide.
Hill described his work as a “blueprint that may be followed straight to success” and claiming he was simply “organizing old truths and known laws into practical, usable form, where they may be properly interpreted and applied by the workaday man whose needs call for a philosophy of simplicity.”
“My purpose was two-fold,” Hill said. “First, to help the earnest student find out what his or her weaknesses are. Second, to help create a definite plan for bridging those weaknesses. The most successful men and women on earth have had to correct certain weak spots in their personalities before they began to succeed.”
“You cannot enjoy outstanding success in life without power, and you can never enjoy power without sufficient personality to influence other people to cooperate with you in a spirit of harmony. This course shows you, step by step, how to develop such a personality. The student who takes up this course with an open mind, and sees to it that his or her mind remains open until the last lesson has been read, will be richly rewarded with a broader and more accurate view of life as a whole.”
Hill served President Franklin D. Roosevelt as an adviser throughout most of the Depression years. He said that as a presidential speech writer, he wrote much of the contents of the famous Fireside Chats and he conceived the theme, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
While in Washington, Hill wrote six more books, among them his widely acclaimed interpretation of the philosophy of personal achievement, Think and Grow Rich, published in 1937.
Think and Grow Rich and Hill’s other books are vehicles he used to tell millions the truth about themselves, and about the powers they seldom realize they possess, which include vast untapped reservoirs of human intelligence and ability. He devoted his life to the organization of a formula which unleashes these powers with maximum force and teaches people how to apply his findings in their daily lives.
“You can be anything you want to be,” Hill said, “if only you believe with sufficient conviction and act in accordance with your faith, for whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe – it can achieve.”
For almost three decades, Hill delivered lectures on the philosophy of success with drama, wit, and fire to hundreds of thousands. He reached countless others through his radio broadcasts and consulting work with private industry.
Near the end of the 1940s, Hill began to curtail his activities to ease himself into retirement. But the retirement was short-lived. Hill re-emerged in 1952 to continue teaching his success messages at the urging of one of his devotees – self-made insurance millionaire W. Clement Stone, himself living proof of the validity of the philosophy.
In May 1953, Hill and Stone launched the “Science of Success” course, which taught the principles of success in a series of home-study lessons, augmented with lectures.
Hill and Stone then founded Success Unlimited, the digest publication that would grow into Success magazine. Their book, Success through a Positive Mental Attitude, published in 1960 by Prentice-Hall, is hailed as one of the classics in the field.
On October 4, 1962, Napoleon Hill and W. Clement Stone announced that the goals they had set out to accomplish together had been realized. Hill was approaching his 80th birthday, and he wished to return to his home in Columbia, South Carolina, to set up the Napoleon Hill Foundation to foster his works and principles. He remained in South Carolina until the time of his death in November 1970 at the age of 87.