How Napoleon Hill came to write "Think and Grow Rich"

Posted by | March 7, 2013

Napoleon Hill’s book ‘Think and Grow Rich’ is the all time bestseller in the success motivation field, with over 100 million copies sold around the world.

Napoleon Hill was born in 1883 in Wise County, in the western part of Virginia, not far from the West Virginia border. Hill’s view of his childhood was very negative and would probably have resulted in little if any success in his life were it not for Martha Ramey Banner. Napoleon Hill’s mother, Sarah, died when he was ten years old and his father James married Martha when Napoleon was twelve. Up to this time Napoleon was the scourge of Wise County, running wild and even carrying a pistol.

She saw the value in young Napoleon where most had written him off as a ne’er-do-well. Martha did something that was a turning point in young Napoleon’s life. She asked him to give up the pistol that he had been carrying for the past several years and replaced it with a typewriter. This typewriter opened a new world for the young boy. He would eventually turn to writing articles for the local paper and achieve recognition for his accomplishments rather than his infamy.

Napoleon Hill, 1904Napoleon Hill in a 1904 portrait.

This developed Napoleon’s writing talent and established the skills needed to write his books about the power people possess for achieving success.

In 1900, after graduating from high school, Napoleon left Wise County and traveled a little less than one hundred miles to attend business school in Tazewell, VA. The school’s one year curriculum consisted of shorthand, typing and basic bookkeeping. Though this sounds like training for a secretary, at the time, it was the traditional entrée into business for even the most ambitious young man. And Napoleon Hill was determined not to return to Wise County ever again without being a singular success.

As Hill neared graduation from school, his goal was to work for a prominent attorney with many business holdings named Rufus Ayres. Ayres was a very powerful figure in the region and Napoleon would have a difficult time to find a more influential person to work for at the time. Through his audacious approach to Ayers for a job, even saying he would pay Ayers for the first three months to have the privilege to learn from him, Hill got the job.

He took to the job quickly, arriving early, staying late, providing meticulous service by “going the extra mile to render more service than compensated for”…a future principle of success. Through a series of circumstances that allowed Napoleon to shine by exhibiting his ability to handle difficult situations and extreme honesty, he became manager of one of Ayers’ mines at the age of nineteen responsible for three hundred and fifty men.

Bob Taylor’s MagazineA 1906 cover of Bob Taylor’s Magazine.

One of the traits Napoleon Hill exhibited throughout his lifetime was first demonstrated when, though he held a lofty and influential position, he decided there were other things he wanted to do than manage a mine. Hill set his sights on becoming a lawyer. At this same time, his young brother Vivian was determined to go to law school. Hill announced to his family his intentions and that he would pay his and Vivian’s tuition at Georgetown University in Washington, DC by going to work for Robert L. Taylor, a former governor of Tennessee.

Taylor published a magazine called Bob Taylor’s Magazine that was based on the possibilities that ordinary people have to achieve wealth and power. Napoleon’s law school ambitions lasted less than a year. He realized he could not do the curriculum work, nor make the money as a freelance writer he had achieved as the mine manager. He told his brother he could not pay his tuition and Napoleon dropped out of law school.

Hill’s next stop was a lumberyard where he took the job as sales manager. Again, Napoleon excelled and by age twenty-two, he was a partner in the business. His success continued for the next two years but in early 1907, the economy was in turmoil. The stock market was reeling with large corporations and banks failing. By 1908, the lumberyard was out of business and so was Napoleon. Here was a young man at twenty-four who had achieved great success twice only to find himself broke with no job or prospects. Hill returned to Washington, DC and went back to work for Bob Taylor’s Magazine.

Andrew Carnegie in 1913Andrew Carnegie in 1913.

As a correspondent for Bob Taylor’s Magazine, Hill managed to schedule an interview with Andrew Carnegie, at that time, the richest man in the world and a leader in the steel industry. Hill went to Carnegie’s home in New York City with enough money to return to Washington after he completed his interview.

During the interview Carnegie liked what he saw and heard from the young writer. Hill was looking for information from Carnegie about how someone achieves the kind of wealth and success Mr. Carnegie had achieved. Carnegie talked about the men he knew, and he knew many…Edison, Ford, Firestone, and every other person of prominence at the time. He focused on their success and what a great a gift it would be if someone were to organize this information.

In the Author’s Preface of ‘Think and Grow Rich,’ Hill relates “When he saw that I had grasped the idea, he asked if I would be willing to spend twenty years or more, preparing myself to take it to the world, to men and women who, without the secret, might go through life as failures. I said I would, and with Mr. Carnegie’s cooperation, I have kept my promise.”

From “A Lifetime of Riches: The Biography of Napoleon Hill,” by Michael J. Ritt and Kirk Landers, Duttons Books, 1995

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