Sears department stores filed for bankruptcy protection in October © Getty
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Napoleon Hill was one of the founders of the American self-improvement movement. Born poor in Virginia in 1883, by the time of the first world war he had developed a set of principles for success in advertising and sales. He delivered them in lectures and courses at his George Washington Institute in Chicago, until running into trouble with the authorities in 1918 for an illegal stock-selling scheme.

This was not Hill’s only business failure. An internet search will reveal elements of his life story that are downright murky. At the very least, though, Hill — who died in 1970 — was a staggeringly effective cheerleader for himself and his philosophy and that is exactly what one would expect from a self-help guru.

The book that made him famous, Think and Grow Rich, distilled Hill’s thinking and analysed the strategies of hundreds of the US’s most famous and successful businessmen. Published in 1937, it has sold in the tens of millions, making it one of the best-selling books of the 20th century. It offered optimism and the idea of the American dream to those suffering in a post-crash economy. The appetite for Hill’s particular brand of self-belief remains strong.

The self-help book sector is valued at many millions of dollars in the US alone. In a crowded market, Hill endures. His approach is appealing and humane. Hard work, imagination, honesty and service are at the core of his published philosophy.

His insights into getting oneself into the right frame of mind to become rich and successful — emphasis firmly on having a positive attitude and self-confidence — seem modern. One would not be astonished to see the phrase “growth mindset” — the popular method of encouraging resilience and perseverance after failure, first described by Carol Dweck — appear in Hill’s writing. Now, the Napoleon Hill Institute (founded by Hill during his lifetime) has come up with the writer’s early lecture notes, letters and coursework, dating from 1919, called Truthful Living.

Self-help guru and author of 'Think and Grow Rich', Napoleon Hill © Alamy

Jeffrey Gitomer, a US sales trainer and motivational speaker, adds notes and annotations. Gitomer writes in the foreword (ambitiously titled “The First Thoughts of the Father of American Achievement and Wealth”) that he was first exposed to Hill’s writing in 1971, as a sales trainee: “I read Think and Grow Rich 10 times that year — studied and implemented both the principles and the directives. The result for me has been an unbreakable positive attitude and steadfast march toward success over the past 45 years.” A true endorsement.

The combination works well. Hill’s prose is sometimes clunkily old-fashioned: “I beseech you not to fall into the habit of neglecting to cultivate your ‘AMBITION’. You will need something more than mere services with which to succeed.”

Gitomer offers clarifications and suggested actions. Truthful Living is divided into chapters corresponding to Hill’s 23 lessons on that subject, with titles including “Imagination”, “Seven Success Rules” and the intriguing “The GREAT MAGIC KEY”.

There are a lot of capital letters in Truthful Living. Some paragraphs are entirely capped up — this is not a book that understates its purpose. (“Take a plain sheet of paper, ordinary letter size, and write on it in large letters — the largest it will carry — I AM GOING TO BE A GREAT PERSON!”)

For anyone not used to reading self-improvement books, it comes over as shouty and odd. However, the main point of Hill’s philosophy is self-belief and knowing your own aims and goals. The list-based nature of the book and its capitalised messages, as well as exhortations to read and re-read the most relevant chapters will certainly appeal to those seeking a more profitable life. “The GREAT MAGIC KEY” chapter, for example, offers a masterclass in how Hill uses his sales tactics to grab readers with a brilliant pitch, only to keep us hanging on for an unnecessarily long time before getting to what exactly the magic key might be. “It will unlock the door to riches! It will unlock the door to fame!” And so on. Spoiler alert: the magic key turns out to be “CONCENTRATION”.

There is not, in fact, much in this book that is useful as a basis for more specific success in modern business. Hill does, though, offer a timeless tip: “The great mass of people are demanding at least the necessities of life at a lower cost than they are now paying. If you can help solve this problem, even on one commodity, you can write your own salary price tag.”

Startlingly, he predicts that “someone . . . will work out a plan which will bring merchandise to each local community where it may first be examined and then purchased at mail-order prices”. That person, Hill suggests, will make “a few million dollars’ profit out of it”.

As Gitomer notes: “Hill has just predicted Walmart and Amazon.” Even more astutely, Hill says: “You can very readily see where [the US department store chain] Sears, Roebuck and Company’s business would go if such a plan was perfected.” Sears filed for bankruptcy protection in October.

Hill’s philosophy was very much of its time in the US, owing a lot to the 19th century New Thought movement that emphasised the power of positive thinking and was a key influence on Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.

Hill gives affirmative mention to Eddy, whose religious movement was founded on the belief that illness could be cured by the power of prayer. “This little, old, gray-haired woman,” Hill writes, “didn’t ‘invent’ anything — she merely ‘discovered’ a wonderful power, which has existed ever since the first man was created”.

While Christian Science and other outcrops of the New Thought movement have fallen from favour, Hill’s work endures, perhaps because he stresses the importance of happiness, self-confidence and other qualities now fashionable in the self-improvement sphere. Above all, the enduring popularity of Hill’s writing demonstrates that most in-vogue of all the modern mantras: resilience.

Truthful Living: The First Writings of Napoleon Hill, with foreword, actions and annotations by Jeffrey Gitomer, Amazon Publishing, RRP$19.95

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