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Alexander Voet: The Old Fool and His Cat (17th Century)

"Successful might be the very last thing I ever wanted to become."

Just about the time I graduated from business school, I became interested in how I might become successful. I started frequenting the Self-Help section of Powell's Books and accumulated quite the collection of self-proclaimed helpful titles, among them perhaps the most influential Self Help title ever published, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. T&GR was initially published in the late thirties and came with an enviably attractive backstory. According to the author, he'd interviewed Andrew Carnegie, who had confided the secrets behind his success. Hill characterized himself as merely the messenger, a link in a chain stretching back into ancient eternity. He contended that all rich people subscribed to more or less the same guiding philosophy. According to Hill, the difference between them and me was just a difference in outlook. Adopt his book’s philosophy and practices, and wealth would find me. I was skeptical. (Carnegie's estate found no evidence that Hill ever visited.)

I never quite managed to get clear to the end of that book, though it still stands on my shelf.
In it, he describes a strange Protestant asceticism wherein one lived a life obsessed with attracting money. One would also have to be industrious, a genuine goody two-shoes bastard, but always, beneath that pious exterior, always, always, always focusing upon money. This was the secret. Successful people lived for mammon. They were unrepentantly venial. I thought this a dirty secret, a shamefully disqualifying one. I read that book secretly and understood that I could not follow its tenants. I discovered that the book and its author were a scam but still influential. Hill, himself, only became wealthy after he wrote about how to become rich, not before, and he had left a trail of questionable business practices in his wake. His wisdom seems to have been of the publicity-induced sort. He became rich by becoming famous, not famous because he became rich.

He became famous for being famous. I saw that familiar Self Help Section as more a Self Helpless one, for it was filled with books purporting to tell others how to live and attractive to the curious but perhaps more often the bereft. Most, if not all, of them, had been written by some self-serving author who might have titled their work, Read This and Make Me Rich, though few of them ever achieved that end. Hill went on to be friends with a succession of early self-helpless gurus, all proponents of Emerson's Yankee optimism. His influence still seems apparent in the modern Republican party, courtesy of Ronald Reagan's malign influence. The whole Think and Grow Rich movement turned out to be a hoax.

I remember deciding that if that were what wealth required, I would work to acquire the ability to feel happy without becoming wealthy. Unfortunately, success seems so intrinsically entangled with wealth accumulation that it serves as a negative target for many. Those capable of obsessing over mammon more easily slip into identifying with success as a target. The rest consider Success another of those superficial obsessions the upper classes have always frittered over. We seek more humble satisfaction. Hill’s title had it backward, since even a mindful obsession with wealth accumulation seemed to represent something like the opposite of actually thinking and that anybody thinking about success would probably quickly opt out of fantasizing about money finding them.

Hill stands as one of the forebear founders of the presently popular Prosperity movement, which follows what's been called a Prosperity Gospel. Mega Churches exist to serve the needs of Prosperity Gospel followers. A thousand and more new titles have been added to an increasingly SelfHelpless section at the Mega Church's bookstores, a boon for publishing that continues HIll's proud tradition fifty years after his death: Read This and Make Me Rich. There might not be anything someone won't do to become successful: no action too degrading, no lifestyle too soul-crushing, no belief too shameful. Yet, my perusal of the literature convinced me that Successful might be the last thing I ever wanted to become. Amen.

©2022 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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