31 causes of failure #1: unfavorable hereditary background

This week I’m going to start another series. These will be posts based on Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich. If you’ve been reading Brip Blap you know that this book is a major source of inspiration for me. If you are put off by the title of the book, or the general concept of “financial self-improvement,” this book may not be for you. However, I think there is a lot to be learned from Hill’s book. He based it on some serious research – it is not just his opinion.

Hill published his book in 1937. The inspiration came from several conversations with Andrew Carnegie, who at the time was one of the richest men in American history. The source of Think and Grow Rich was The Law of Success, which Hill wrote after spending twenty years studying the lives and behaviors of more than 40 extremely wealthy individuals. The people he studied had all achieved the great wealth in their own lifetimes, and were not inheritors of wealth.

This book is still today one of the cornerstones of the “financial self-improvement” sphere. It has been the inspiration for many subsequent books. One of the lists in his book is “thirty one causes of failure.” This list seems to me to be one of the best lists in his book, because it provides a useful tool for self-analysis. I have read and re-read the list, and I decided to write on this subject. Each week on Fridays I’m going to highlight an item in the list and talk a little about what it means and how you can overcome it before it causes YOU to fail.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Crossing Sparks

The First Cause of Failure: Unfavorable hereditary background

Hill says that this is the only cause of failure which is difficult for an individual to overcome on his own. He gently refers to it as a “deficiency in brain power,” or what a less polite person might call “not smartness.” Hill ‘s only solution is the use of the Master Mind, which I have written about before.

But I feel that Hill passes over this point too quickly. How do you define a “deficiency in brain power?” You can be illiterate but quite intelligent, and you can be highly educated but make poor decisions. Which one is truly stupid? I would argue that almost anyone who might be classified as being deficient in brain power has talents and abilities he or she can bring to wealth building. The only way that deficiency can truly cause failure is if the person is deficient in courage. Look at dyslexic Richard Branson, who was perceived as “stupid” because of a learning disability, and has proved himself anything but. Think of the almost completely uneducated Henry Ford. Nobody would call them deficient in brain power today, but each was probably assessed as “less than average intelligence” due to their learning disabilities or lack of education.

I am sure each of us knows someone who we secretly think of as less intelligent than ourselves, yet is more successful at building wealth. Are the wealthiest people you know also the smartest? Often they are, but sometimes they aren’t. I am sure you know someone who is slower at processing information than most people who is quite successful at what they do. And I’ll be brutal – most of us know someone who is stupid who actually does quite well for themselves – probably better than some “smart” person we know who makes terrible money mistakes.

Chances are good that you are not the smartest person in the history of mankind. Chances are good that you aren’t even the smartest person you know – but there is no cutoff on the IQ scale where success suddenly becomes impossible, and there is no minimum above which success is guaranteed. Unfavorable hereditary background is a cause of failure only if you allow it to be. Believing that you are smart enough to accomplish the task at hand is often much more important than actually being smart enough.


  • Think and Grow Rich: Please note that this link, and the link to the Law of Success below, are Amazon associate links. I plan to offer free e-book versions of both in the next week or two, since they are in the public domain. But I do recommend thinking about buying a copy that you can actually keep with you rather than just using an e-book. But if you prefer not to pay for it, there are many places you can get the complete text for free.
  • The Law of Success
  • IQ and wealth – a previous post on this topic

12 Replies to “31 causes of failure #1: unfavorable hereditary background”

  1. There’s a difference between have a specific learning disability, or being uneducated, and not being intelligent.

    There are plenty of people (a minority, but they still exist) whose lack of intelligence is going to put them at a serious disadvantage in making money.

    If a lack of intelligence is combined with other disadvantages, then it might actually be almost impossible for some people to “think and grow rich”.

    Most/all people reading this blog are not going to be in this category, though. If you’re bright enough to do that, you can learn to do anything.

  2. I’ve never thought that intelligence had much to do with becoming wealthy. If you want to become wealthy by being a doctor or a lawyer, then yes. But the typical millionaire was a C student, according to The Millionaire Next Door.

  3. I agree with your statement that the belief that we are smart enough is more important than acually being smart.

    People with strong self esteem are usually successful. (or is it the other way around.)

    And sometimes some people get enouraged by some role model. Albert Einstein who was thought to be “mentally deficient” till his uncle restored his faith in himself comes to mind.

  4. I read that a while back and I like a lot of the ideas in there. Then again, I’m an eternal optimist and a pitcher, so the mental edge of stuff is always at the forefront of everything I do. Plus I’m neurotic so there you go.

  5. All excellent points. When I think of ā€¯deficiency in brain power”, I can’t help, but to think of names such as Henry Ford, (as you mentioned), Albert Einstein, Woodrow Wilson, and many others.

    I am going to begin a chapter by chapter review of Think and Grow Rich, in the next day, on my blog, littleengineblog.blogspot.com. I hope you can join me. I think you’ll have some great insights.

  6. He also says it’s the only one of the 31 failures that can’t be remedied easily – harder than bad health or a bad marriage or addiction! – which is weird to me. I’m not sure what he’s getting at with this one but frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to find it was just his classism and possible 1930s racism coming to the fore. Also, how does being a bit thick conflict with “being obsessed with money with the white hot heat of the sun” or whatever Carnegie’s “secret” advice to him was?

  7. @guinness416: I think all he means is that bad health is tough to remedy – but can be in some cases; a bad marriage is tough to overcome – but can be; addiction is tough to overcome – but if Lindsay can do it there’s hope for all of us. Being truly mentally deficient (or whatever the correct term is) would be difficult to overcome. Like I said, I don’t agree with him 100% – I have seen some smart people who can’t tie their own shoes and some technically slow people who are happy, rich and popular. You really have to go to the extremes to prove out his point.

  8. @plonkee: I’m an optimist – I think everyone can do it. Not to be too much of a pop culture loser, but look at Forrest Gump and the Bubba Gump shrimp company thing – almost anyone with enough perseverance can succeed if they really think they will.

  9. I think what Hill may have been getting at was people who are mentally disabled in some way–not just dyslexia, something you can work around, but something that results in a significantly low IQ. I think referring to it as an “unfavorable hereditary background” was his way of being polite about it. Eugenics was also a popular philosophy in his day, so there may have been a racist undertone there as well. I would not dismiss Hill over that, I’m just saying that those attitudes were a reality back then.

  10. Oh, and I don’t think he meant that people in that group are doomed to fail, but that that trait is the only one you can’t completely fix–you always have to compensate for it in some way. I mean, you can’t change your genes. But if you have other attributes that balance out the genetic hand you were dealt, that really helps.

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