31 causes of failure #6: ill health

sick butterfly

sick butterfly

I abandoned this series (based on the 31 causes of failure Napoleon Hill lists in his classic Think and Grow Rich) for a while, but then I decided that abandoning it was actually succumbing to the fifth and most recent cause I wrote about: Lack of self-discipline. Unfortunately the next cause of failure is one that’s somewhat out of our control: ill health. I’d like to put ‘ill health’ into two different categories and examine why one of them is far more likely to be a cause of failure than the other.

The first category is out of our control. You can get sick for reasons completely outside your control: you can have a genetic disposition towards cancer, or suffer a car accident or simply be unlucky enough to come down with some disease. It happens; we’ve all heard anecdotes about perfectly healthy people who suddenly got ill for one reason or another.

The second category is more unpleasant: illnesses you cause. You eat too much junk food and become obese: say hi to heart troubles, diabetes and hypertension. Smoke and you invite cancer. Live a stressful lifestyle? Get ready for all sorts of illnesses. It’s easy to assign blame, of course, for blatantly bad behavior. But most people indulge in some behavior that’s not ideal; few of us are perfect exercise machines with carefully and consistently monitored food intake.

Here’s the kicker about ill health, though. More than any other item in this ’causes of failure’ series, ill health can derail your plans and prevent you from achieving your goals. Why? Just read.

  • Medical bills make up half of bankruptcies
  • Half of Bankruptcies Due to Medical Bills, Harvard Study Says
  • bnet: Medical expenses responsible for half of U.S. bankruptcies, according to new survey.
  • Healthcare Crisis In America Medical bankruptcy: middle class families at risk (Dr. Elizabeth Warren, Harvard Law School, Testimony before House Judiciary Committee 2007).

29% of people with credit card debt indicated that some of that debt was medical-related. It’s a bit dated, but a 2006 USA Today, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard School of Public Health survey showed that 25% of the households affected by cancer said they had used up all their savings dealing with the fallout from cancer, and one-tenth could not afford basics such as food, heat and housing. The United States is the only industrialized country in the world without a universal health insurance system. U.S. health care spending is approximately $2 trillion per year, or $6,697 per person. The United States continues to spend significantly more on health care than other countries in the world.

In 2006, the U.S. census reported that more than 45 million Americans had no health insurance; more than 9 million children lacked health insurance in America (those are dated stats, of course). I don’t intend to get into politics for more than a second here, but the health care bill – mockingly and (in my opinion) disrespectfully called Obamacare – will not fix these problems. It may help slightly, and it may hurt slightly, but the root problem hasn’t been fixed: you can be financially destroyed by a medical problem.

That’s the issue. Is it fair for someone to lose their life savings because they get cancer? I don’t think so – but that’s the way it is now, and I doubt that will change anytime soon. In my opinion, only universal single payer health care can solve this situation; whether you view that as a good or bad thing is up to your own political mindset. So for this cause of failure – one of the most important ones, over which we have some of the least control – you have to be extremely focused. Ill health can impair your ability to work; it can drain your savings; it can make progress towards your goals difficult, or even impossible. Taking care of your health is the single most important things you can do for your wealth. I’ve written before about losing weight and how I quit drinking soda.  Regular exercise and a low-stress lifestyle are key, as well.  But it’s important to remember that the sixth cause of failure from Hill’s Think and Grow Rich is one of the few that sometimes lies outside our control.

Previous posts in my “31 causes of failure” series:

Photo Attribution Some rights reserved by Eliezer Borges

31 causes of failure #5: lack of self discipline

I have a stupid phrase I like to bark out at everyone (including the extraordinarily unimpressed Bubelah): “Focus and discipline! These are our watchwords!” I suppose I ripped that off from a movie. I yell it out a la Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men.” You know the scene – when Nicholson famously snaps and in a rage shouts out “You can’t handle the truth!”

I suppose now that I have made myself appear both insane and irritating I should say that it’s all done in good humor. I put my fingers in a V and point them at my eyes when I say “Focus!” I then clench my fist and hold it in front of me and rasp “Discipline!” Then I laugh.

Discipline, though, is no laughing matter.

I imagine that you could meet the richest people in the world and you would find that few of them (other than those who inherited wealth) were lazy while they were building their wealth.
I also doubt that you would find a significant portion of them to be severely overweight, drug or alcohol abusers or big fans of TV. Most of them would have the discipline to exercise control over almost every part of their life that did not involve building their business or perfecting their 3-point shot or making the perfect CD. Even Britney Spears had to be disciplined before her recent troubles. I sincerely doubt – even though I frequently disparage her singing – that I could sing and dance even to her level. Not that I would try – nobody wants to see me singing in a schoolgirl’s uniform, anyway.

And I wouldn’t think of discipline as being solely about an unending focus on money, either.
A person who is rich, or who has financial freedom, or who simply knows what their goals are also must have the discipline to maintain a personal life. A disciplined business person should bring that same discipline to their relationships with friends and family and community, knowing that real success isn’t possible with money alone. If it was, we wouldn’t see horror stories about lottery winners flaming out after winning the lottery.

Discipline is one of the two most important characteristics you can build INTO yourself. I don’t think anyone is naturally self-disciplined or naturally undisciplined. It’s a simple matter of establishing patterns and altering your behavior consistently. You establish the patterns that lead to discipline. If you tell yourself that you will stop cursing, for example, you have to set goals and rewards when you don’t curse (if you go a whole day with no cursing, add a dollar to a “gift to me” jar, for example). You can also use negative reinforcement like I do – my rubber band works wonders, believe it or not.

Hill says “Discipline comes through self-control. This means that one must control all negative qualities. Before you can control conditions, you must first control yourself. Self-mastery is the hardest job you will ever tackle. If you do not conquer self, you will be conquered by self. You may see at one and the same time both your best friend and your greatest enemy, by stepping in front of a mirror.”


  1. All desire, impulses, physical sensations, etc. are driven by your mind. Imagine you are happy now, and you can make yourself happier.
  2. Self-discipline is a negative force that must be used in a positive way – it is the denial of something else. Make sure that you associate your self-discipline with positive ideas, too. Don’t just think of denying yourself the chocolate cake slice – think of getting rid of fat man pants.
  3. There is no discipline without a goal. I can exercise self-discipline to prevent myself from touching a watermelon for the rest of my life -but it makes no sense and it can’t be articulated as a meaningful goal. Without a goal, your self-discipline is a waste of breath and time.
  4. To get self-discipline, zero in on gratitude. Remember that you have been given the opportunity to make your own decisions, and that’s something to be exceptionally grateful for.

Apply your mind today to the concept of self-discipline. Establish a pattern: no carbs after 6 pm, no more trading stocks without studying financials, no more credit card debt, whatever you are attempting to achieve. It is as simple as flipping a switch in your mind. People may tell you that is not true, but let me give you a final example: do NOT imagine a blue elephant. Do NOT picture it in your mind.

When you can read that and not imagine a blue elephant, you get a picture of what real self-discipline can be. Just focus your mind on goals, not the problem itself. I think visualizing your condition once you’ve completed the goal is as important – or even more important – than trying to avoid the negative behavior. That is what self-discipline is all about.

This is a continuation of my series on Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich that began with this post.

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31 causes of failure #4: insufficient education

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.
John Dewey

This is a continuation of my series on Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich that began with this post.

Of the causes of failure listed by Napolean Hill, insufficient education is one of the simplest to overcome.

Too often the word “education” these days is confused with the words “school” or “college.” A common belief that education can only be obtained from school has made whole segments of the population of the Western world undereducated. Let’s face it – your college years are probably some of the worst times of your life for real learning. With the distractions available, a serious pursuit of academics is probably one of the last things on your mind. In addition, the learning in college is too often static. You may “learn to think” – a common expression for the supposed benefit of sitting around talking to your fellow classmates, etc. – but a lot of what you will learn specifically is going to be completely useless later in your life. Example? I learned Pascal in college. Now, it was a good course – it “taught me to think” around computers, and made me structure my brain in a manner that let me “think” in computerese, but I doubt those Pascal skills count for much these days.

Hill is talking about continuous education. You can acquire this continuous education in a few different ways:

1. Continuing your education in a semi-formal fashion. I don’t do this myself but I know many people who do – keep taking courses at your local college, university, community college or even just some community organization (churches, clubs, etc.) The courses can range from practical (technical courses to advance your career) to meaningless but enjoyable (in my case, something like early Soviet history or astronomy). I think this is very difficult for most people. With busy lives, children, spouses, work and frankly the creep of old age, taking a class “just for the sake of learning” reeks of self-indulgence. It shouldn’t feel that way, but it does.
2. Brief “burst” education (such as seminars). I’ve gone to a number of seminars, almost all of them professional seminars around my line of business (audit and corporate governance). Every time, I go into the seminar feeling superior and telling myself “I have nothing to learn from these hacks!” Every time, I come out of the seminar having learned SOMETHING. I’ve interacted with my fellow students; we’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve learned something about ourselves. OK, that’s a bit much, but you get the point. You can sign up for short, intensive training courses or boot camps and cram a lot of learning into a short span of time. The major objection to this is usually cost. I went to one course that cost my company $5000 for three days. “Holy Corporate Overspending, Batman!” I wouldn’t pay $3000 for a three-day course! But the skills I learned in that course made me invaluable to the company, secured a promotion and even beefed up my resume substantially when I jumped to my next working life, consulting. I have seen a tremendous return on investment from that seminar; but I would still get squeamish at doing something similar today. Ah, cognitive dissonance!
3. Reading. If you are reading this blog, you probably read more than your average person (and your reading tastes are exquisite, and you are charming and beloved by small children and pets, I imagine, Dear Reader). But in general, reading is tricky. I have a couple of bad reading habits: I like to reread books and I like to read novels. I just read the whole Earth’s Children cycle. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s an epic that covers about 20 years in the life of a cavewoman over about 6000 pages. I think the author has about 4 more books to go. I am not sure reading those books educated me. Sure, I know a lot more about what a novelist thinks cavepeople did in their daily lives (think hunt, sleep, eat and, er, the “other” kind of sleeping – a lot). But it didn’t educate me. At the same time I’m usually working my way through financial books, parenting books, productivity books, self-improvement books, etc. – not to mention 100+ blogs dailiy. Reading can be a form of education, but you have to keep a filter on it. But it is far and away the simplest, cheapest and often easiest way to keep educating yourself.

But the most important thing you can do with knowledge is apply it. I know a lot of Soviet history, for example. You know what I get out of that? Not education, per se. I enjoy it, reading good works probably helps me understand human history in general and Russia in particular (a matter of some importance to me since I lived there and my wife grew up in the Soviet Union) but it’s not exactly education. I don’t apply that knowledge – particularly towards getting rich. This is an important point: I think learning for the sake of learning is fine. Have fun. Learning is growth, and that’s worth something. But don’t kid yourself into thinking that reading something you’ve read before or reading a dopey novel or reading about the horrors of crime and terrorism in your paper make you more educated. No, no, no. What makes you more educated is learning something new that improves your life. Flower arranging blogs may make your life better just by bringing beauty into your life; but if you read and never DO anything with it it’s just entertainment – like watching “Lost” or playing video games. You have to DO something with that knowledge to make it REAL education.

But if you feel undereducated, you have no excuse to feel that way.
Between public libraries in most of the Western world, the Internet and even the creaky old print-on-paper the wealth of knowledge available today is staggering. If I wanted to learn about freaky astronomical theories or commodities trading it takes seconds to find them. Want to learn how to lose weight or build prosperity? A single click away.

So if you want to get rich – or even just have a better life – identify areas you like to study, and like to read about, and attack them. Take a seminar. Audit a community college course. Read 13 blogs and 5 books on the subject. But keep learning, because if you aren’t growing and learning, you’re just marking days off the calendar of your life.
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31 causes of failure #3: lack of ambition

This is a continuation of my series on Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich that began with this post.

The Third Cause of Failure: Lack of ambition to aim above mediocrity

I was a high school athlete. I was a varsity tennis player, and I had my moments; I was a varsity member of the #4 team in my state my junior year, and I won a lot of critical matches both as a doubles and singles player. I received a few offers for college scholarships (for smaller schools) and I thought of myself as a “serious” player. I expected to be taken seriously as a player and as a competitor. But the truth of it was that I was never willing to spend time like my teammates did at paid summer tennis camps. I enjoyed playing but I hated practice and drills. If I had a conflict between practice and school events, I would skip practice. I had no real ambition to be anything other than a mediocre tennis player, and the result was that I put down my racket in college and have almost never played tennis again.

If you want to fail, plan to do “just enough to get by.” Sometimes that may work for a long time before you fail. You may be able to skate by in school, in work, in relationships, in health, in managing your money. But the simple truth is that in seeking to reach a goal only one of two things will happen eventually: you will succeed and achieve your goal, or you will not. Sometimes you may strive your whole life to achieve your goal and fall short. Sometimes you may not make any effort, but still you manage to tread water or even slowly float forward towards your goal. But you will fail or succeed eventually. If you have no ambition to become more than mediocre, you will automatically become mediocre. You must WANT to rise above mediocrity.

“We offer no hope for the person who is so indifferent as not to want to get ahead in life, and who is not willing to pay the price,” says Hill. He offers no further analysis, and this line says it all. If you do not want to get ahead, there is no point in hoping that someone else will help you. You may hope for the lottery, or a rich spouse, or some other grand stroke of luck but the simple fact is that if YOU do not have an ambition to succeed, nobody else will do it for you. Here are a few questions you should ask yourself:

What does success mean to you? A TV and a chair to watch it from? A Social Security check and a steady diet of strained peas? What are you willing to do today to have what you want tomorrow? What are you willing to do to help others now so that you will succeed in the future? Does the thought of being mediocre bother you, and if not, why not? Do you want to succeed or just pass the days until you are shipped off to a nursing home? What is stopping you from succeeding – is it you?

A moment most of us have had is the moment when we give up. We inwardly admit we won’t be the smartest, the funniest, the prettiest, the strongest, the happiest, the healthiest. And we think well, that’s OK. That’s the moment when you start living life on your knees. I rationalize it to myself as saying it’s learning to be happy with what you have, but that’s not what it is – it’s giving up. You have to want to excel, to succeed. Admitting your interests have changed is fine, but putting years of your life into a sport you are not crazy about just to pass the time is being mediocre. If you are engaged in an activity, be “in it to win it” – or get out and find something you CAN win at.

31 causes of failure #2: lack of a well-defined purpose in life

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This is a continuation of my series on Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich that began last week.

Hill makes a brutal assessment in his book: in his experience, 98 out of 100 people lacked a well-defined purpose in life. Let’s take a step back and think about that: only 2 people in 100 have a well-defined purpose in life. This means two things: one, they have a purpose. Two, that purpose is well-defined. The other 98 people either don’t have a purpose or they have a purpose but have failed to define it adequately. That’s an amazing assertion, and while it’s difficult to assess, it seems true in my opinion. I know many people who want to be rich, for example, but they have vaguely formed ideas about how to achieve it or even what it means.

I’ll take myself as an example. I’ve said before in other posts that I lack a clear sense of purpose. I have interests, and I enjoy learning new things, but I suffer from “always wanting to do the new thing.” I like writing – but I get bored with it sometimes. I like astronomy – but I couldn’t imagine that as a purpose. I’m passionate about politics – but since I got disillusioned after working for a politician I haven’t been very active in campaigns. I could go on and on, but my point is this – I have no driving purpose in my life other than an amorphous and general plan to be a good family man and not do much harm. The main purpose in my life – what gets me out of bed and back and forth to work – is my family. But I don’t think “family” is a purpose. A purpose might be something as trivial (to some people) as “sailing across the Atlantic” or as grand as “becoming President of the United States.” I have no purpose that drives me to achieve other than vague ideas to accumulate enough wealth to enjoy financial freedom and “do what I want to.” Based on my experience between jobs and on weekends, what I want to do is spend time with my wife and my children – but even for that you need to develop a larger sense of purpose.

So how do you develop a well-defined sense of purpose? Here are some exercises I’ve cobbled together from a few sources, and I’ve tried them myself a few times with some success:

  • Personal journal: keep a journal. Taking the time each day to write down things that happened to you during the day can help expose your likes and dislikes. If your journal entries are descriptive of what you did at work, that’s a good sign. If your journal’s work-related lines are always “Boring day at work,” then you may have a problem. Do you write about food? Do you get excited recording your travels? And on a related note…
    Blog: I’ve been writing this blog long enough to know that if you don’t enjoy the topic, the creativity and desire to keep writing will dry up. I can only think of about four topics I could stay excited about enough to keep writing day after day: self-improvement and wealth-building (like this blog), politics, astronomy and travel. That probably tells me a LOT about my interests.
  • Blank sheets: Take a blank sheet and write the first thing that pops into your head after reading this question: Who am I? Then take another blank sheet and do the same thing. Repeat 10 times. Go back to each sheet and start brainstorming underneath that first question and answer. If your answer was “I am a father,” write down some ideas about why you answered that way. This is not my idea at all – it is taken directly from What Color is Your Parachute, which has some excellent ideas about discovering your passion.
  • Time off: I’ve talked about this before, but I can’t emphasize enough taking time off. When I had 5 weeks between consulting clients last year (partially voluntary but about 2 weeks unplanned), I realized something that is not at all obvious during a typical workweek – I like being at home. You may laugh, but I discovered that I genuinely enjoyed the routine of playing with my son, putting him to sleep, feeding him, cooking, sitting around talking to my wife and just enjoying reading, listening to music and writing (because that’s when I started my blog). When you are working long hours, commuting and dealing with the rush of “normal” life it’s not always easy to sit back and be introspective – sometimes all you want to do is watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs.
  • Talk talk talk: This step requires a willing partner, but try talking! Tell your partner or your parents or your friends your kooky ideas about what you think might be your purpose. You may be surprised at their enthusiasm. People – if they love you – want you to find your purpose.
  • Look at what keeps you up at night: Are there nights when you just can’t stop what you’re doing? Even though you have to go to work at 7 am tomorrow? You desperately want to go to sleep but you want to spend just a few more minutes doing what you’re doing? Think about what that tells you about your interests.
  • Read: Keep reading books and blogs and yes, even the news. Inspiration can be found again and again in the written word – it is not a glass, meant to be filled, but a waterfall that keeps filling up endlessly.

All of these steps help you find your purpose, but they don’t help you meet the “well-defined” requirement. Once you have an idea what your purpose may be, Hill reminds you that you have to define it. What does it mean? How will you achieve it? What is your next step? What do you need to be successful? Creating a definition is as simple as saying to yourself “what do I need to do today so that tomorrow I am closer to achieving my purpose than I was yesterday?” Then apply that same thinking to the next month, the next year, the next decade. If you want to become a political activist, maybe you need to decide what cause to support. If you want to start a business, maybe today you start to write a business plan. The important thing is to take action to define your purpose. If you can become one of those 2 in 100 people, your odds of success in life are already far higher than the other 98.

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.

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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