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The most dangerous advice Napoleon Hill ever gave

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Burning bridges, Napoleon Hill, business

This week I’ve been reading the classic Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, I’ve yet to finish it yet, but one piece of advice Hill suggests is a little…dangerous. Whilst I’m not criticising Hill, it feels as though one of his suggestions has the potential to lead people to ruin.

In Think and Grow Rich one of Hill’s key examples about building desire is a quote from Edward C. Barnes whose ultimate desire was to be a business partner with Thomas Edison:

Here is but ONE thing in this world that I am determined to have, and that is a business association with Thomas A. Edison, I will burn all the bridges behind me and stake my ENTIRE FUTURE on my ability to get what I want.”

In this article I’m going to talk about what “burn all the bridges” really means.

The purpose of the quote

What Napoleon Hill is referring to with the quote is destroying any ability for you to escape the fate that you set for yourself. Why? So you lose the ability to go backwards and are forced to push forward…or perish.

Forcing yourself to succeed by making failure ultimate is a beautiful notion, full of romanticism, courage, and sacrifice. And there have been a great number of successes from people who have literally sold everything to pursue one idea. For example do you remember this clip from an American knock off of Dragon’s Den?

After saying the immortal line “my game [Bulletball] is going to be an Olympic sport, it’s just that good” Marc Griffin then tells us all about how he sold close to everything he owned to create and develop his game.

And you know what? It became an Olympic sport!

…sort of.

Griffin’s story is an incredible one of diligence, risk-taking, and exemplifies Hill’s notion of burning all bridges. He never gave up; he put himself in a position where he wasn’t able to retreat and came out on top!  But should he be considered a hero or a morality tale?

Burning bridges is incredibly foolish

For every great success story there are hundreds of sad tales. Tales of ruined credit, lost homes, and destroyed relationships. When I was a journalist, I would interview CEOs, and founders of start-ups and nearly every single one told me the same thing:

Know when to quit”

Sometimes products simply don’t work out, that’s the long and short of it. Nearly all of the entrepreneurs I’ve interviewed all have a story about a “great idea” they’d had, over-committed on, and had to spend unnecessary time and effort crawling out of the hole they’d put themselves in.

I’m a huge fan of having a plan B, I’m an even bigger fan of having a plan C, but sometimes only plan D will cut it. Just because you commit yourself 100 per cent to something, that doesn’t change the fact that if it goes sour you’ve got a way to minimise recovery downtime.

50 per cent of US businesses fail within five years, and considering the volume of fantastic literature based on creating great businesses why is the chance of success the same as a coin toss?

To follow Napoleon Hill’s advice of removing any sort of exit strategy makes these business failures creep into the outside world and affects a part of your life that it really shouldn’t i.e. the rest of your family and your physical/mental health.

…but that’s not to say you shouldn’t do it

Rocky, Success, Wealth
This picture is from a piece of fiction, if you give something everything you could easily find yourself as the guy knocked out on the floor

Ultimately any venture you set yourself on is a gamble, there is always risk involved. However the real risk for us human beings is to risk wasting our unique talents because we were too busy feeling comfortable, and that is what Napoleon Hill is telling is burn.

What Hill is trying to instil in you is a super strong sense of desire or obsession. By creating a situation where failure means disaster means that you probably won’t fail because every ounce of your energy and being is focused on completing your goal, because you’re forced to.

If you need that to drive you then by all means, throw everything at your project. Re-mortagage your house, take out loans from a bank, sell all your assets to achieve your dream.

Or don’t.

“Burn all the bridges” is akin to saying “Putting all your eggs in one basket”, which is an insane thing to do… unless you’ve got a really strong basket, or eggs that you know won’t break. In this instance your “eggs” are your ideas, or your product/service, and how can you tell how strong your eggs are? Try and break them.

Before you go all-in with your idea or service, ensure you’ve at least got a minimum viable product that you can test on the market, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do people even want what you’ve got?
  • What’s the product’s biggest weakness?
  • Who’s my closest competitor?
  • Why would someone choose my product/service over another?

Ultimately the takeaway from this is the sound wisdom of Benjamin Graham: risk what you can afford to.

Image Credits: United Artists.

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