Mini-retirement book review: ‘Outwitting the Devil,’ by Napoleon Hill

The Devil controls 98 of every 100 people on Earth, coercing them not into a life of evil but one of malaise. He leads people to his command by instilling fear in them, which weakens their resolve to pursue a purposeful, meaningful life.

“Think and Grow Rich” author Napoleon Hill wrote “Outwitting the Devil” in 1938 as a one-on-one interview with the Devil himself, in which Hill was able to force the Devil to confess to how he conquers men at an astounding rate and how they can escape his grasp.

The book was deemed too controversial to print – for reasons I’ll delve into later – and shelved an amazing 73 years until its release in 2011. It was incredibly relevant at that time, as the economic climate reflected that of the original period in which Hill wrote it. However, the principles in “Outwitting the Devil” are timeless and valuable even today.

Before we meet The Devil

Hill’s previous book, “Think and Grow Rich,” was already a best-seller (and remains among the most read self-help books even today), and “Outwitting” expands on references to the secrets of success in that book.

He cites a conversation with ultra-wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie as the impetus for the quest that led to him unraveling the principles within the book.

“You will discover the cause of success is not something separate and apart from the man,” Carnegie told Hill. “That it is a force so intangible in nature that the majority of men never recognize it; a force which might properly be called ‘The Other Self.’”

Carnegie suggested people rarely discover this Other Self until pushed to do so by significant emergency or near catastrophe and are required to summon the full depths of their talents to escape it. Essentially, everyone has within them a superhero, but they only tap into this personality under extreme duress.

Hill seeks to uncover the principles by which one could transform into this Other Self without waiting for a rock-bottom event, living each day in a manner that brings out the talents within and the rewards that follow.

To set the scene, Hill recounts his own life of ups and downs, misguided business ideas, success and failure. While on a nighttime walk after many months of hard times, he has a sudden flash of inspiration. That vision leads him to act with purpose and as though success were a foregone conclusion, which he did despite limited resources. In the end, success came through unlikely means.

Hill concludes “the mind acts upon one’s dominating or most profound desires. There is no escape from this fact. It is a fact indeed. Be careful what you set your heart upon, for it surely it shall be yours.”

An interview with the Devil

The bulk of “Outwitting The Devil” is a Q&A format between Hill and the Devil.

The book doesn’t use the Biblical context of Satan vs. God as we might traditionally envision it, but there is overlap. The Devil describes himself as the counterpoint to a positive force in the universe, the storehouse of Infinite Intelligence – what humans call God. The Devil’s goal is to keep people in a state of “drift” in which they go through life with little purpose and do not think for themselves.

“When a person beings to drift on any subject, he is headed straight toward the gates of what you earthbound call hell,” the Devil tells Hill.

The notion of hell as a physical or spiritual manifestation is bogus, the Devil says. Instead, hell is a state of mind and a state of being suffered by drifters whose daily lives are unfulfilling and meaningless. One need not worry about fiery pits and eternal torture; an existence filled with fear, scarcity, failure, and despair is far worse a fate.

Drifters accept whatever life gives them and don’t persevere through failure to find success.

“The majority of people begin to drift as soon as they meet with opposition, and not one out of ten thousand will keep on trying after failing two or three times,” the Devil tells Hill. “Failure breaks down one’s morale, destroys self-confidence, subdues enthusiasm, dulls imagination, and drives away definiteness of purpose.

“Without these qualities no one can permanently succeed in any undertaking.”

Escaping drift

Hill presses the Devil to reveal all the ways in which one can escape the gravity of drift. I find it interesting how many of the principles are things the financial independence community also espouses.

He speaks of acting with definite purpose, while FI-seekers encourage intentionality.

He talks about the importance of recognizing that time is your most valuable resource and that it shouldn’t be squandered.

He encourages people to think for themselves and not follow others simply because it’s easier. That lines up with FI teachings that life doesn’t have to be about conspicuous consumption and massive debt.

The conversation also reveals the “laws of nature” that can be used either to one’s success or detriment.

The law of hypnotic rhythm, for instance, is one in which actions become habits and habits become the engine by which results – both positive and negative – are produced.

By choosing good habits, we attract positive results, which multiply by the effect of hypnotic rhythm.

For example, if we came home after work and watched two hours of Netflix every evening, that would become our habit. That habit is just “what we do,” and nothing productive or positive is gained through it.

However, if we came home after work and went for a 30-minute walk while listening to a podcast, then wrote in a gratitude journal and called a friend to catch up, the law of hypnotic rhythm would make those positive actions our norm and they would build upon each other.

Hill’s most fundamental argument is that we must identify a purpose and then nurture positive habits and associations to make that vision a reality. In doing so, we escape drift and join the 2 percent of the population not captive in the Devil’s clutches.

“In other words,” Hill asks the Devil, “if I know what I want from life, demand it and back my demand by a willingness to pay life’s price for what I want, and refuse to accept any substitutes, the law of hypnotic rhythm takes over my desire and helps, by natural and logical means, to transmute it into its physical counterpart. Is that true?”

“That,” responds the Devil, “describes the way the law works.”

Hill is one of a number of authors in the New Thought movement who claimed a “law of attraction” made it possible to manifest real-world results from one’s thoughts.

There are certainly rightful criticisms of the idea, and it’s not a scientifically testable one, but I think someone following the principles set forth in “Outwitting” are far more likely to experience positive results than negative ones.

The seven principles of freedom

While some of the ingredients for attaining success are borne internally, others are environmental factors.

According to “Outwitting the Devil,” the seven principles to attain spiritual, mental and physical freedom are:

      1. Definiteness of purpose
      2. Mastery over self
      3. Learning from adversity
      4. Controlling environmental influence
      5. Time
      6. Harmony
      7. Caution

I would encourage you to read the book for more detail on each of these. Generally speaking, the idea is to be definite, disciplined, and able to grow from challenge.

Hill asks the Devil what is the most important thing one can learn from adversity.

“The greatest potential benefit of any circumstance which causes one to make a fresh start is that it provides an opportunity to break the grip of hypnotic rhythm and set up a new set of thought-habits. New habits offer the only way out for people who fail,” he says. “Most people who escape from the negative to the positive operation of the law of hypnotic rhythm do so only because of some form of adversity which forces them to change their thought-habits.”

This is the crux of what Dominick Quartuccio talked about in his episode of ChooseFI. That most people don’t escape drift until an outside force – sickness, job loss, death of a loved one, etc. – is thrust upon them and forces them out of it. But we can create that change without such a force. (That was a key intent with quitting my job to take this mini-retirement, and Quartuccio’s episode was a major influence in my thinking.)

You also must recognize that the people with whom you associate are critical to your future.

“All people absorb and take over, either consciously or unconsciously, the thought-habits of those with whom they associate closely,” according to the Devil.

I often hear this with the Jim Rohn axiom that we are the average of the five people with whom we spend the most time. It’s interesting to note that these relationships need not be physical proximity relationships. Online communities can shift the average for each of us by exposing us to more people with different characteristics of those who we see in person. This is evidenced by the massive transformations I’ve seen in people through their joining the Dad Edge Alliance. The barriers to this facet of success are almost non-existent now.

Finally, we must engage in these behaviors over time, during which we are likely to gain wisdom; in harmony with the laws of nature as described by Hill and the Devil; and by proceeding with due caution.

The end result is guaranteed (but not immediate) success.

Controversies in ‘Outwitting the Devil’

As I mentioned, this book was written more than 70 years before its release. Hill’s family and the families of his associates feared the retribution that would come with its publishing.

It’s understandable.

Firstly, the advice for success is being delivered through the mouth of the Devil. That’s fairly scandalous stuff in the Depression-era 1930s.

What’s even more troubling in that period, though, is Hill’s critiques of religion and the education system.

He blasts religion as nurturing the very fear that gives the Devil his power. By constantly warning people of the evils of Satan rather than focusing their efforts on appreciating the beauty and power of God, preachers sow the souls of the living in the rows of hell. They breed negativity instead of positivity.

Likewise, the education system tamps down the creativity and resourcefulness of students to meet their overly narrow ideas of success. (I’m just starting to read “The Element,” by Ken Robinson, which picks up with this very idea. It’s so interesting how the books I’m reading are woven together as the threads of ideas in one book are joined with another into a bigger tapestry.)

Hill has four pages of suggestions for how the education system could do a better job of nurturing young minds and bodies. What’s crazy is, again, the period in which this was written is so far removed from present day, yet the criticisms are still quite valid.

For instance, the Devil suggests: “Reverse the present system by giving children the privilege of leading in their school work instead of following orthodox rules designed only to impart abstract knowledge. Let instructors serve as students and let the students serve as instructors.”

Or: “Teach children the danger of believing anything merely because their parents, religious instructors, or someone else says it is so.”

Hill’s critiques would certainly have caught the attention of powerful institutions that would have fought them with great effort, likely leading to more hard times for him and his associates.

My personal takeaways

What Hill offers is a blueprint for how to turn your vision into reality, and it’s hard to argue with those steps. What he doesn’t identify is how to uncover that passion.

It’s hard to act with definiteness of purpose if you haven’t identified the purpose. However, if you have that, it seems like you can’t really go wrong following the guidance of “Outwitting.” They are just strong habits that will aid in your success.

There’s a line in the book that says “weak plans have a way of becoming strong if definitely applied.” I find that interesting. It suggests you need not fully think through the course if you know what the end will be. Of course you can find both positive and negative examples of that kind of action, but there’s a power in brushing aside fear of the unknown for the thrill of the ride.

I mentioned “The Element,” the next book I’m reading, which talks about finding your passion. I suspect “Outwitting” would be even more powerful if I went into it with that passion identified. It’s probably worth rereading in a year.

However, for now I’ll try to build better daily habits that lend themselves to being out of drift and working in harmony with hypnotic rhythm. That’s a good course of action no matter the outcome.

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  1. It’s not often that I read a book more than once, but “Outwitting the Devil” is one that I felt compelled to read again after just a few weeks for all the lessons I couldn’t absorb the first time. I enjoyed reading your take on it, as it again reinforced some of the principles I had forgotten. It’s crazy that after 70+ years it’s still so applicable to today. I’ll have to check out “The Element” next.