Outwitting the Devil by Napoleon Hill: Book Overview

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Is it possible to get out from under the devil’s influence? If so, how? If you succeed, how might your life be different?

Outwitting the Devil by Napoleon Hill is a self-help book that describes how you can resist the devil’s influence and find personal and financial success in life by choosing clear goals, pursuing them single-mindedly, and surrounding yourself with positive influences. Businessman and author Napoleon Hill emphasizes the law of attraction and the power of positive thinking as the primary tools that will keep you from drifting aimlessly through life or spiraling into failure.

Let’s take a look at an overview of the book.

Outwitting the Devil

Written shortly after the Great Depression and on the cusp of World War II, Outwitting the Devil by Napoleon Hill discusses how you can find success even in unfavorable circumstances. He himself spent much of the previous two decades moving from one failed venture to another, only achieving happiness and wealth when he decided to pursue his true calling of teaching and writing, beginning with his 1937 bestseller Think and Grow Rich. This taught him that if you refuse to accept failure, no matter how many times it comes, you can overcome any obstacle. Outwitting the Devil aims to help readers do the same. 

Think and Grow Rich examined the lives of hundreds of American businessmen and concluded that persistence and positive thinking were key to success. While Outwitting the Devil repeats these points, it takes a closer look at failure and considers how negative influences keep people from reaching their fullest potential, through an explicitly religious lens. Hill structures the book as a conversation—arguably more of an interrogation—between a version of himself, called Mr. Earthbound, and the devil, who insists on being called “Your Majesty.” 

This approach is the most controversial aspect of the book, since it seems to convey respect and involves more direct engagement with the devil than some Christians, like Hill’s wife Annie Lou Norman, were comfortable with. Because of her objections, the book went unpublished until 2012, when the Napoleon Hill Foundation released a newly edited version. 

Hill avoids the question of whether the devil he interviews is real or imagined, but justifies his choice to structure the book this way by arguing that there is more to learn from failure than from success. The devil, as humanity’s greatest obstacle, will have more useful advice to offer than any other being on how his own machinations can be avoided.

The book covers five main topics:

  1. The Nature of the Devil: What tools the devil uses to turn people toward failure
  2. Indifferent People vs. Independent Thinkers: What characterizes a person under the devil’s control in contrast to someone who has resisted his influence
  3. Patterns of Behavior: Recognizing patterns in your behavior and changing them so that they drive you towards success rather than failure
  4. The Law of Attraction: How to apply the law of attraction, which argues that positive or negative thoughts will attract positive or negative results
  5. Escaping the Devil: How you can escape the devil’s influence and achieve success
Another Glimpse at the Devil

Hill is not the only author to go in this literary direction. In 1942, C. S. Lewis (best known as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia series) would publish The Screwtape Letters, a novel structured as a series of letters between a “senior” demon named Screwtape and his nephew Wormwood. Screwtape advises Wormwood on how to guide a British man towards damnation, and, in turn, the reader learns how to resist the devil’s subtle influences.

While it’s unlikely that Hill and Lewis were aware of one another’s ideas, since Outwitting the Devil was written in 1938 but went unpublished until well after the death of both authors, there are striking similarities in their philosophies. Both Hill and Lewis point to indifference and inaction as the primary tools through which humans may be manipulated, and decisive action as the path towards salvation or success.

The Nature of the Devil

The three main characteristics of the devil as Hill describes him are:

  1. He doesn’t have a physical form but exists as negative energy and negative thoughts.
  2. He’s an essential part of the universe, and can’t be truly defeated; while God represents all that is positive in nature, the devil represents all that is negative, and just as day can’t exist without night, life can’t exist without both God and the devil locked in a constant struggle. 
  3. He does not torture people in Hell after death, but instead he attempts to gain control of them throughout their lives. If he succeeds, he absorbs them into himself after death.

Hill argues that the primary threat the devil poses to you is not after death, but in the course of your life, and so you must commit to resisting him each and every day. While the devil cannot be permanently defeated, he can be avoided by someone who is strong of character and who commits to practicing Hill’s principles for success.

Hill claims that the devil has two ways of manipulating people away from professional success and personal fulfillment: through their desires and through their fears.

Indifferent People Versus Independent Thinkers

Hill writes that the devil distinguishes between two types of people: those under his control, whom he claims make up nearly 98% of all people on Earth; and those who have escaped his influence. What separates these two groups is that those under his influence take a fundamentally passive role in their own lives, while those who have resisted take a more active role. Much of Hill’s advice to the reader encourages them to take on a more active role, taking control of what happens to them out of the devil’s hands and into their own.

Patterns of Behavior Drive Us

Any indifferent person can become an independent thinker, but the longer you’ve been caught in the cycle of indifference, the harder it will be to break your old patterns and commit to the hard work that success requires. The same actions, beliefs, and thoughts, repeated over and over, become a kind of rhythm or pattern that, like a current, is easier to flow with than to swim out of. 

This is what Hill calls a pattern of behavior. Nature is given to cycles or patterns, with the same processes repeating every season, every day, or every second. Humans are aspects of nature and therefore subject to the same laws. That said, he stresses that if you recognize that you’re caught in this pattern of indifferent behavior, you can break yourself out of it, and you can even turn this aspect of nature to your advantage by establishing a new pattern.

Hill offers several steps to start you on this process:

  • Set a goal for your life.
  • Choose faith over fear.
  • Never accept less than what you deserve.

The Law of Attraction

The law of attraction proposes that thinking positive thoughts will attract success, while thinking negative thoughts will lead to failure. It suggests that “like attracts like,” and so the first step towards achieving success is to believe that success will come. Hill also argues that the law of attraction can act as a guide in prayer.

Escaping the Devil’s Influence

Having explained how your success or failure is determined by the patterns of behavior that you’ve fallen into, as well as the significance of the law of attraction, Hill names the six things a person needs to do in order to escape the devil’s influence and live a successful life:

  1. Have clear purpose and conviction
  2. Practice self-control
  3. Don’t let failure defeat you
  4. Choose your relationships and environments carefully
  5. Pursue wisdom
  6. Practice caution and forethought

Exercise: Reframe Failure

As Hill tells us, everyone experiences failure. What separates a successful person from an unsuccessful person is their ability to take that failure in stride, and apply the lessons learned from it towards achieving their goals.

Think back to a failure you’ve experienced in your life—a failed assignment, a missed job opportunity, a personal falling out, a lost game, etc. What happened? How did you feel? How did you choose to respond?

Looking back at this failure now, what lessons could you take away from what happened? 

What lessons did you take away from it in the moment, and how did your overall approach to the assignment, job, relationship or hobby change? If you could do it over, would you react differently?

Outwitting the Devil by Napoleon Hill: Book Overview

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Napoleon Hill's "Outwitting the Devil" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Outwitting the Devil summary :

  • How failure and bad habits keep people from reaching their potential
  • How to escape the Devil’s influence and avoid being turned toward inaction
  • How to find your way to professional and financial success

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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