Success Classics

Acres of Diamonds
(1921)
Russell H Conwell

Dr Russell Conwell once went on a trip along the Tigris River in present day Iraq, using a guide hired in Baghdad who would take him out to the Persian Gulf. These river guides were like barbers in that they liked to talk, but the story this one told, Conwell insists, is easily verified.

There was a man, Al Hafed, who lived on the banks of the River Indus who had a nice farm with orchards and gardens, excess cash, a beautiful wife and children. He was 'wealthy because he was contented'. Then an old priest visited him and one night related how the world was made, including the formation of all the rocks, the earth, the precious metals and stones. He told the farmer that if he had a few diamonds he could have not just one farm, but many. The farmer listened. Suddenly, he wasn't that happy with what he had thus far acquired in life.

He sold up and went travelling in search of diamonds, across Persia, Palestine and into Europe. A couple of years later, what money he had was gone, and he was wandering around in rags. When a large wave came in from the sea, he was happily swept under by it.

The man who had bought the farmer's land was another story. One day, watering his animals in the stream that ran through the property, he noticed a glint in the watery sands. It was a diamond. In fact, it was one of the richest diamond finds in history; the mines of Golconda would yield not just one or two but acres of diamonds.

Open your mind

In this tiny book, which is actually a transcript of a hugely popular lecture that he gave, Conwell relates similar true life stories about the folly of going off to find your fortune when it is in your own backyard or just staring you in the face. He suggests that most people are 'pygmies of their possible selves', because they are not willing to accept, or it did not occur to them, that they have great untouched powers: "Families do not credit their own folks with abilities they attribute to other persons. Towns and cities are cursed because their own people talk them down", he says.

Conwell's message is that we shouldn't fall for the trap of thinking that all the great people and the great businesses are somewhere else. Consider that Henry Ford started designing and building his car on his own farm and built the famous Ford production line factories in the same area where he had grown up. There was nothing special about Dearborn, Michigan - he made it special, without ever leaving his own backyard. Warren Buffett, the great investor, decided against moving his family to Wall Street. He stayed in Omaha, Nebraska and made his billions there.

The discovery of true service

Conwell's other theme is that great service is basic to prosperity.

He tells of the financier John Jacob Astor the elder, who had to suddenly go into partnership in a millinery store because the owners could not keep up mortgage payments. What did he do to get this business on its feet? He would go into the park and quietly watch the women strolling along, particularly the most confident and elegant, and take careful note of the hats they were sporting. Back in the store, he had these hats copied exactly. The result was that the store never made a hat or bonnet that a lady didn't like, and it boomed. Left behind was the idea that 'we make hats and try to sell them', to be replaced by 'what women want, we sell'.

From such basic service erupts great success, in this case a store that even in the 19th century made seventeen million dollars. You may think you have already considered it, but ask again: what do people want?

The problem with most people, Conwell says, is that their wealth is 'too near'. You need to develop an open mind to spot the obvious. This will never happen if you are continually speeding off to the next opportunity, looking for a greener pasture. Genuine service is simple, but it may only occur to you what this is when your mind has been quieted. Without finding some quiet time to yourself you will not be able to see the wood for the trees. Leave time for meditation and contemplation, and answers will come.

Another way to start is by thinking about what you need. Chances are, if you need something, others will too. The woman who invented the snap button, first used in gloves, made her fortune this way. Conwell emphasises that "It is the open-mindedness to little things that brings human success." The greatest minds think in simple terms, and the greatest people, Conwell says, are always straightforward.

You can't succeed if you have no interest in people and their needs. In Conwell's words, you must make yourself necessary to the world. What all great people have in common is that they make themselves a 'medium' for good, they make the best goods and provide them to the largest number. This, not taking money at a till, is service.

Final word

Acres of Diamonds might seem from another era, but Conwell was one of the original American motivational speakers and his talk can still inspire. It costs next to nothing to buy, can be read in about half an hour, and every so often you may like to be reminded of its two lessons:

  • There's no need to look beyond yourself and your immediate circumstances to find the seeds of your fortune.
  • Service is the key to success. Don't just sell things. Find out what people really want. This requires greater than normal thought and observation.

So simple, but so useful to remember.

Source: 50 Success Classics: Winning Wisdom For Work and Life from 50 Landmark Books by Tom Butler-Bowdon (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey) More Details

Now available in Audio

50 Success Classics Cover

50 Success Classics: Winning Wisdom for Work and Life from 50 Landmark Books

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From Acres of Diamonds:

"Greatness consists in doing great deeds with little means - in the accomplishment of vast purposes. It consists in the private ranks of life - in helping one's fellows, benefiting one's neighborhood, in blessing one's own city and state."

Russell H Conwell:

Russell Herman Conwell was born in Worthington, Massachusetts in 1843. He attended Yale College and in 1862, not yet 20, he raised a company of volunteer soliders and fought on the Yankee side in the Civil War as a commissioned captain.

After the war Conwell studied at Albany Law School and practised law, but later went to work as a reporter for the Boston Evening Traveller. He travelled around the world for another journal, the American Traveller, and was 27 when he travelled down the Tigris river. His wife died when he was still in his twenties.

In his third career, in 1882 Conwell was invited to become pastor of a newly built Baptist church in Philadelphia. He would serve in this role for 43 years, also becoming a popular lecturer on the Lyceum and other circuits and writing a number of books. Easily his most popular lecture was 'Acres of Diamonds', which he gave over five thousand times and earned him, it is said, a million dollars. With the money he founded Temple University in Philadelphia. He died in 1925.


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