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Book Review: The Narrow Road: A Brief Guide to the Getting of Money by Felix Dennis

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In How To Get Rich: One of the World’s Greatest Entrepreneurs Shares His Secrets, Felix Dennis’s prequel to The Narrow Road: A Brief Guide to the Getting of Money. Dennis stated emphatically that you cannot be in business and be a poet at the same time. I remember finding this opinion quite unsettling at the time. I was starting out on my business journey but in my heart and through my hobbies I had always engaged in creative activities. I had also studied the dreaded poetry! What did this mean for my future business success?

Dennis had touched a nerve. I had often felt that business people and creative people seemed very different personalities, but in myself I saw elements of both, and I wanted to have both in my life. So although I partly understood what Dennis was saying, I still felt I wanted to prove him wrong. But I was also slightly puzzled. Dennis is a published poet; the initial pages of Get Rich contain verse, one by Dennis himself. What exactly was he saying, or not saying? It was all a bit of an intriguing mystery to me, much more interesting than the other soul-less business books I had around me at the time.

Now, it’s 2.5 years later and I’m reading the sequel to Get Rich: The Narrow Road. I’m still in business – which to me is an achievement given the recession and severely restricted bank funding available to start-ups. I have grasped opportunities that were right in terms of what I needed to learn to progress and gain competency, not because they helped me to get rich. Maybe I am doing things the long way ’round, but for me there is definitely an element of needing to learn certain things first, especially if business is new to you. Yes, you absolutely have to focus on finances, but you have to get your systems and processes working smoothly first. In previous financial eras a bank loan would have enabled a new business to hire staff to carry out these processes while the founder focused on increasing and extending the reach of the business. I started in the recession so it would not have been wise, I felt, to have gone down that route. I made the decision to do it all myself. It has led to a slower journey, but it was the right decision at the time.

This year, however, I am deliberately bringing creative activities back into my life (writing and singing). I am happier as a result, am feeling less socially isolated, and feel I have more objectivity on my business.

Maybe you can’t be a ‘poet’ in the sense of being a success and making a living from a creative activity whilst being in business, but you can create something meaningful in your spare time and have a business as well. In fact I think the ‘stepping’ outside of the business helps to not get too fixated and bogged down with certain problems. A bit of distance from a problem generally helps the mind to spontaneously proffer up just the right solution. Take a look at the literature on creative problem-solving and the famous example of Archimedes’s discovery of the ‘theory of displacement’ after his wife told him to take a break from his work and have a bath (Pritzker, 1999).

The basic proposition in Narrow Road as in Get Rich, however, is that if you want to get rich you have to focus on this goal absolutely and refuse to be distracted by anything else, for example a creative or family life. Narrow Road states its case a lot more succinctly and is an easier read as a result. It is a ruthlessly honed version of Get Rich. Narrow Road has been critiqued for being the same book as Get Rich, but I disagree. They may deal with similar topics — some chapters have the same title — but Get Rich is a book that also talks about the author’s journey in business as well as offering guidance. Narrow Road provides the nugget of wisdom without the lesson, and sometimes this is all you need. For example, there’s a chapter that is the same in both books: “The Fallacy of the Great Idea.” In Get Rich it takes up 13 pages (p. 63-76), whereas in Narrow Road this is distilled to 2 pages (p.107-108), and could have been condensed further by cutting out all except the last line:

“Ideas don’t make you rich. The correct execution of ideas does.” (p.108).

I wonder if the overall concept of TNR was born out of Dennis’s (secret?) studying of Japanese poetry, such as Haiku, which requires you to limit to 17 syllables the message that you wish to convey?

So what are the main messages in Narrow Road? Well, Dennis first gives a similar but more strongly stated caveat about how the getting of money is a dark art that you’d be wiser to forget about unless absolutely determined. The book’s main hypothesis is that in order to ‘get rich’ by your own honest efforts, you need to single-mindedly, selfishly focus on that goal only and not be distracted by anything else. Distraction is something I suspect Dennis is quite disturbed by.

As a creative person I discovered my fear on p.28 of Narrow Road: “If you have artistic inclinations and fear the search for wealth will coarsen your talents or degrade them, you will never be rich. (Because your fear, in this instance, is justified.)”

It is a very real tension. Maybe you can do both, but you cannot be equally successful and rich from both. One must take precedent. I appreciate this in terms of the distraction and dilution. However I do feel that doing something different and taking time out from your business can help you to see your business more objectively. The socialising element can help to check out what’s going on in the rest of the world; what’s current. But more than anything it is a break to keep you fresh-minded and not exhausted by working in your business.

Clearly I’m motivated by quality of life and creating something meaningful for myself and also for my family, rather than being rich and not being happy. Narrow Road can help to indicate where your motivations lie and in that sense it is a worthwhile read. It hones in on that driven, restless and curious feeling that those who have long held a desire to be rich will be familiar with. However, these feelings are also shared by creative people. If you hold both desires which will you choose to focus on? The Narrow Road will both encourage and discourage you in equal measure, for example, laying out clearly what you need to let go of in order to follow your desire, but also helping you to see that if you have the right mind-set and ability your odds of achieving your desire are closer than you think.

If you have harboured dreams of becoming rich, and I’m sure many of us have at some point in our lives, this book will help you to either put that dream to rest and enjoy your life as it is, or confirm that you wish to and probably can achieve that dream even if it means considerable sacrifice and will likely not feel at all dream-like.

Pritzker, S.R. (1999). Encyclopedia of creativity, Volume 1. CA: Academic Press

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  • vannay

    Great article really interesting!

  • Gordon Hauptfleisch

    It might be worth noting that T.S. Eliot was a banker and Wallace Stevens an insurance executive. Nice review.