Orison Swett Marden: An Original Thinker

UPDATED: May 11, 2024
PUBLISHED: July 8, 2011

It’s very hard to find original thought.

Orison Swett Marden was part of “The New Thought Movement,” a spiritual group that emphasized metaphysical beliefs and personal development. While there were religious overtones, the philosophies were fundamentally based on infinite insight and intelligence.

Here’s a classic Marden quote:

Don’t wait for extraordinary opportunities. Seize common occasions and make them great. Weak men wait for opportunities; strong men make them.

Marden was influenced and inspired—as were many—by one of the original personal-development writers, Samuel Smiles. Smiles was an original. The Smiles book, Self-Help, was the trigger for Marden’s career. “The little book was the friction which awakened the spark sleeping in the flint,” Marden is quoted as saying. The 21st century translation might be, “Samuel Smiles lit my fire.”

Early in his life, Marden came across the Smiles book by accident, while rummaging through an attic. He became an evangelist for the book, and for his own positive-thinking philosophy. When he looked for more books, and found few, his mission was set. Study, write, publish, preach, speak—and by being a living example of his writings, set the standard for others to follow.

You might know some of the original writers who preceded Marden. The most prominent author was William James, a physiologist and a pragmatist. James hung out with a bunch of brainiacs, the most notable being P.T. Barnum, Mark Twain, Horatio Alger and Sigmund Freud. (Not a bad group of guys.)

It’s more interesting to note who followed Orison Swett Marden, most notably Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich) and Dale Carnegie (How To Win Friends and Influence People). These guys came 30 years after Marden founded SUCCESS magazine in the late 1890s. Also note that Napoleon Hill was a significant contributor, and he also published his own magazine in the late teens and 1920s called Hill’s Golden Rule. The subtitle: For those who think and want to grow. (Sound familiar?) As popular as Napoleon Hill was (and is), he was a disciple and a follower of Orison Swett Marden.

Marden had one amazing contemporary. Elbert Hubbard. Their work often appeared in other magazines, but they never wrote anything together. I can only assume that they knew one another, and corresponded with one another, out of respect for their mutual capabilities. They were competitors in their time. While Marden was writing Pushing to the Front, Hubbard was writing Message to Garcia. They both began their own publications. Hubbard’s was the magazine FRA. They both were exceptionally prolific authors. Hubbard and Marden were considered the thought leaders of their time.

Marden expanded the original thoughts of Smiles to an unprecedented degree. Not just a prolific writer, he was also a speaker, an editor, a publisher, a doctor and a lawyer. Marden’s books could be found in the library of every major early-American industrialist. He was the word, and words, of success and spirit.

Orison Swett Marden wrote more than 60 books in a period of 30 years without a word processor, and barely with a typewriter. He was an educated person, having graduated from Boston University, Andover Theological Seminary, and Harvard University with M.D. and LL.B. degrees. He also went back to school to master oratory skills. Wow!

Marden was successful at every endeavor because he was a student who put his knowledge to work. And through his religious beliefs, he literally practiced what he preached. His genius allowed him to take on business ventures, capture publishing opportunities, study every aspect of life, and still speak and write. His success came from putting all those elements into positive execution and achievement.

When I wrote The Patterson Principles in 2002 (now titled Jeffrey Gitomer’s Little Platinum Book of Cha-Ching!) my research took me to Dayton, Ohio, the home of John Patterson and the business he founded, the National Cash Register Company (NCR). I was contacted by a bookseller in Dayton who offered me several books from the Patterson library dating to the turn of the century—the 20th century. These books were actually signed by Patterson to connote ownership, and they include passages he underlined because he found them meaningful and wanted to act on them. I bought the books without hesitation.

One of the books I purchased was He Who Thinks He Can, by Orison Swett Marden, with passages generously underlined by the hand of John Patterson. Wow!

In my collection of Marden’s work I have a personal letter sent by Marden to potential subscribers of his SUCCESS magazine (early direct mail). It gives a rare glimpse into the philosophy and salesmanship of the founder.

Dated 1922 and signed by Marden himself, the letter has a quote at the top of the page that reads,

“Impossibilities are merely the half-hearted efforts of quitters.” The letter begins: “Dear Dreamer,” and exhorts readers to “grant [their] imagination full sway. For never before in the history of the world has the door of opportunity been flung so wide.”

The words in this classic solicitation are timeless.

Through the years, I have been influenced by many writers and thinkers. Orison Swett Marden is at the top of my short list. Not just as a writer, but as a thinker. Not just an author, but someone who practiced what he thought.

Start reading Marden today. Many of his works have been reprinted in paperback. Own a few and get a feeling for his philosophies and ideas. What’s the best way to apply Marden’s wisdom to your life? Start studying, and apply what feels comfortable for you.

Jeffrey Gitomer is the author of The Sales Bible and The Little Red Book of Selling. President of Charlotte, North Carolina-based Buy Gitomer, he gives seminars, runs annual sales meetings and conducts Internet training programs on selling and customer service.