In the 1994 film Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks’ character ponders whether we have a destiny, or “… if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze.” Gump concludes that both concepts are probably true.
But what if nothing is an accident? What if our circumstances were not the product of chance, but actually originated in our minds? Could the thoughts our minds formed years ago be responsible for what is happening to us today?
Although this concept may seem innovative, it’s not new. In fact, James Allen explored this way of thinking and wrote about it more than a century ago.
A prolific British essayist, Allen is regarded as a trailblazer in the self-help and personal development genres. As a Man Thinketh, Allen’s best-known work, has been lauded as one of the greatest personal-development books of all time. Nearly a century after Allen’s death, his groundbreaking words continue to offer enlightenment.
In the book, Allen explores the concept of thoughts eventually giving birth to circumstances. Drawing from a gardening metaphor, Allen describes the ability of people to cultivate their own minds—weeding out impure thoughts while growing flowers and fruits of good, useful and pure thoughts. “By pursuing this process,” Allen writes, “a man sooner or later discovers that he is the master gardener of his soul, the director of his life. He also reveals, within himself, the laws of thought, and understands, with ever-increasing accuracy, how the thought forces and mind elements operate in the shaping of his character, circumstances and destiny.”
Writing So Rich
Mark Victor Hansen, co-creator of the globally popular Chicken Soup for the Soul book series, first discovered Allen’s writings about 35 years ago after reading As a Man Thinketh. “This book elevated my soul,” says Hansen, who had just been through a devastating bankruptcy.
Hansen says he’s now read As a Man Thinketh more than 25 times. “Most people read it once and say, ‘Oh, I read it,’ ” Hansen says. “But his writing is so rich that you can’t drink it all in the first time.”
Hansen longed to become a best-selling author and found inspiration in Allen’s work. “Everything James Allen wrote was poetic and brilliant,” he says. “He wrote with such alignment and clarity.”
Today, the Chicken Soup for the Soul series boasts 140 million copies in print in 54 languages, and Hansen has kept Allen’s writings close by throughout his life journey.
Bob Proctor, an internationally known speaker on prosperity, first picked up As a Man Thinketh in 1972, and says he’s never stopped reading it. “I run seminars for hours just on parts of this book,” he says. “In a very short book, he’s got a library of material in there. I believe anybody who reads this book every day for a month will have their lives changed by it.”
It’s not likely Allen realized his writings would have such profound effect long after his death. But it is certain Allen knew all too well about character, circumstance and the relationship between the two.
Poverty to Power
Born in 1864 in central England to an illiterate mother and a factory-worker father, Allen’s father, William Allen, became a prosperous merchant but lost everything when the younger Allen was a teenager, according to an article in a 1916 periodical. The elder Allen traveled to the United States to seek out a better life for his family, but died suddenly, possibly robbed and murdered, just two days after his arrival. The only things returned to the Allen family back in England were the patriarch’s empty pocketbook and an old silver watch. At 15, James Allen had to leave school to support his mother and two younger brothers.
Working 15 hours a day, Allen refused to allow his circumstances to affect his outlook. He discovered the power of books and read Shakespeare and Emerson voraciously. After moving to London as an adult, Allen met and married Lily Louisa Oram and began writing for the magazine The Herald of the Golden Age. In his mid-30s, he published From Poverty to Power, his first book. He would go on to publish 18 more books—more than one per year—until his death in 1912, and several more volumes of his writings would be published posthumously.
His other titles include The Path to Prosperity, Foundation Stones to Happiness and Success, and Above Life’s Turmoil, which further develops the concept of calmness as a “one of the beautiful jewels of wisdom,” from a chapter in As a Man Thinketh.
During his most prolific period, Allen also published a spiritual magazine, The Light of Reason. The publication eventually became The Epoch, which Lily Allen continued to publish after her husband’s death.
Words That Resonate
For the time and culture in which he lived, Allen was one of the most celebrated authors, and his works were read widely in literary circles.
“Back then, the printing and distribution of books was not easy,” Hansen says. “Allen was limited to what he could print.”
Because avid readers were in the minority, Allen’s readership was restricted to intellectuals with access to books. these circles, which often gathered in England’s coffee shops and taverns, Allen’s innovative theories began to catch on.
“James Allen pioneered personal-development writing,” Hansen says. “In his own life, he obviously chose favor of himself. Then he shared how to do that with rest of the world.” Despite Allen’s popularity, achieving fame was never the author’s goal. In an editorial about Allen published in the August 1910 issue of Review, editor Ralph Shirley wrote, “Mr. Allen’s ambitions are not on the material plane, and he has never set himself to make money beyond what his modest requirements demand. Nor, again, has ambition any attractions for him, and he has invariably preferred a simple life in the country to publicity and self-advertisement.”
Lacking the marketing and publicity tools available to modern-day authors hasn’t hindered Allen’s legacy. While many of today’s trendy self-help titles lose steam after a few years, Allen’s works have maintained a following that has stretched into two centuries. He even made his way into late 20th-century popular music. Funkadelic, a 1970s funk band led by George Clinton, based the lyrics to the song “Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts” on concepts from As a Man Thinketh.
Allen’s words are especially applicable in today’s troubled society. “Right now, people are despondent and depressed,” Hansen says. “James Allen points out that we truly have radiant souls and that we do have control over our circumstances. He’s a legend because his words stab you in the spirit alive. When you read his stuff, it goes straight into your soul.”