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  • Writer's pictureMark Walmsley

The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz Summary

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

The Magic of Thinking Big Book

If you want an amazing life – read this book. It shows you how you can quite literally use your brain to think your way to success by setting goals, using creative thinking to achieve them, overcoming negative thoughts, and respecting people and being action-oriented. Key insights:

  1. Believe you can succeed and you will, you are better and more capable than you think

  2. If you think it can be done, you empower your subconscious mind to start working out how

  3. Use goals, strategies, and the power of taking action as a habit to help you grow

  4. Don’t make excuses – health, intelligence, age, or luck are not reasons to stop trying

  5. Action cures fear – take small steps towards whatever is holding you back

  6. Ask ‘what would an important or successful person do in this situation?’ – and then do that

  7. Go, first class – avoid negative thoughts and people, dress and eat well, find interesting things to do

  8. Always be energetic, treat people as though they are important, and provide good service

  9. Assume other people are good people – focus on the positives and find common ground

  10. Try to think about problems like a leader – things are more complex than they look

Book details

Full title: The Magic of Thinking Big, by David Schwartz

Length: 384 pages, or 9 hours and 31 mins on Audible

Buy the book (USA): Amazon (book, Kindle, Audible)

Buy the book (AUS): Amazon (book, Kindle, Audible), Booktopia (book, eBook, audio-book)

Key insight 1: Believe you can succeed and you will – with help by thinking big

Success anyone? Success means personal wealth, a nice home, international vacations, financial security, the best schools and opportunities for your children. Success means personal fulfilment, self-respect, and growth. Success is winning and achieving. Success is the goal of life! Nobody starts out their life hoping for second-class, average, or mediocre.

Schwartz contrasts ‘believing’ with ‘wishing’. In The Magic of Thinking Big Schwartz states that you can ‘believe’ in yourself such that you become the CEO, or own the holiday on the beach. But ‘wishing’ for it is a waste of time. When you believe-you-can-do-it, the how-you-will-do-it develops. From Schwartz:

“Every day all over the nation young people start working in new jobs. Each of them ‘wishes’ that someday he could enjoy the success that goes with reaching the top. But the majority of these young people simply don’t have the belief that it takes to reach the top rungs. And they don’t reach the top. Believing it’s impossible to climb high, they do not discover the steps that lead to great heights. The behavior remains that of the ‘average’ person.
But a small number of these young people really believe they will succeed. They approach their work with the ‘I’m-going-to-the-top’ attitude. And with substantial belief they reach the top. Believing they will succeed – and that it’s not impossible – these folks study and observe the behavior of senior executives. They learn how successful people approach problems and make decisions. They observe the attitudes of successful people. The how-to-do-it always comes to the person who believes-he-can-do-it.”

Schwartz notes three ways to develop the power of self-belief.

1. Think success, don’t think failure. We have a saying in our house, ‘It doesn’t matter if you think you can, or if you think you can’t; either way you’re right.’ When facing a tough situation think ‘I’ll win’, not ‘I’ll probably lose.’ When facing competition think ‘I’m as good as the next person,’ not ‘I’m outclassed’. From Schwartz:

“Let the master thought ‘I will succeed’ dominate your thinking process. Thinking success conditions your mind to create plans that produce success. Thinking failure does the exact opposite. Failure thinking conditions the mind to think other thoughts that produce failure.”

2. Remind yourself regularly that you are better than you think you are. Successful people look can look amazing, perhaps superhuman even – think Elon Musk. But really they are just ordinary folks who developed a strong belief in their ability to succeed and achieve. You have everything you need to succeed already.

3. Believe big – the size of thinking determines the size of your success. Expect for people winning Lotto or at the casino, anyone who succeeds in life did so with a plan. Those who achieved big success had a big plan. Those with a plan for little or no success achieve little or no success. From Schwartz:

“Big ideas and big plans are often easier – certainly no more difficult – than small ideas and small plans.”

Schwartz also provides five ways to think big.

1. Don’t sell yourself short – you have strengths as well as shortcomings. It’s very easy to focus on our personal negatives – indeed in some places being excessively humble is a virtue. But balance the negative with a realistic appraisal of your positive attributes. List five things you are good at – ask a friend if you need. Now feel good about being good at something! Now think about how to leverage those five skills into success.

2. Use ‘success’ words. Use large, vivid, happy, success-oriented words when you talk. Avoid negative words related to sadness, failure, or unhappiness. To mis-quote grandma, ‘if you don’t have anything positive to say don’t say anything at all.’ So the next time someone asks how you’re going say “AWESOME,” then excitedly explain why.

3. Stretch your vision. Think about how things can be in the future, not just how they are now. Think long term. All big things started small – it’s where you’re going that matters most.

4. Take your job seriously. Seriously contemplate how important your job is to your employer. Understand the value you create for your customers, your work colleagues, and your boss. Knowing this will help you excel in your current job. And know that your next promotion depends on how you perform in your current job.

5. Rise above trivia and minutia. Stay focused on important matters like job performance, and personal relationships. Before you getting involved in gossip, undermining colleagues, or other petty issues, ask yourself is this really important? Is this the sort of thing successful people do? If the answer is no, don’t get involved.

Key insight 2: Think and dream creatively – and turn defeat into victory

When you folks talk of creative thinking, our minds turn to artists, writers, entrepreneurs or perhaps scientists. But is this correct? Schwartz posits that we are all creative thinkers when we solve complex problems in our personal lives. When a poor family finds a way to save for a house or send children to private schools, this is creative thinking. When a struggling business doubles sales and triples profits – creative thinking. Schwartz again:

“Creative thinking is simply finding new, improved ways to do anything. The rewards of all types of success – success in the home, at work, in the community – hinge of finding ways to do things better.”

Schwartz offers a few ideas on how to think more creatively.

1. Believe it can be done. Continuing the theme above believing something can be done opens the mind to finding ways to actually do it. Think something can’t be done however, and your mind will provide you reasons why it can’t be done. It’s like one part of your mind supporting the other part to achieve whatever it wants. Think you won’t succeed at the next level, and your mind justifies why you should go for the promotion. Think you can succeed one level higher, and your brain starts helping you excel now so you stand out.

One trick I really liked was the idea to imagine that you had already solved the complicated problem; and then work out what you did to solve it. The act of assuming you’d solved the problem forces the brain to move past it-can’t-be-done and start offering great solutions.

2. Adopt progressive thinking – don’t be Dr No! Aside from a few key social institutions, just about everything in our world evolves for the better. So get on board the train by removing negative phrases from your vocabulary and thinking like ‘it can’t be done’ or ‘it won’t work’. Instead make phrases like ‘how could this work’ or ‘let’s give it a try’ your default response. Be open to trying new things, experiment with new ideas, have red team/blue team discussions with co-workers to debate better ways to do things. The sky is the limit here. Note social institutions like the rule of law, constitution, free speech are generally not improved through tinkering…

3. Regularly ask yourself – “How you I do better?” Since it is safe to assume that there are better ways to do things, the question becomes will you find them and improve your life or will someone else? An easy way to start is by asking two key questions. ‘How can I improve quality?” is a call out to limit mistakes and get better. ‘How can I do more?” is a callout to finding ways to improve output.

What do I mean? How can you find the time to do further study? Or to make your available study time more productive? At work, how can you do your job to a higher standard (quality), while asking the boss for more responsibilities (quantity)? Start with quality and quantity as you try to innovate your way to success.

Another insight in this section on how people respond to setbacks. Schwartz introduces us to Mr. Skid Row, Mr. Mediocre, and Mr. Success – and then tells their story:

“It is possible to match every Mr. Skid Row with a Mr. Mediocre, and a Mr. Success on every score – age, intelligence, background, nationality, you name it – with one exception. The one thing you can’t match them on is their response to defeat. When the fellow we call Mr. Skid Row got knocked down, he failed to get up again. He just lay there, splattered out. Mr. Medicore got up to his knees, but he crawled away, and when out of sight, ran in the opposite direction so he’d be sure never to take a beating again. But Mr. Success reacted differently when he got knocked down. He bounced up, learned a lesson, forgot the beating, and moved upward.”

Here’s a few tips from Schwartz on turning defeat into victory:

  1. Study setbacks to pave your way to success. When you lose, learn, and then go on to win next time.

  2. Have the courage to be your own constructive critic. Seek out your faults and weakness and then correct them. This makes you a professional.

  3. Stop blaming luck. Research each setback. Find out what went wrong. Remember, blaming luck never got anyone where they wanted to go.

  4. Blend persistence with experimentation. Stay with your goal but don’t beat your head against a stone wall. Try new approaches. Experiment.

  5. Remember, there is a good side in every situation. Find it. See the good side and whip discouragement.

Key insight 3: Use goals and the action habit to help you grow

Schwartz is at his most passionate when talking about the importance of goals. From Schwartz:

“A goal is an objective, a purpose. A goal is more than a dream; it’s a dream being acted upon. A goal is more than a hazy ‘Oh. I wish I could.’ A goal is a clear ‘This is what I’m working toward.’ Nothing happens, no forward steps are taken, until a goal is establish.
Without goals individuals just wander through life. They stumble along, never knowing where they are going, so they never get anywhere.
Goals are as essential to success as air is to life. Get a clear fix on where you want to go.”

Powerful stuff. Goals are a prerequisite for success. No goals = no success. If you want to succeed, set goals. Schwartz discusses how our best corporations are planning their products and manufacturing facilities between 5 and 15 years into the future. For these companies the future is too important to be left to chance. What should you do? Schwartz again:

“Each of us can learn a precious lesson for the forward-looking business. We can and should plan at least ten years ahead. You must form an image now of the person you want to be in ten years from now if you are to become that image. This is a critical thought. The individual who fails to set long-range goals will most certainly be just another person lost in life’s shuffle. Without goals we cannot grow.”

Below are a few questions you should be able to answer as part of your ten-year plan:


  • What income am I earning?

  • What job do I want to have (level and industry sector)?


  • What kind of house do I want to live in (type and location)?

  • What kinds of vacations do I want to be taking (type and frequency)?


  • What kinds of friends do I want to have?

  • What social or community activities am I doing (groups and roles)?

One of the important byproducts of setting goals is that your brain will subconsciously start finding ways to achieve them. Then once you’ve assembled these ideas into a plan, you need to take action.

John Wanamaker said ‘Nothing comes merely by thinking about it.’ And in business – as in life – success and promotion goes to those people who get things done. From Schwartz:

“Here’s something leaders in every field agree on: There is a shortage of top-flight, expertly qualified persons to fill key positions. There really is, as the saying goes, plenty of room at the top. As one executive explained, there are many almost-qualified people, but there is a one success ingredient often missing: that is the ability to get things done, to get results.
Every big job – whether it be operating a business, high-level selling, in science, the military, or the government – requires a person who thinks action. Excellent ideas are not enough. An only fair idea acted upon, and developed, is 100% better than a terrific idea that dies because it is not followed up.”

Schwartz offers several tips for growing the action habit:

  1. Be a doer, not a don’t-er.

  2. Don’t wait for perfect conditions. They never will be. Get started and solve issues as they arise.

  3. Ideas have value only when implemented.

  4. Use action to cure fear and gain confidence. Do the thing you fear and it goes away.

  5. Don’t delay starting tasks. Start and the motivation will follow. Build action into daily routines.

  6. Think in terms of ‘now’. The words ‘tomorrow’, ‘next week’, and ‘later’ really just mean ‘never.’

  7. Take every opportunity to act now. Champion an initiative. Volunteer for a task. Do something.

Other insights from The Magic of Thinking Big

4. Cure yourself of excusitis, the failure disease. Here are four reasons you can’t succeed – health, intelligence, age, and luck. All of them are bunk. For every compelling sob story about how one or more of these things held someone back; I could find a story of incredible success from someone starting from a worse position. As my father said, ‘excuses are the lies you tell yourself.’ Get on with it.

5. Build confidence and destroy fear. We all have different fears; public speaking, interpersonal conflict, and so on. But people can and have overcome them. How? Action cures fear. Confront your fear in small steps and build confidence. Inaction strengthens fear and destroys confidence. Think positive thoughts – of the ‘I can do this’ type. Don’t let negative thoughts become limiting beliefs. Keep people in perspective, we are more alike than different. If they can do it so can you. And finally from Schwartz, “Sit in the front row. Make eye contact. Walk faster. Speak up. Smile big.”

6. You are what you think you are. Upgrade your thinking by asking this question – ‘What would an important person do?’ Would an important person gossip, shirk responsibility, go home early, take the easy path, dress poorly, use inappropriate language, say poor-taste jokes, or not take their job seriously? Of course not. Think like an important person and soon enough you’ll become one.

7. Manage your environment – go first class. A body fed a poor diet becomes unhealthy. Similarly, a mind fed a poor diet becomes unhealthy; in this case lacking the ability to drive your success. Consciously avoid negative thoughts. Keep negative folks who hold you back at arm’s length. Take advice only from successful people. Join new groups, discover new and stimulating things to do. Avoid gossip, only have nice things to say about folks.

8. Make your attitudes your allies. We are surprising good at reading people through their conscious and sub-conscious behaviors. And attitudes underpin behaviors. Just as we can read others, they can read us. The answer? Make good attitudes your default thoughts. Grow three attitudes in your life. The ‘I’m activated’ attitude embraces life, is positive, and full of good news. The ‘you are important’ attitude shows thanks and makes people feel important. Remember the bus drivers name and thank him in person every day. The ‘service first’ attitude gives people more than they expect. Your customers, co-workers, boss, and partner.

9. Think right towards people. Success depends on the support of other people. Your customers, co-workers, and family just to name a few. Start by assuming folks are good. Accept human differences – people have a right to be themselves and you wouldn’t want it any other way. Focus on the things you like in people and the common ground. Be generous and curious in letting others tell you their story. Always be courteous; say thank you, offer compliments, open doors, do little tasks. Don’t blame others for your setbacks.

10. How to think like a leader. Schwartz offers four principles here. First, think like the people you want to influence. How do my customers/employees/family think about this situation? How is it different to my perspective? Consider their views in the solution. Second, when dealing with difficult situation apply the ‘be a human’ rule. What would an authentic, well-intentioned human do to solve this situation knowing all the information? Third, think progress and improvements in everything you do. Either you grow and improve, or you are over-taken by someone else who does. Finally, take time out to think through complex problems in solitude. Use this time to find creative solutions to personal and professional problems.

Why you should read this book if you’re under 30

This is one of my favorite books. It really highlights the hugely important role that your thoughts and actions have in your life-long success. Quite literally, it shows you the recipe for thinking your way to success. How? By thinking big, believing in yourself, using creative thinking, setting goals and making a 10 year plan, being action oriented, focusing on improvement, learning from failure, thinking like an important person, providing service to others, making others feel important, considering others perspective, and avoiding negative thoughts and actions. It’s a book you should read at the start of every new year.

Relationship to other Eruditeable books

#1 – The Algebra of Happiness. This book provides ‘whole-of-life’ guidance with modern funky twist which reinforces some aspects of The Magic of Thinking Big.

#3 – Atomic Habits. This book provides guidance on how to turn the positive thinking and self-improvement aspects of The Magic of Thinking Big in tangible improvement in your life.

#4 – The Defining Decade. This book makes clear the importance of apply many (all) of the principles of The Magic of Thinking Big in your 20s, in order to power your success in your 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond.

#5USA – Set for Life. This book picks up on the financial aspects discussed briefly in The Magic of Thinking Big and shows you the specific steps needed to achieve financial freedom.

#5AUS – The Barefoot Investor. This book picks up on the financial aspects discussed briefly in The Magic of Thinking Big and shows you the specific steps needed to achieve financial freedom.

#7 – Emotional Agility. This book helps you turn your emotions into a source of strength in your life which is important for achieving success in the ways discussed in The Magic of Thinking Big.

#12 – Loserthink. This book provides for some innovative ways to think about the world and nicely complements the creative thinking aspects of The Magic of Thinking Big.

#14 – Peak. This book provides steps and inspiration for achieving peak performance in any activity – whether personal or professional. It nicely complements the personal/professional focus in The Magic of Thinking Big.

#16 – The Personal MBA. This book provides a comprehensive summary of business and personal management techniques and is a great complement to The Magic of Thinking Big.

#21 – Leaders Eat Last. This books provides a great introduction to business leadership – an important factor in business success – and complements the leadership aspects of The Magic of Thinking Big.

#21 – The Lean Startup. This book on entrepreneurship shows you how to maximize your chances of startup success. It’s an important treatise for someone inspired by The Magic of Thinking big to start their own venture.

Book resources

About the author

David Joseph Schwartz, Jr. (1927 – 1987) was an American motivational writer and coach. He received a BS degree at the University of Nebraska in 1948 and his MA and then PhD in 1953 from Ohio State University. He was a professor at Georgia State University, Atlanta, and was considered a leading American authority on motivation. He became well known through his motivational publications and self-help books, especially for The Magic of Thinking Big, published in 1959, and was one of Simon & Schuster’s all-time paperback best sellers with over 6 million copies sold.

Later, he began his own work as a self-help coach and life strategist and founded his own consultancy firm focusing on leadership development called Creative Educational Services Inc. Georgia State University awards a scholarship in his honor.

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