Book review: Acres of Diamonds

One recurring theme of personal finance books is that it’s easier to accumulate wealth by working for yourself than by working for others. Many have heard this maxim, but few have heeded it. Some want to, but don’t know how to begin.

A century ago, Russell Conwell was famous for his traveling lecture in which he encouraged listeners to find the “acres of diamonds” in their own backyards. Conwell was born in Massachusetts in 1843. During the Civil War, he served as a captain in the Union army. He studied law, but ultimately became a Baptist minister and a popular public speaker. “Acres of Diamonds” was his most famous talk. (He delivered this lecture over 6000 times!) Conwell also founded Temple University.

Conwell was one of the original motivational speakers.

Acres of Diamonds

At the heart of his lecture was a parable Conwell heard while traveling through present-day Iraq in 1870:

There was once a wealthy man named Ali Hafed who lived not far from the River Indus. “He was contented because he was wealthy, and wealthy because he was contented.” One day a priest visited Ali Hafed and told him about diamonds.

Ali Hafed heard all about diamonds, how much they were worth, and went to his bed that night a poor man. He had not lost anything, but he was poor because he was discontented, and discontented because he feared he was poor.

Ali Hafed sold his farm, left his family, and traveled to Palestine and then to Europe searching for diamonds. He did not find them. His health and his wealth failed him. Dejected, he cast himself into the sea.

One day, the man who had purchased Ali Hafed’s farm found a curious sparkling stone in a stream that cut through his land. It was a diamond. Digging produced more diamonds — acres of diamonds, in fact. This, according to the parable, was the discovery of the famed diamonds of Golconda.

The point, Conwell says, is that we often dream of fortunes to be made in faraway places. We ought instead to be open to the opportunities that are around us. He illustrates this concept with several other stories, including that of the discovery of gold in California.

Principles of Success

How can we learn to discover these acres of diamonds in our own backyards?

  • Maintain a ready mind. Be open to the possibilities around you. Don’t let preconceived notions cloud your judgment. We often overlook the value of something because we believe we already know it.
  • Look at the familiar in new ways. Conwell lists some important inventions — the snap-button, the cotton gin, the mowing machine — and notes that these were created by everyday people who found new approaches and new uses for commonplace objects.
  • Learn what people want, then give it to them. Discover a market, and the provide a good or a service. Too many people do this the other way around. They develop a good or a service and then try to market it, try to manufacture desire. You’ll have more success if you see a desire and then try to meet it.
  • Knowledge is more important than capital. Lack of capital is a common excuse for not starting a business venture. How often have you heard, “You need money to make money.” Nonsense, says Conwell. He gives anecdotes of wealthy people who started with nothing but an idea.
  • Don’t put yourself down, and don’t belittle your environment. Don’t compare yourself with others. “Believe in the great opportunities that are right here not over in New York or Boston, but here — for business, for everything that is worth living for on earth. There was never an opportunity greater.” Find the best in what’s around you.

Conwell says that inside each of us are the seeds of greatness. “Greatness … really consists in doing great deeds with little means and the accomplishment of vast purposes from the private ranks of life.”


I used to be one of those people who looked for diamonds in faraway places. I dreamed of doing something — I didn’t know what — until one day I found an opportunity that had been in front of me all the time: this site. Have you taken stock of your life lately? Perhaps there are diamonds sitting just outside your back door.

“Acres of Diamonds” is available from Amazon. It’s short, though, and in the public domain. You could probably read the entire thing in less than an hour while sitting at your desk. There are two versions freely available online.

The first, at Project Gutenberg, is the traditional version, the one published in 1915. The second, posted at the Temple University website, seems to be from a few years later, probably from around 1922.

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