Why millions buy Rich Dad, Poor Dad's nonsense.

How popular culture gets popular.
June 20 2002 12:08 PM

If I Were a Rich Dad

Why millions buy Rich Dad, Poor Dad's nonsense.

Book cover

Where do Americans get financial advice? Merrill Lynch? CNBC? Or Robert T. Kiyosaki? If you don't know who Robert T. Kiyosaki is, well, you can find him at the top of many a best-seller list. His, is currently No. 1 on the New York Times paperback "advice" chart—a list that it's been on for an astonishing 98 weeks. Spinoffs, including Rich Dad's Guide to Investing and Rich Kid, Smart Kid, also seem to be selling. Obviously there are many, many advice books on the market, financially focused and otherwise, but only a handful turn into franchises. So, why this one?

Interestingly, Rich Dad, Poor Dad was originally self-published in 1997. As Kiyosaki worked the seminar circuit, he sold enough books to get the attention of Warner Business Books, a major publisher with better distribution. The newer edition has sold more than 2 million copies since May 2000 in the United States alone; it's also been translated into other languages and has probably sold five times that amount worldwide. The apparently charming Kiyosaki seems to be his own best sales weapon, and has—of course—appeared on Oprah.

A good chunk of what's actually in the book is self-help boilerplate. First, there's the mandatory declaration that it isn't a get-rich-quick book. Second, there's the repeated claim that "the rich" have "secrets" that led to their success and will herein be revealed. Third, the material is presented as a series of "lessons." And fourth, those lessons are positioned as being counterintuitive revelations that effectively undercut various popular "myths." The book's back cover promises, among other things, that it will "explode the myth that you need to earn a high income to become rich."

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But to generate the word-of-mouth that turns an advice book into a phenomenon you need a gimmick, and Kiyosaki's can be found in the title. Growing up in Hawaii in the 1950s, he writes, he had "two fathers," each with a very different attitude about money. (The book was written "with" Sharon L. Lechter, but is told entirely from Kiyosaki's first-person point of view.) Eventually he makes it clear that "Poor Dad" is his actual father, an educator who worked like a dog all his life and basically ended up broke. Then there was his buddy Mike's father: a shrewd entrepreneurial sort who eventually built an "empire" and became "one of the richest men in Hawaii" (no further details are offered) via his keen understanding of money. This is "Rich Dad," the man Kiyosaki says he decided, at age 9, to emulate. And it worked! Today Kiyosaki says he's a rich man himself, all because of the wisdom of Rich Dad, here boiled down to six easy lessons. Kiyosaki periodically interrupts his disjointed narrative to complain that American schools do a bad job of teaching elementary personal finance, and positions himself as "a socially responsible teacher who is deeply concerned with the widening gap between the haves and have-nots."

This is pretty much the ideal package: the fablelike presentation of a personal success story wrapped in the mantle of "education." The parable format is particularly popular these days and has helped other books like Who Moved My Cheese? and Fish. The twist in this case is the blurring of parable and what appears to be autobiography. It's Kiyosaki's accessible, unpretentious storytelling, spiked with mind-over-money tips about avoiding credit-card debt and the like, that makes people buzz about the book—the no-nonsense pose is apparently convincing enough to blot out the nonsense.

Rich Dad's running theme is that you'll never get rich by chasing a higher salary—apparently the Protestant work ethic is for suckers. What you need to do is "concentrate your efforts on only buying income-generating assets." Such as? It turns out that whenever Kiyosaki offers an example from his life, it almost invariably involves real-estate speculation. (It's hard to judge the veracity of his not-very-specific claims on this front, and as far as I can tell, press scrutiny of Kiyosaki to date has been limited to bland interviews or face-value restatements of his book's themes. I did come across  a long and withering critique by a real-estate writer named John T. Reed. He questions, among other things, whether Rich Dad even exists.) Not surprisingly, the sunny cover blurbs make no mention of flipping distressed properties for big bucks, since even the least sophisticated book buyer would tend to be skeptical about yet another run at this familiar get-rich-quick scheme.

To pad out the real-estate anecdotes, Kiyosaki repeatedly plugs further learning through more books, audio tapes, courses, and seminars. "I am wealthy and free from needing a job simply because of the courses I took," he announces. You'll be pleased to hear, then, that Kiyosaki himself is doing his part to help the have-nots with events like a $5,000-a-person, three-day program in Phoenix this weekend. The book also touts a board game that he sells through infomercials (the full text of one ad is included in Rich Dad), which in turn plug the book.

However much money Kiyosaki did or didn't make in the past, he's making a fortune by selling the idea that he holds the key to your financial future. In one of the many logically creative passages late in the book, he raises the astonishing idea that Americans don't spend enough time trying to emulate the successful—there's just not enough hero worship out there. "It's one of the most powerful ways we learn that we often lose as adults," he writes. "We lose our heroes. We lose our naivete." If there's better proof of how wrong this is than the success of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, I can't think of it.

Rob Walker is a columnist for Yahoo Tech, a contributor to Design Observer and the New York Times, and the author of Buying In.

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