It was in a crowded Arlington motel room nine years ago that I sat on a folding chair and first learned how to prepare my subconscious for impending prosperity.

"I want you to close your eyes and imagine stacks of $100 bills outside this room, lining the hallway," said the man standing in front of a group of us. "Now rub your fingers together . . . imagine all of those bills passing . . . through . . . your . . . fingers."

I was under the spell of an officer in the American army of success merchants, a subculture of men and women who peddle hope, confidence and formulas for wealth. In that motel room I learned that if I only believed enough (and made a small investment, you understand), guests visiting my home would soon have to kick aside stacks of bothersome $100 bills. I would be besieged by accountants hyping tax shelters and each day I'd have to decide which Cadillac to drive to the golf course. The curses of the rich, I was assured slyly, were many, and I was on the brink of sampling them.

I also learned that whatever the mind of man can conceive, I could achieve. And I learned that with $100 in your pocket you feel good, but with $500 you feel GREAT! All around me, people shouted, sang and cheered about money. Said one enthusiastic participant: "Doesn't this just glaze you over?" Shouted another: "Aren't you gettin' jacked up?" And simply: "Ain't it GREAT!"

Perhaps like no other people, Americans seem to have an unquenchable appetite for self-help books and prophets with a message that runs roughly like this: If only you go about it in an enthusiastic, positive-minded way, you can be rich and happy.

The credos of the merchants of success are many and trite, but you can never go wrong by remembering that quitters never win and winners never quit, and no one ever erected a monument to a critic. Especially helpful for those who don't see the relationship between money and happiness is Ecclesiastes 10:19: "A feast is made for laughter and wine maketh merry, but only money answereth all things."

That kind of advice comes from a variety of sources. Some success merchants are business tycoons who attribute their good fortune to positive thinking and stick-to-it-ivity, such as W. Clement Stone, the insurance magnate who imbues his employes with his home-grown theory of "Go Power." Amway's Jay Van Andel and Richard Devos host massive, enthusiastic rallies designed to motivate sales forces to sell more home-care products door-to-door. Old-fashioned patriotism and the all-American pursuit of A Better Life are Amway's philosophical beacons.

Others are born promoters who sell more sizzle than steak, such as Glenn W. Turner, godfather of the organizers of the meeting I attended in Arlington. Before it closed down in the 1970s, you could invest $5,000 in Turner's company, Dare To Be Great, and receive a briefcase full of inspirational tapes. You also received the right to sell the program to others for a handsome commission, and Turner's disciples blanketed the United States until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, Turner, the uneducated son of a South Carolina sharecropper, tours the country running motivation courses for direct sales companies.

Still others make a career out of the pure business of motivation and self- improvement, such as Dale "How To Win Friends and Influence People" Carnegie and Zig "See You At The Top" Ziglar, who believes it is the God- given right for good people, not just hustlers and rogues, to own Cadillacs and diamonds. Earl Nightingale retired from the radio business only to find a fortune after a motivational record he cut for insurance agents went gold. And lesser lights include Charlie "Tremendous" Jones--an irrepressible promoter of positive thinking whose one word answer to everything is "TREEE- MENNN-DOUS!" -- and the Success Motivation Institute, whose tapes are designed to impart confidence to even the most self-conscious wimp.

Then there are the evangelists who make motivation and religion go together as naturally as butter and biscuits. From New Orleans comes the Rev. Bob Harrington, who once confided to me, "Next to God, the strongest word in the Bible is 'go.' You can't spell God, good or gospel without it!"

Mixing God and greed is the Rev. Dr. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II, better known as Reverend Ike. "I can love the Lord a lot better," he preaches, "when I've got money in my pocket." His theme is simple: "Make your installment payments to the Plan," and the more money you send, the more God will give you. And, please, cut him some slack on this bit about rich men having a tough time getting into heaven. Conspicuous consumption is next to godliness, the Reverend Ike says, and humility doesn't become anyone: "When you kneel down to pray, you put yourself in a good position to get a kick in the behind."

Before Glenn Turner, Reverend Ike -- and even before we began looking out for No. 1, dressing for success and pulling our own strings -- there was Napoleon Hill.

At the suggestion of and with the help of Andrew Carnegie, Hill spent 20 years in the early 1900s stalking some of the nation's most wealthy and influential figures, including Henry Ford, William Wrigley Jr., George Eastman, Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, John Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, F. W. Woolworth, Woodrow Wilson and Alexander Graham Bell.

What, Hill asked each of his overachievers, made you household names? What ingredient or maneuver or manner of luck set you above the pack? With the lessons he learned, Hill wrote a book every success merchant worth his enthusiasm considers a bible. Titled Think and Grow Rich, the book made Hill rich. Still in print, it has reportedly sold more than 10 million copies around the world.

In short, readable chapters with titles such as "Visualization of and Belief in Attainment of Desire" and "The Sustained Effort Necessary to Induce Faith," Hill drummed home the lessons he learned from his gallery of greats: set your goals, channel your energy wisely, make firm decisions, let mistakes serve only as training grounds for success, nourish a positive mental attitude, never accept defeat and a hundred variations on those main themes.

In addition to making millions with his books and lectures, Hill recognized the importance of the invention of the automobile sooner than some and began a successful driving school in Washington. He also served as an adviser to Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt on matters of public relations.

From the seeds that Hill sowed grew some of our current crop of success merchants. W. Clement Stone, Earl Nightingale and Glenn Turner all tipped their hats to Hill and incorporated his philosophy into their own. Then their lieutenants took the Word and began spreading as far as, say, Arlington.

Now, on bookshelves everywhere, there are volumes that exhort us to stop slouching around and tell us how to get rich and happy. Television preachers and evangelists deliver to us not just God's message, but also self-help advice. And in motel meeting rooms around the country each day, professional motivators cajole and berate sluggish salesmen and naysayers to take charge of their lives and reach for the stars.

Ain't it great?