How To Win Friends and Influence People
The title How To Win Friends and Influence People reeks of insincerity. How many people would boast of 'winning' a friend and influencing them for their own personal gain? It just doesn't sound nice. For a modern reader, the book conjures up mental trickery for a dog-eat-dog world, a shonky product hawked by a Depression-era salesman. In this case, judging a book by its cover would seem a very reasonable thing to do.
Yet the reader should consider some points in the book's defence.
First, there is a strange inconsistency between the brazenness of the title and much of what is actually in the book. When read carefully, it is not at all a manual for manipulation, in the manner of Machiavelli's The Prince. Carnegie genuinely despised 'winning friends' for a purpose. The energy which makes the book a great read comes from a love of people.
Second, Carnegie wrote it in the America of the 1930s. The country was still clawing itself out of the Great Depression, and opportunities, particularly for people with limited education, were scarce. Carnegie offered a way to get ahead, taking advantage of the one thing you truly owned outright - your personality. By modern standards, the claims made in How To Win Friends do not seem too wild - motivational psychology is now well established. But try to imagine its impact in 1937, before the great prosperity of the post-World War Two period. To many people it would have seemed liked gold.
Third, the book was not written with an eye to bestseller glory, being a textbook for Carnegie's courses in Effective Speaking and Human Relations (the 'How to' part of the title is a giveaway as to its course origin). The initial print run was only 5,000 copies. Rather than being devised as part of some masterplan to profit from people's baser instincts, the aim was to bring the messages of the Carnegie courses to a reading audience.
But the book, initially no doubt due to the title alone, caused a sensation. It is one of the biggest selling books ever (over 15 million copies, in all the world's main languages), and still the biggest overall seller in the self-improvement field. In her preface to the 1981 edition, Dorothy Carnegie notes how her husband's ideas filled a real need that was 'more than a faddish phenomenon of post-Depression days'. Indeed, How To Win Friends is written up in compendiums like Most Significant Books of the 20th Century, and takes its place in Crainer & Hamel's Ultimate Business Library: 50 Books That Made Management, among titles by Henry Ford, Adam Smith, Max Weber and Peter Drucker.
Education, not manipulation
The success of Carnegie's adult courses revealed a deep want for education in the 'soft skills' of leading people, expressing ideas and creating enthusiasm. That technical knowledge or raw intelligence alone do not bring career success is now a given, but in Carnegie's time the idea that success was composed of many elements was only just starting to be researched. In seeing that people skills could make all the difference, Carnegie effectively popularised the idea of emotional intelligence, decades before it was established as fact in academic psychology.
He had kept in his mind a statement by John D. Rockefeller (the Bill Gates of his age) that the ability to handle people well was more valuable than all others put together, yet astonishingly, he could find no book written on the subject. Carnegie and his researcher hungrily read everything they could find on human relations, including philosophy, family court judgements, magazine articles, classical texts, the latest work in psychology, and biography, specifically the lives of those recognised for superb leadership. Carnegie apparently interviewed two of the most important inventors of the century, Marconi and Edison, as well as Franklin D. Roosevelt and even the movie stars Clark Gable and Mary Pickford.
A set of basic ideas emerged from these researches. Originally a short lecture, they were relentlessly tested on the 'human laboratory' of his course attendees before emerging, 15 years later, as the 'principles' in How to Win Friends and Influence People. Whatever might be said about the book, it was not written on a whim.
Did the principles work? At the start of the book, Carnegie gives the example of a man who had driven his 300+ employees mercilessly, apparently the epitome of a bastard boss who was incapable of saying anything positive about his own people. But after taking a Carnegie course and applying the principle Never criticise, condemn or complain, he was able to turn '314 enemies into 314 friends', inspire a previously non-existent loyalty and, to top it off, increase profits. But there's more, Carnegie tells us: his family liked him more, he had more time for leisure, and he found his outlook on life 'sharply altered'. What excited Carnegie most were not stories of the beneficial career or financial effects of his courses, but how they made people open their eyes and reshape their lives. They started to see that there could be more lightness in their life - it was no longer seen as a struggle or power game.
The book's second chapter gets underway with a quote from the American philosopher John Dewey, that the deepest urge in human nature is the desire to be important. Freud's belief, Carnegie notes, was that apart from sex, the chief desire was to be great; Lincoln said it was the craving to be appreciated. The person who really understands this craving for appreciation, Carnegie says, will also know how to make people happy - 'even the undertaker will be sorry when he dies'. Such a person will also know how to draw the best out of others.
He loves telling the success stories of the great industrialists of his day. Charles Schwab was the first person to earn $1 million a year by running Andrew Carnegie's United States Steel Company. He confided that his secret of success was being 'hearty in my approbation, and lavish in my praise' to the people under him. Valuing your employees, making them feel special in the scheme of things, is now accepted wisdom in management circles, but in the era of Andrew and Dale Carnegie era it wasn't.
At the same time, Carnegie was anti-flattery. Flattery simply involved mimicking the vanities of its receiver, whereas sincere appreciation of someone's good points is an act of gratitude that requires you to really see that person, maybe for the first time. An effect is that you seem more valuable to them, the expression of value only increasing your own. You get the priceless pleasure of seeing a face light up, and in the workplace, are an amazed witness as excited co-operation grows out of boredom or mistrust. Carnegie's principle, Give honest and sincere appreciation, is ultimately to do with seeing the beauty of people.
The book lists 27 principles, but most follow the logic of these first couple. They include:
Though it is easy to parody, the book itself is genuinely funny - quite a rare thing in personal development writing. If it had simply been a compendium of old wisdom, new findings and anecdotes, the book would have still been worth reading, but dry. It took Carnegie's log cabin sense of humour to make it a text that really pulled you in. One of its famous principles is Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.
How To Win Friends was a revolutionary book because it put firmly into the public's mind that human relations are more understandable than we think, and that people skills can be systematically learned. It also proposed that we don't truly influence a person until we like and respect them first.
"The world is full of people who are grabbing and self-seeking. So the rare individual who unselfishly tries to serve others has an enormous advantage."
Born in 1888 in Maryville, Missouri, Carnegie was a poor farmer's boy, apparently not seeing a train until he was twelve years old. In his teens, though still having to get up at 3 am every day to milk his parents' cows, he managed to get educated at the State Teacher's College in Warrensburg. His first job after college was selling correspondence courses to ranchers, then he moved on to selling bacon, soap and lard for Armour & Company. He was successful to the point of making his sales territory, south Omaha, the national leader for the firm.
A desire to be an actor led Carnegie to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, and after touring the country as Dr Hartley in Polly of the Circus, he returned to the sales fold, selling Packard cars. He persuaded the YMCA to let him run public speaking courses for business people, which were a great success, and his first book, Public Speaking and Influencing Men in Business, was written as an aid to teaching. Other books include How to Stop Worrying and Start Living and Lincoln The Unknown. Carnegie training courses are now run all over the world. Carnegie died in 1955.
© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2021
. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.