A few weeks ago I was approached by a potential client to write a project. The client was very specific about what she wanted — always a good thing — but her biggest demand had nothing to do with deadlines or my previous credits or, in fact, anything to do with writing.
Said client was a big fan of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. She only wanted to work with a writer who’d read and internalized the book.
I bluffed, of course, but clearly I failed to win or influence her: she went with someone else. Yet by the time the rejection came down the intertubes I’d already grabbed Carnegie’s book from the library. So I went ahead and read it anyway.
First published in 1936, it should be more properly titled How to Win Clients and Close the Deal because so much of the book is aimed at how to sell yourself and whatever product you’re peddling. The original foreword was buried in the back of the edition I read, and the revelation that Carnegie based it on a public-speaking course for businessmen that he taught at a YMCA is not at all surprising.
This isn’t a book about being the best bestie you can be. It’s a book about hustling.
Still, How to Win Friends launched the modern self-help genre, notoriously known for its bestselling fluff. Carnegie hit a nerve writing when he did. As the Chautauqua movement gasped its last in the 1920s, Carnegie stepped in with his seminars, which eventually morphed into a line of books. Nowadays Chautauqua lectures have been reincarnated as TED Talks and Nantucket Projects, but in-between there’s been Rich Dad Poor Dad and The Secret and entire dead forests of flimflammery, all of it inspired by Carnegie.
Cracking open its covers, I wanted to be cynical about How to Win Friends. But I confess I don’t disagree with everything Carnegie wrote.
Carnegie starts with a pair of truisms I already knew. Don’t criticize or complain to others because it never changes their behavior, he says, and be sincerely grateful for others.
I say I already knew these things but they took me the better part of four decades to learn. I wonder how much trouble I would’ve saved myself if I’d read this book and started practicing them earlier. Put another way, it took me a long time to recognize that simply being nice and appreciative of others costs me nothing, and while that attitude is usually paid back immediately, even when it isn’t it makes the vexations of life much more tolerable.
Damn it, Carnegie. I couldn’t help warming to him.
He goes on with further advice. People are flattered when you remember their name. Be friendly. Soften bad news with good news first. In business relationships, convince others that what you want is beneficial to them. And so on. Basic tenets everybody knows but worth repeating in black and white.
Some other suggestions are tougher to stomach. Smile a lot, writes Carnegie. Don’t argue. Respect other people’s opinions.
Hoo boy. I’ve lived more in the past five years than I have in the preceding 45 and let me tell you, these days my bar for horseshit is real low. Sitting here watching the Select Committee hearings about January 6, wondering if in 2025 I’m going to be a private in the First Connecticut Volunteers of the Union Army, does not make one open-minded and tolerant. I have zero patience for your crackpot conspiracy theories about elections and masks. You don’t want to get vaccinated? Fine, as long as when I roll into the emergency room I go to the front of the line and you and your case of covid goes to the back.
I’m not in the mood to smile and not argue and respect whatever fever dream the five neurons in your rhesus-monkey brain have conjured.
This, I think, is the big flaw in Carnegie’s system: he dances around conflicts, and when they invariably occur, he approaches them indirectly. His strategy is one of deescalation rather than straightforward resolution. There’s an unspoken implication that when a disagreement reaches loggerheads, the participants are not friends, they remain uninfluenced, and they part ways as indifferent to each other as Bengal tigers. I much prefer a system that allows one to navigate conflict deftly but directly.
Some of Carnegie’s method is outright manipulative, like his technique of seeding others so they believe your idea is their idea, which is then pursued with all enthusiasm. Both Charles Manson and the Nazi Party were fans of How to Win Friends. But such is the nature of salesmanship: you can use it to push an order for 5,000 oil gaskets or a cult ideology. It’s not Carnegie’s fault some people are suckers.
There’s definitely something quaint about How to Win Friends and Influence People, something historically funny in the countless anecdotes of Bill Smith of Poughkeepsie selling typewriter ribbons or Janey Jones of Rancho Cucamonga convincing the bank president to promote her. But there’s some useful insight too, not the least of which was buried in that foreword-turned-afterword.
“The way to develop self-confidence, [Carnegie] said,” wrote Lowell Thomas in the original 1936 preface, “is to do the thing you fear to do and get a record of successful experiences behind you.” Carnegie doesn’t talk much about self-confidence in his book but it’s certainly the subtext: what holds most people back is not a lack of technical skill at their profession but rather social awkwardness. By equipping them to navigate the social sphere, Carnegie helped his readers and lecture-goers better realize their goals and dreams.
In a lot of ways, How to Win Friends and Influence People is about conquering social anxiety, something just as prevalent in our current era. Maybe it’s due for a post-pandemic edition.