Dale Carnegie: How to succeed; Folksy tips from the father of self-help in America

Dale Carnegie: How to succeed; Folksy tips from the father of self-help in America

Nov 2nd 2013 |From the print edition


Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America. By Steven Watts. Other Press; 582 pages; $29.95 and £21.99. Buy from Amazon.com,Amazon.co.uk

RUNNING US Steel at the turn of the 20th century, Charles Schwab was perhaps the first person in America to earn a salary of $1m a year. What made him so successful? Was he a genius? No. Did he know more about steel than other people? Certainly not. So how did he get ahead? Schwab knew how “to make people like him,” observed Dale Carnegie. With charm, confidence and a good smile, anyone can climb the ladder of success.This was the promise of Carnegie’s landmark book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. Published in 1936, amid the struggle of the Great Depression, it was an instant hit, selling out 17 editions in its first year. “Be hearty in approbation and lavish in praise,” Carnegie advised. Riches and happiness will follow.

Carnegie’s crusade of personal reinvention “helped redefine the American dream and plotted a new pathway by which to get there,” writes Steven Watts, a historian at the University of Missouri, in an insightful and comprehensive new biography. Carnegie got rich selling a brand of homespun wisdom (“Make the other person feel important”), but his message of self-presentation helped people navigate the rules of a changing workplace. In a modern consumer economy Victorian virtues of thrift, self-denial and a strong moral character had little value. Meanwhile a new figure had arrived on the scene: the white-collar executive, who spent his days juggling meetings and managing bureaucracy. If success came from knowing how to deal with people, Carnegie—in folksy, brisk and inspiring language (“watch the magic work”)—offered a template for action.

Born into a poor family in rural Missouri in 1888, Carnegie learned many of these lessons the hard way. His parents were pious, hard-working and broke. When he arrived at university he was rough-edged and insecure, and got teased about his sugar-bowl ears. But after hearing a couple of speechifiers tell their mesmerising rags-to-riches tales, he threw himself into public speaking, eager to make his name.

A stint peddling meat in South Dakota gave him insight into the evolving role of a salesman in an age of consumer abundance. Sales involved not only meeting the practical needs of consumers, but also promising a better life. Carnegie found that a more artful form of salesmanship—which included establishing personal relationships with people—worked best.

A hayseed with a Midwestern twang, Carnegie arrived in New York in his 20s with the usual mix of big dreams and shallow pockets. He craved the life of an actor, but settled for teaching evening public-speaking classes at a small YMCA in Manhattan. His tips for getting ahead popularised new psychological theories about human motivation and the unconscious. When dealing with people, Carnegie would say, “We are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion.” His classes became so popular that he soon codified his lessons into a successful national business.

Some critics saw his approach to empathy as cynical, as if all kindness was lubrication for personal advancement. Others criticised his flimsy grasp of politics and economics (he was often “startlingly naive”, writes Mr Watts). Yet Carnegie operated with a Midwesterner’s sincerity, believing people could improve, mistakes could be fixed and even names could be changed. His own had been Carnagey before he tweaked it to sound like Andrew Carnegie, a powerful industrialist.

With the end of the second world war America entered a new era of prosperity. But material advantages did not yield personal fulfilment. Once again, Carnegie harnessed the Zeitgeist with another blockbuster book: “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” (1948). In snappy prose, he insisted that the way ahead was to seize the moment, letting go of “dead yesterdays” and “unborn tomorrows”. Readers were pushed to pursue meaningful work and to try to please others. “When you are good to others, you are best to yourself.”

Carnegie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and died in 1955, aged 66. But his views about success live on. More than 8m students have graduated from his business-communications class, including Lee Iacocca and Warren Buffett in the 1950s. “How to Make Friends and Influence People” has sold over 30m copies worldwide; it still sells in the six figures annually. But Carnegie’s biggest legacy is as the “father of the self-help movement”, writes Mr Watts. Finding personal satisfaction is no easy thing, Carnegie acknowledged. But it is always best to begin with a smile.

Book Review: ‘Self-Help Messiah’ by Steven Watts

Dale Carnegie advocated a positive attitude and kept a file titled ‘Damned Fool Things I Have Done.’


Nov. 1, 2013 3:22 p.m. ET

Dale Carnegie came to prominence when America was psychologically adrift. The Great Depression had ruined millions. Flinty certainties about hard work and thrift had been upended by an era of speculation and the random cruelty of economic ruin. This was no longer the America of Benjamin Franklin and Poor Richard, where what mattered was your sinew and strength of character. A new kind of society was evolving.

Carnegie, a man with the yappy vigor of a Jack Russell Terrier, had been preparing for this moment all his life. He had hoisted himself out of poverty in rural Missouri, trained as an actor in New York, failed as a novelist and established himself as a popular instructor of public speaking. His was a 19th-century, Horatio Alger tale of hard-won success. With the publication of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” (1936), Carnegie explained how to succeed in the 20th century.

Self-Help Messiah

By Steven Watts
Other Press, 582 pages, $29.95

The secret was no longer Puritan diligence and moral rectitude. It was the force of your personality. If you could make yourself liked, people would do whatever you asked. They would buy from you and work for you. You didn’t need to be the smartest or hardest-working person to succeed in this America. But to triumph in a new world of large organizations and corporations you did need vital talents for friendship and persuasion.

John D. Rockefeller, one of the many business titans Carnegie cited, had said that “the ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee. . . . And I will pay more for that ability than for any other under the sun.” Carnegie observed that Charles Schwab, the top manager at U.S. Steel, made a million dollars a year not for his knowledge of steel making, but for his “personality, his charm, his ability to make people like him.”

“How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which is studded with such anecdotes, was an instant success, selling a million copies within two years. It has since become one of the best-selling books ever. Even Carnegie was astounded. “I knew people craved friendship, but I honestly did not realize how much they craved it,” he said.

In “Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America,” Steven Watts argues that Carnegie brought together threads from psychology, business and American folk tradition to create a new kind of national religion built on positive vibes and self-help. At the commemoration service in Yankee Stadium a couple of weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he observes, the master of ceremonies was not a politician or a cleric but Oprah Winfrey. “In this time of national tragedy, instead of a political or religious leader striding forward to seize the moment, it was America’s leading representative of the modern self-help culture who salved the nation’s wounds and affirmed its highest aspirations. Such a thing would have seemed preposterous in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor in 1941, or even after the assassinations of John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. But it seemed perfectly appropriate at the dawn of the twenty-first century.”

Dale Carnegie, he says, played an important role in this change. By embedding Carnegie into such broad historical shifts, Mr. Watts tells a story as jaunty as his protagonist.

At the center of the book is the gratifyingly imperfect figure of Carnegie. Hard as he tried, Carnegie could never entirely live up to his own high standards. Though charming, energetic and solicitous, he was far from the kind of hail-fellow bore his writing suggests. His first marriage ended in divorce. His teaching business nearly collapsed from poor management. He conducted a long affair with a married woman and had a daughter with her, or at least believed the girl was his in the absence of DNA tests. He finally married for the second time, and very happily, in 1944. But as he joked to Time magazine, after writing the definitive book on winning friends “it took me eight years to influence a woman to marry me.”

When “How to Win Friends” came out, the response was as overwhelming as it was satisfying. “When strangers meet me and begin to get acquainted, they find that I am just like their next door neighbor, that I am not someone with a dynamic personality,” he said. “Then they feel let down. I sense that feeling and then I am embarrassed.”

Not all of the advice contained in the book has endured. In a section for women readers, on “the art of handling men,” he advised that men didn’t want to have lunch with the kind of woman who would talk about business but rather with “the non-collegiate typist [who], when invited to luncheon, fixes an incandescent gaze on her escort, and says yearningly, ‘Now tell me some more about yourself.’ ” Long before Sheryl Sandberg, such advice fell out of fashion.

Carnegie kept a file on his own failings called “Damned Fool Things I Have Done.” These tended not to be moral or spiritual failings but failures in his relationships, such as forgetting names, making someone feel awkward or losing his temper. “With Carnegie,” writes Mr. Watts, “the stress shifted from shaping one’s inner moral character to shaping the impressions that one made upon other people—what he described in his diary as ‘the biggest problem I shall ever face: the management of Dale Carnegie.’ ”

But of course the more popular he became, the more he was resented and belittled by those who considered lessons in manners and self-improvement beneath them. The New York Times review of “How to Win Friends” said the book was aimed at the “wishful millions who have never been able to influence other people much, who would like to begin life all over again even though they are past 40, who long to be told how they can think of themselves, who live alone and hate it.” The author Sinclair Lewis said that “the magic expression ‘million dollars’ is used as in more old-fashioned, less air-conditioned volumes of inspiration where the authors used such words as Austerity, Nobility, Faith, and Honor.”

Carnegie’s great crime, in the eyes of his detractors, was to equate fineness of character with the ability to make money. Pleasing others, almost regardless of what that might entail, was the secret to great wealth. Having grown up so poor, he seemed to have little time for arguments about the iniquity of financial success. But the issue does provide Mr. Watts with the opportunity for an interesting historical digression on the subject.

Mr. Watts is judicious about presenting various perspectives on Carnegie and his role in the evolution of the modern therapy culture. But what shines through is Carnegie’s zest for improving the lives of those who struggled, whether socially, at work or in the home. The book is full of testimony from employees and students to his effectiveness.

His last major book, “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” (1948) addressed the fact that so many Americans “have collapsed under the crushing burden of accumulated yesterdays and fearful tomorrows.” His prescriptions are all but indistinguishable from those of the modern peddlers of “mindfulness.” Live for the moment. Be accepting and forgiving of yourself and others. Stop chasing your desires and appreciate what you have. Whatever the snobs thought, Carnegie’s millions of fans knew then and now that he was on the side of the angels.

—Mr. Delves Broughton’s latest book is “The Art of the Sale: Learning From the Masters About the Business of Life.”


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: