For many (me included), How To Win Friends and Influence People is the archetypal self-help book. Whenever people ask me what I mean by self-help (and I am constantly surprised by how few people have a clear understanding of what a self-help book is) I mention this book and they understand instantly where I'm coming from.
The elements that make the book a quintessential example of the self-help genre include:
- It is filled with potted biographies telling of how people have changed their lives and succeeded
- The author is incredibly self-referential - many of the success stories stem from people who have won out in life through taking Dale Carnegie's own courses
- It promises something enormous and quite intangible - let's face it, 'influencing people' is a pretty grand and indefinable claim
- It attempts to cover many different aspects of life experience - work, marriage, conversation, friendship, social life - all are addressed by Mr. Carnegie, and solutions for improving them all are offered
Carnegie was also one of the earliest examples of that peculiar self-help phenomenon - the person who becomes rich and famous through telling others how to get rich and famous. He had begun life in humble circumstances, and started his career as a self-improvement guru by teaching courses in public speaking at the YMCA.
Once his book had rocketed him to fame he established his own training institute, which still exists today, training businessmen in the quaint 1930s manners and courtesies which must be even rarer now than when Carnegie first started out.
Some have accused the book of being Machiavellian, encouraging people to manipulate others by cultivating reactions and responses intended to please and, ultimately, influence. Carnegie's methods have also been hailed as an early form of NLP, exhibiting a sophisticated understanding of human psychology - and frailty.
The most famous injunction form the book is to always be "hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise." Carnegie contends that we gain more influence and regard by praising and encouraging than criticising and fault-finding. But he always stresses that any such praise should be based in genuine feeling, because "Flattery is counterfeit, and like counterfeit money, it will eventually get you into trouble if you try to pass it on."
And from all the accusations of cynical manipulation of the feelings of others, I feel I must defend Carnegie. What he is really encouraging is that we should all take a genuine interest in the stories and ideas of others. He is talking about the cultivation of a more open mind, and championing the art of interested listening. Yes, he says that such an interest in others will bring with it social rewards, but it may also bring about an improvement in character and learning in the practitioner.
In many ways it is a more conversational, and more detailed, examination of the hierarchical structures in which we all live, the systems of power that had been mapped out more conventionally (and less interestingly) in the etiquette books of the 19th century. Carnegie, a smart man of humble birth, had worked out that a species of power lay in acknowledging and feeding the power fantasies of others. Indeed, the whole book could be read as a Foucauldian exercise in rallying opower to the cause of one's own social advancement.
Carnegie was a gifted and charming writer, and even now the book is a very easy read, filled with nuggets of folk wisdom and constant references to the life lessons to be gleaned from notable figures in history.
15 million people have read How To Win Friends.. since its release, and it is almost certainly the most influential self-help book ever published.