The moment I sat down to read Dale Carnegie was also the first time I ever really looked at the book. And as I did, a feeling of regret ran through me. From cover to spine, it flashed messages like “The only book you need to lead you to success”, ”rock-solid, time-tested advice” and “You can take any situation – and make it work for you!” . Ok, I thought, this seems very blatant and not exactly trustworthy. But How to Win Friends has been in print since 1937, translated into more than 30 languages, and has sold millions of copies. So let’s not judge a book by its cover, as the saying goes.
Simple yet topical: the principles of human interaction
After my initial scepticism, I was surprised to find the first part of the book somewhat enriching by its simple truths. In essence, Dale Carnegie, a public speaking and motivational trainer who epitomised the self-made American, points out that the key to successful communication is not to think of yourself first, but to try to understand the other person: “Of course, you are interested in what you want. You are eternally interested in it. But no one else is. The rest of us is just like you: we are interested in what we want.” In order to create a situation in which two people truly understand each other, and from that point on are able to achieve a common goal or resolve a conflict, Carnegie lists practical principles for dignified human interaction. Principles such as “show genuine interest for people”, “try to see the others perspective” and “don’t criticize too easily”.
You might be inclined to first dismiss such advice as trivial, but is it really? If it were so simple, why does hardly anyone act accordingly? These days, in professional and personal spheres, people barely listen to each other. Instead they are constantly distracted by their smartphones. And when they do show interest in others, it typically happens online – where people are quick to judge what they see, and are more critical than constructive. I am exaggerating, of course. But just a little. Even if Carnegie’s principles are very basic, it can’t hurt to take them seriously, for they are still relevant today. Maybe even more so than in 1937 when people, lacking the possibility of hiding behind a screen, actually had to communicate face to face.
A life lesson: remember the feeling of importance
Among all the good but not profoundly exciting insights Carnegie shares, I did find one that really resonated with me. In the context of understanding what people want, he explains that there are some essential things that drive most of us: food, sex and money, being the classic examples. So far, so good. But the one thing I didn’t expect to see on the list was “a feeling of importance”. According to Carnegie – and, as I’ve since learnt, also according to Oprah, who build her entire career on it – one of the most important feelings that drive us humans is the desire to be important. If you “show genuine interest and give honest appreciation”, “take your time to listen carefully” and “address people by their names” (what includes to make the effort to remember them first) you can foster this feeling.
The more I thought about it, the more I found this to be true. Other than the basics we need for survival, what is more precious than the feeling that you, as an individual, really matter? Obviously, this can be easily abused to manipulate people, but it can also be used positively. In all areas of life, an environment in which people feel truly appreciated for who they are is fertile ground for mutual trust to grow and new ideas to arise. Here, people dare to open up, see new possibilities and are more likely to take action. They are driven to shape their own behaviour, environment and relationships in a positive way.
Old-fashioned and highly topical, wise and salesman-like – all at once
Unfortunately, the second half of the book kind of tips over to the dark side. More and more it starts to show signs of a manipulative handbook for leaders and salespersons, giving advice on “how to change people” and “how to make them say yes”. A twist which I’ll refrain from delivering further commentary on for now. Another issue, though less problematic and unintentionally funny, is that time and again Carnegie refers to the lives of Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln to illustrate his principles. Even knowing this is due to the books age – 80 years old! – the passages are still a bit lengthy.
In a nutshell: Although I felt ambivalent about some parts of the book, it actually does contain some solid advice on how to foster good relationships in our personal and professional lives (if you are interested in this topic, also read: Franklin Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”).Above all, you have to give Carnegie some credit for his reflections on the feeling of importance, which today remains as valuable as ever.