Change of Perspective, Digital Age, Everyday philosophy, Good Reads, Life in the digital age

Dale Carnegie’s business classic “How to Win Friends & Influence People”

4 min read

The moment I sat down to read Dale Carnegie was also the first time I really looked at the book. And as I did, a feeling of rejection ran through me: From cover to spine messages like “The only book you need to lead you to success”, ”rock-solid, time-tested advice” or “You can take any situation – and make it work for you!” yelled at me. Ok, I thought. This looks very blatant and not exactly trustworthy. But “HtWF&IP” has been in print since 1937, was translated into more than 30 languages and millions of copies were sold – so don’t judge the book by its cover, as they say.

Simple yet topical: the principles of human interaction

After being skeptical at first, I was surprised to find the first part of the book kind of enriching by its simple truths. In essence, Dale Carnegie, who by the way was a communication and motivation trainer and also the image of the American self-made-guy, points out that the key to successful communication is not to think of oneself 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.” So in order to create a situation where two people develop true understanding for 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” or “don’t criticize too easily”.  

One might tend to dismiss such advice as trivial – but when you stop to think about it: is it really? If it’s all so obvious, why does hardly anyone act accordingly? In business as well as in private life people are barely listening to each other these days, being constantly distracted by their smartphones. And if they show interest in what other people do, they do it online – where they instantly judge what they see, mostly rather 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 in 2019. Maybe even more than they were in 1937, when people, missing the opportunity to hide behind all sorts of screens, actually had to communicate face to face.

A lesson for life: remember the feeling of importance

Among all the good but not insanely exciting insights Carnegie shares, I found one after all that really struck me. In the context of understanding what people want, he explains that there are some essential things that drive most of us: food, sex or money, to list some classics. So far, so good. But the one thing I didn’t expect on that list was “a feeling of importance”. According to Carnegie – and by the way, as I’ve learned in the meantime, also according to Oprah, who build a whole carreer on this – one of the most important feelings that drive a human being 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. What, except for the things we need to survive, is actually more precious than the feeling that you, as a person, really matter?
Obviously this awareness can be easily abused to manipulate people. But it can also unfold tremendous positive energy. In all areas of life, an environment where people feel truly appreciated for what they are, is fertile soil for all kinds of positive effects: mutual trust can grow, new ideas can arise. People dare to open up, see new possibilities and are more likely to become active themselves. To shape their own behavior, their environment and their relationships in a positive way.

Old-fashioned and highly topical, wise and salesman-like – all at the same time

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 “how to change people” or how to “make them say yes”. A twist, to which I save myself further comments at this point. Another issue, even if less problematic and rather unintentionally funny, is that Carnegie time and again gives examples from the life of Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln to illustrate its principles. Being aware that this is due to the fact that the book is more than 80 years old, those passages still tend to get a bit lengthy.
But in a nutshell: even if some parts of the book evoke ambivalent feelings, it actually does contain some good thoughts on how to foster good relationships in both private and and business life (if you are interested in this topic, also read: Franklin Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”). And above everything else you have to pay Carnegie some credit for his reflections on the feeling of importance, which, as stated above, is a really a valuable lesson to keep in mind.