Want to change your life, your career, your outlook this year? Plenty of successful go-getters say they owe their go-getterness to Dale Carnegie’s bestseller How To Win Friends And Influence People: Warren Buffett, Lee Iacocca, Charles Manson. In 1957, Manson took a Carnegie self-improvement course while doing time in a California prison for car theft. “Virtually every word in the Carnegie publications resonated with Charlie,” writes Jeff Guinn in Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson. “For the first time in his life he was considered an outstanding pupil.” Carnegie’s advice was simple: make the other fellow feel important and he’ll follow you anywhere. Manson took it to heart, and from this homespun, self-improvement philosophy, the Manson Family was born 10 years later. There are still Family members in prison who are denied parole, year after year, because they still think of Charlie as a great man. The lesson? Don’t be so quick to dismiss Dale Carnegie as corn-pone pop psychology: This stuff works.
And sells. Considered the stem cell of the self-help publishing line, How To Win Friends… has sold over 30 million copies since its first printing in 1936 – more than Gone With The Wind and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Carnegie’s skill was in adapting early-20th-century academic psychology, from Alfred Adler to William James, into cracker-barrel idiom: “Become genuinely interested in other people.” “Smile.” “Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” An off-the-rack hit, the book would redefine the American promise of the “pursuit of happiness,” as Steven Watts writes in his new biography Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America, a straight-up, warm-hearted account of the life of an unlikely American role model. It would also, according to Watts, launch a therapeutic industry that leads directly from Carnegie to Oprah, Dr. Phil, the Landmark seminars, and conference hall roomfuls of unhappy people standing on chairs and hollering about their neglectful parents. How did that happen? How did Dale Carnegie, who urged people to be nice to each other, spawn a pseudo-religion of narcissism? Somewhere along the way, modern self-help dropped the smile and, according to Watts, “isolated the individual from a larger sense of community.” But it goes farther than that: it comes down to a misreading of the old American promise, the guarantee of the pursuit of happiness. Carnegie, it turns out, awakened a sleeping monster.
Carnegie, born in 1888, grew up on a farm in Missouri. His parents were loving but stern, their work ethic Protestant, their bank account empty. Dale left the farm to work as a travelling salesman, selling meat for the Armour company. He did well. “I stood 6th out of the 112 route salesmen in pure lard last month,” he wrote to a friend. What gave him the edge was his style: He smiled, called his customers by name, remembered their sisters’ birthdays. As Watts writes, “he sensed that the art of selling lay in meeting human desire,” which was in lockstep with current theories, in psychology and advertising, on the new consumer culture: people no longer bought what they needed, they bought what they wanted. A good salesman understood motivation. Carnegie read these studies voraciously. But eventually he grew tired of the road, of having to remember every sister’s birthday of every South Dakota shop owner, and followed a dim dream to New York: He took up acting, and then started teaching courses in public speaking at the YMCA.
His students, he found, were mostly white-collar workers with little interest in speechifying but a lot of interest in conquering their day-to-day fears: They wanted to stand up at business meetings, deal with colleagues, without looking like sweaty idiots. “He who can tell us how to earn more money, lengthen our lives, better our health, increase our happiness, is sure of an attentive audience,” he told them. “If you know what people want and can show them that they will get it by following your proposals, success is yours.” That, in a nutshell, would be the driving force behind How To Win Friends and Influence People: Let the other guy know “you recognize his importance in his little world, and recognize it sincerely.” We are emotional creatures, he said, not rational creatures.