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Author Dale Carnegie reads his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, in Chicago on July 7, 1955. (AP)
Author Dale Carnegie reads his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, in Chicago on July 7, 1955. (AP)

How Dale Carnegie’s self-help movement is now more about entitlement than enlightenment Add to ...

  • Title Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America
  • Author Steven Watts
  • Publisher Other Press
  • Pages 592
  • Price $34.95

Sincerity was key, but on that count, Carnegie left some wiggle room, drawing from his experience as an actor: “you must actually ENTER INTO the character you impersonate, the cause you advocate, the case you argue,” he wrote (his italics and caps). You have to mean it. Or, failing that, fake it. Critics of the book, which sold 70,000 copies in its first three months, smelled a rat. Carnegie has “given us the best outline of the science of tail-wagging and hand-licking ever written,” said The Nation. A reader in Tennessee wrote a letter to the author: “We don’t need to inflate personal egotism,” he said, “it needs deflation. We don’t need ‘smart’ businessmen, we need honest ones with guts and some sense of humanity and responsibility.” For his part, Carnegie claimed that he wasn’t about selling a “bag of tricks” and that How To Win Friends… must touch the reader’s heart or not at all. “I am talking about a new way of life,” he said.

With that, he opened the door to a commercial blizzard: the self-help movement, the self-help backlash, the backlash to the backlash and on and on. It’s a movement that agrees with Carnegie insofar as you must ENTER INTO the character you impersonate: that character is well-adjusted, gets along with peers, is happy, successful, less apt to blame its parents for miscues in infantile potty training and has a good attitude and doesn’t cry as much any more. Self-help is a theatrical script. It’s a template for performance, not just to convince others that we’re worthy, but most importantly to convince ourselves.

That shift, from reaching out to reaching in, is what’s changed since Carnegie devised his code of conduct. We don’t talk so much any more about how to win friends and influence people, but how to build a personal brand, and then communicate it through available technology. Our Facebook and Twitter identities are characters costumed in witty text, flattering and provocative selfies, and enough staged humility to come off as sincere.

Self-help is also self-contradictory: the message changes not with every generation but with every publishing sales quarter. As David Foster Wallace suggests in a painfully close-to-the-bone short story called Good Old Neon, therapy culture, with its shifting agenda, can play havoc with identity: “My whole life has been a fraud,” says the narrator in the opening lines. “I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people. Mostly to be liked or admired.” He talks about the “fraudulence paradox,” or the feedback loop generated by the desire to keep a positive outlook, which leads to even greater shame for being a phoney who invents a positive outlook in the hopes it will reduce his shame. Here’s a character who’s forgotten what’s real, and what’s an act. It doesn’t end well (speeding car, highway abutment) and involves more typical Wallace recursion, but as a snapshot of a wounded American in a therapeutic culture it seems all too familiar, even as the reader wants to shake the narrator and holler, get over yourself. Carnegie was right: we are emotional creatures, not rational creatures. Self-help wants to be rational, and in the end is hijacked by how we really think, which is a strange and dark business indeed.

For Watts the problem isn’t that Carnegie taught us to live in our heads but that, in time, we forgot about the other fellow: “[T]he Carnegie code has undermined people’s capacity to think about the world in terms that transcend personal feelings. Its stress on human relations… has pushed aside frameworks of morality, social justice, and even economic well-being.” A certain slice of the American bell curve thinks happiness is guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence, that it comes before collective concerns like income inequality, climate change, new playground equipment and whatnot. Only that’s a misreading. It’s the pursuit of happiness that’s guaranteed, not its fulfilment. The misreading is the monster that Carnegie awakened: entitlement.

But if self-help literature helps you put that pursuit into a context without making you feel that some specific and lofty goal has to be met, or that you have a legally guaranteed right to be happy, then read your pants off. Just beware of the perils of investing in someone else’s certainty. As the novelist Walker Percy writes, “How can you survive in the Cosmos about which you know more and more while knowing less and less about yourself despite 10,000 self-help books, 100,000 psychotherapists, and 100 million fundamentalist Christians?” The answer: with exceptions, it happens. Little joys happen, heartbreaks too. It’s all quite relentless and breathtaking. But it helps to remember people’s sisters’ birthdays.

Tom Jokinen is an Ottawa writer, author of Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training.

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