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.
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.