Folksy tips from the father of self-help in America
RUNNING US Steel at the turn of the 20th century, Charles Schwab was perhaps the first person in America to earn a salary of $1m a year. What made him so successful? Was he a genius? No. Did he know more about steel than other people? Certainly not. So how did he get ahead? Schwab knew how "to make people like him," observed Dale Carnegie. With charm, confidence and a good smile, anyone can climb the ladder of success.
This was the promise of Carnegie’s landmark book, "How to Win Friends and Influence People". Published in 1936, amid the struggle of the Great Depression, it was an instant hit, selling out 17 editions in its first year. "Be hearty in approbation and lavish in praise," Carnegie advised. Riches and happiness will follow.
Carnegie’s crusade of personal reinvention "helped redefine the American dream and plotted a new pathway by which to get there," writes Steven Watts, a historian at the University of Missouri, in an insightful and comprehensive new biography. Carnegie got rich selling a brand of homespun wisdom ("Make the other person feel important"), but his message of self-presentation helped people navigate the rules of a changing workplace. In a modern consumer economy Victorian virtues of thrift, self-denial and a strong moral character had little value. Meanwhile a new figure had arrived on the scene: the white-collar executive, who spent his days juggling meetings and managing bureaucracy. If success came from knowing how to deal with people, Carnegie—in folksy, brisk and inspiring language ("watch the magic work")—offered a template for action.
Born into a poor family in rural Missouri in 1888, Carnegie learned many of these lessons the hard way. His parents were pious, hard-working and broke. When he arrived at university he was rough-edged and insecure, and got teased about his sugar-bowl ears. But after hearing a couple of speechifiers tell their mesmerising rags-to-riches tales, he threw himself into public speaking, eager to make his name.
A stint peddling meat in South Dakota gave him insight into the evolving role of a salesman in an age of consumer abundance. Sales involved not only meeting the practical needs of consumers, but also promising a better life. Carnegie found that a more artful form of salesmanship—which included establishing personal relationships with people—worked best.
A hayseed with a Midwestern twang, Carnegie arrived in New York in his 20s with the usual mix of big dreams and shallow pockets. He craved the life of an actor, but settled for teaching evening public-speaking classes at a small YMCA in Manhattan. His tips for getting ahead popularised new psychological theories about human motivation and the unconscious. When dealing with people, Carnegie would say, "We are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion." His classes became so popular that he soon codified his lessons into a successful national business.
Some critics saw his approach to empathy as cynical, as if all kindness was lubrication for personal advancement. Others criticised his flimsy grasp of politics and economics (he was often "startlingly naive", writes Mr Watts). Yet Carnegie operated with a Midwesterner’s sincerity, believing people could improve, mistakes could be fixed and even names could be changed. His own had been Carnagey before he tweaked it to sound like Andrew Carnegie, a powerful industrialist.
With the end of the second world war America entered a new era of prosperity. But material advantages did not yield personal fulfilment. Once again, Carnegie harnessed the Zeitgeist with another blockbuster book: "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living" (1948). In snappy prose, he insisted that the way ahead was to seize the moment, letting go of "dead yesterdays" and "unborn tomorrows". Readers were pushed to pursue meaningful work and to try to please others. "When you are good to others, you are best to yourself."
Carnegie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and died in 1955, aged 66. But his views about success live on. More than 8m students have graduated from his business-communications class, including Lee Iacocca and Warren Buffett in the 1950s. "How to Make Friends and Influence People" has sold over 30m copies worldwide; it still sells in the six figures annually. But Carnegie’s biggest legacy is as the "father of the self-help movement", writes Mr Watts. Finding personal satisfaction is no easy thing, Carnegie acknowledged. But it is always best to begin with a smile.