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Hail to Dale Carnegie

In the early 1930s, the work world was new for most. People for the most part had been born down on the farm, and for the first time, masses were being employed for the first time in cities. That meant they had to deal with “organizations” and relationships with people they hadn’t grown up with. These were new skills, as was so much of modern life.

Dale Carnegie was one of the first authors to set out to teach middle class Americans how to “get ahead in life”. As the father of the “self-help movement”, his last name had actually been “Carnagey”, though he tweaked it to sound a little like Andrew Carnegie in order to connote his association with high success. He knew that success wasn’t a matter of being a genius as much as getting people to like you. He was a true believer that with charm, confidence, and a good smile, most could climb the ladder or success, and he set out who how to chart their path to their American Dream. The secret was in remembering names and showing a genuine interest in others.

Even though his book was published amidst the struggles of the Great Depression when so many were out of work, it was an instant hit and sold out 17 editions in it’s first year. “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was a smash hit. Though some have always considered the advise simply a matter of homespun wisdom, the principles aren’t far from what a true scientist would find if he or she could determine the causes of personal success. Like the “One Minute Manager” — a simple set of ideas which was read by millions of managers decades later, the problem is that so few people practice or put the simple principles to work in everyday life.

Dale Carnegie learned from experience. Born to a rural family in Missouri in the late 1880s, he came from a people who wer pious, hard-working, and broke. Victorian virtues of thrift, self-senial and strong moral character had been fine and dandy, but produced little success in more contemporary, consumer-oriented culture. Success came, Carnegie knew, from knowing how to deal with people, and helping them feel important. It didn’t hurt that Carnegie had learned from trying to figure out how to sell things to people. This wasn’t work where craftsman like skills and diligence counted so much as more artful forms of relationship with spotential customers. Here the job was in forming relationships which seemed personal. He needed to figure out what customers actually needed, and pitch propositions which promised them practical solutions and a better life. The work wasn’t a matter of logic, but of dealing with emotions. His tips were about how to act in relationship circumstances and his classes were outrageously popular. Carnegie’s name went out of fashion, though his principles are constantly reiterated in self-help literature. His tips are at the core of theories about human motivation in marketing.

Some critics chalked Carnegie’s approach as cynical — a matter of simulating empathy for manipulative purposes. In fact these ‘behavioral tips’ are accessible for use by people of a wide stripe of personalities. Charles Manson himself took Dale Carnegie classes in a California prison and mastered skills which he said were absolutely essential in recruiting and building his ‘family’. Others criticized Carnegie for his “naiveté” in making success at business seem such a simple matter. Yet his optimism that people’s situations could be improved, the folksy egalitarianism underlying his pitch to those trying to get ahead, and his apparent sincerity won him praise.

Though Carnegie suffered Alzheimers and died in 1955, he left over 8 million students who had graduated from his training programs, including Lee Iacocca and Warren Buffett. Carnegie’s first book has now sold over thirty million copies worldwide and still sells in the six figures annually.

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