Last night, I finished reading Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People: The Only Book You Need to Lead You to Success. This is the 31st book I’ve read in 2017, and hopefully I will exceed the 38 books I read in 2016.

Carnegie’s book is well-known. It was originally published in 1936 (!!) during the Great Depression, but as the back cover argues, it is “equally valuable during booming economies or hard times.” I read the 1981 edition, which updated some of the original material to make it more applicable to the modern era. Even though it means the book loses its 1936 perspective, it’s probably a good idea to keep it updated to avoid confusing the reader, and Carnegie — who passed away in 1955 — would have wanted it. You can read more about the book’s history on its Wikipedia page.

So, is the book over-hyped, or is it actually insightful and useful? I think the answer is yes to both, but we’ll see what happens in the coming years when I especially try to focus on applying his advice. The benefit of self-help books clearly depends on how well the reader can apply it!

I don’t like books that bombard the reader with hackneyed, too-good-to-be-true advertisements. Carnegie’s book certainly suffers from this, starting from the terrible subtitle (seriously, “The Only Book”??). Now, to be fair, I don’t know if he wrote that subtitle or if it was added by someone later, and if it was 1936, it would have definitely been more original. Certainly in the year 2017, there is no shortage of lousy self-help books.

The good news is that once you get beyond the hyped-up advertising, the actual advice in the book is sound. My summary of it: advice that is obvious, but that we sometimes (often??) forget to follow.

Indeed, Carnegie admits that

I wrote the book, and yet frequently I find it difficult to apply everything I advocated.

This text appears in the beginning of a book titled “Nine Suggestions to Get the Most Out of This Book”. I am certainly going to be following those suggestions.

The advice he has is split into four rough groups:

  • Fundamental Techniques in Handling People
  • Six Ways to Make People Like You
  • How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking
  • Be a Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment

Each group is split into several short chapters, ending in a quick one-phrase summary of the advice. Examples range from “Give honest and sincere appreciation” (first group), “smile” (second group), “If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically” (third group), and “Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person” (fourth group). Chapters contain anecdotes of people with various backgrounds. Former U.S. Presidents Washington, Lincoln, and both Roosevelts are featured, but there are also many examples from people leading less glamorous lives. The examples in the book seem reasonable, and I enjoyed reading about them, but I do want to point out the caveat that some of these stories seem way too good to be true.

One class of anecdotes that fits this criteria: when people are able to get others to do what they want without actually bringing it up! For example, suppose you run a business and want to get a stubborn customer to buy your products. You can ask directly and he or she will probably refuse, or you can praise the person, show appreciation, etc., and somehow magically that person will want to buy your stuff?!? Several anecdotes in the book are variants of this concept. I took notes (with a pencil) to highlight and comment in the book as I was reading it, and I frequently wrote “I’m skeptical”. Fortunately, many of the anecdotes are more realistic, and the advice itself is, as I mentioned before, accurate and helpful.

I have always wondered what it must be like to have a “normal” social life. I look at groups of friends going out to meals, parties, and so forth, and I repeatedly wonder:

  • How did they first get together?
  • What is their secret to liking each other??
  • Do I have any ounce of hope of breaking into their social circle???

Consequently, what I most want to get out of the book is based on the second group, how to make people like me.

Unfortunately, I suffer from the social handicap of being deaf. While talking with one person usually isn’t a problem, I can’t follow conversations with noisy backgrounds and/or with many people. Heck, handing a conversation with two other people is often a challenge, and whenever this happens, I constantly fear that my two other “conversationalists” will talk to themselves and leave me out. And how on earth do I possibly network in noise-heavy academic conferences or workshops??? Gaaah.

Fortunately, what I find inspiring about Carnegie’s advice is that it is generic and highly applicable to the vast majority of people, regardless of socioeconomic status, disability condition, racial or ethnic background, and so forth. Obviously, the benefit of applying this advice will vary depending on people’s backgrounds, but for the vast majority of people, there should be some positive, non-zero benefit. That is what really counts.

I will keep How to Win Friends and Influence People on my desk as a constant reminder for me to keep applying these principles. Hopefully a year from now, I can look back and see if I have developed into a better, more fulfilled man.