Living the Carnegie way

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Dale Carnegie's famous work How To Win Friends and Influence People has been rewritten for the digital age. But 75 years since it was first published, are his ideas still relevant? Lucy Townsend tries to live the Carnegie way for a week.

When Dale Carnegie wrote How To Win Friends and Influence People in the 1930s, he helped crystallise a whole new industry. Battalions of self-help books now reach the shop shelves each year, each one full of promises and hope.

Carnegie was an advocate of generosity and reason. Ambition alone would not make you any friends, but couple it with being nice and you were on to a winner.

He liked respect and disliked hyperbole.

Flick through the self-help titles at any bookshop now and you will see the likes of How to Get a Grip, Super Brain Power: Maximise Your Intelligence in 21 Days, Paul McKenna's book Change Your Life in 7 Days and the optimistically titled, The Last Self-help Book You'll Ever Need.

Self-help is now synonymous with a dose of hyperbole.

It seems attainable to live by Carnegie's principles for a week - and it holds the tantalising promise of making me a better person. But is his advice is still useful? How To Win Friends was first published in 1936, when the road to success was full of networking and pressing the flesh.

The road now is smoother and wider. Meetings are more often conference calls, managers thousands of miles apart can thrash out deals as if they were in the same room. Headhunters are as swayed by your LinkedIn profile as they are by more traditional recommendations from real people.

We have the ability to interact with more people and on a wider scale than Carnegie ever did, and success does not seem dependent on being a perma-friendly person. Simon Cowell's lack of cheer has not stood in his way.

"Carnegie's first principle was be nice," says Robert Kelsey, a reader of self-help books who went on to write them. "That will always be an important thing to remember in whatever business you're in. His advice will always be relevant."

I do have friends, but I have very little influence and definitely no wealth. So it seems right to give Carnegie a chance.

Shared suffering

Firstly, this means smiling. Apparently smiley people tend to have more friends - an average of one extra close friend compared to those who frown. I smile until my face hurts. Most people don't see because they walk around staring at the floor, but smiles are contagious and hopefully I don't look too strange.

Image caption,
Carnegie's book is estimated to have sold 15 million copies worldwide

Next I send emails to all my friends. This latest edition of How To Win Friends suggests emailing, commenting, "liking" or "poking" five people each day.

My friend emails back to tell me she has split up with her boyfriend. While some in my position might be subtly cynical, I offer my support. I also follow another of the new Carnegie digital age tips - I add an emoticon, a smiley followed by a wink. This will apparently make her feel better because it allows me to smile at her through email.

Some of his advice - like the tactic of giving others a great reputation to live up to as it shows you expect a lot of them - chimes with modern techniques like the "nudge" behavioural psychology so popular in government these days.

Much of the rest can seem like something your grandmother might advise. The reader is told to point out mistakes quietly and with tact. They must also avoid arguments. But it takes a saint to sign on wholeheartedly to the maxim of never, ever telling another person "you're wrong".

Some of Carnegie's advice can seem plain obvious - I smiled before I ever read his book. And is it really necessary for us to buy a book telling us how to behave when so much more information is available to us free?


In the 1930s there were far fewer ways of sharing information. For Carnegie's audience, a book was the obvious medium, but today we have hundreds of bloggers and tweeters offering us advice.

There have never been so many armchair philosophers and ad-hoc life coaches, all sharing their wisdom in 140 characters. We are a generation that consciously shapes each other.

Of course, for many self-help fans, the way to enlightenment is more often found in a single philosophy from a single author enshrined in a single book. So how do you write a self-help book in the 21st Century?

American writer and editor Jean Marie Stine is one of the modern generation of self-help writers. She penned both Super Brain Power and Double Your Brain Power, and the bravely titled How to Write a Best Selling Self-Help Book.

"You have to tell the reader what the possible results are, if not they may not know how they are meant to feel, what they are meant to have accomplished," says Stine. "You also have to be an expert - either have a degree in what you write about or use personal experience."

Growing up in Missouri in a poor family, Carnegie won enough friends and influenced enough people to rise from young farmhand to a best-selling author. After a brief stint as a salesman he moved to New York City and began running courses on public speaking, tapping into America's desire for self-improvement.

But do the enormous claims made by some modern self-help writers make the feeling of trust and experience more difficult?

"When I was reading self-help books they felt very brief - I would finish a book and I hadn't changed," says Kelsey. "It also felt like the people who wrote them hadn't gone through what I was going through, their suffering wasn't enough.

Image caption,
New tips include using emoticons

"Carnegie said you could improve yourself but you couldn't change yourself. I find writers who say you can change your personality hard to believe. If you are a shy person you can't just transform yourself into someone with huge confidence."

Many people will always see the self-help industry as a cynical money-spinner, but others find it genuinely useful. They see an opportunity to ruminate on past mistakes and current situations, but perils can lie in wait for the unwary.

"When self-help writers make promises that the reader cannot fulfil it can lead to dashed hopes - they may end up thinking less of themselves," says University of Birmingham lecturer Dr Jan Oyebode, a consultant clinical psychologist.

"What self-help can offer is the time to reflect and that can be a very useful thing."

So did Carnegie's repackaged wisdom reshape my life in any substantive way? Well, no. But it's hard to be regretful about a week spent remembering to smile more and trying to achieve concord with my fellow man. It feels like a positive thing to do. And Carnegie loved positivity.

The only downside of his digital age advice is that I currently have 43 emails waiting for a reply.