How to Win Friends and Influence People | Study Guide

Dale Carnegie

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How to Win Friends and Influence People | Context


Self-Help Literature

Self-help books are nonfiction books that aim to guide readers toward achieving better lives in some way, whether physically, mentally, economically, emotionally, or spiritually. Such books may be filled with facts meant to educate or offer opinions and anecdotes meant to persuade—many books contain both. Self-help books are generally conversational in tone and aimed at a mass, rather than an academic, audience. They are often cross-categorized with other popular genres such as business, inspiration, spirituality, personal growth, and psychology.

People have been writing self-help literature since ancient times, offering advice on how to improve one's social standing, personality, love life, career, health, and other aspects of living. The ancient Egyptians believed living a morally upright life was the path to immortality. Thus many adhered to the "42 Declarations of Innocence," also called the "42 Negative Confessions." This list of moral "don'ts" includes vows such as "I am not a man of deceit" and "I have not shut my ears to the words of truth," and served as a guide to righteous living. In ancient Greece, Hesiod's poem Works and Days moralizes on the proper way to live, upholding virtues like hard work, peace, and justice, and it offers advice on religion, relationships, and farming. The Meditations of ancient Rome's Marcus Aurelius is full of self-improvement nuggets of wisdom, including calls for gratitude, a calm state of mind, and developing inner strength. Books on proper conduct also fall into the category of self-help literature, from Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, a 16th-century code of conduct for members of the court, to Emily Post's Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home (1922). Many people consider sermons and religious texts to be self-help guides as well.

Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People followed in the footsteps of earlier self-help literature with a timely subject his audience was ready to hear. Carnegie's conversational voice set the tone for future self-help books, and his concrete calls to action inspired readers to do something. As Carnegie explained, "This is an action book," not something to read, put aside, and forget, and he expected readers to follow through on the action steps he provided. Given the overwhelming success of the book, unique in its day, some call Carnegie the father of the modern self-help movement. Since the publication of the book, countless "success literature" titles have been published, and the self-help movement has become a multibillion-dollar industry.

The 1930s

Why was How to Win Friends and Influence People such a hit when it was published in 1936? First and foremost the Great Depression (1929–39) dominated the American economy by the time the book was published, having begun with Black Tuesday, the catastrophic stock market crash of October 29, 1929. Thousands of people, including Dale Carnegie, lost everything in the crash. Yet Carnegie managed to keep his business afloat at a time when millions lost their jobs. Without doubt Carnegie was fortunate because of the nature of his work: self-help and advancement in business. Carnegie's classes offered hope of personal success by teaching skills that might help people land new jobs—or hang on to their current positions during massive lay-offs. During this time Carnegie was also developing his training materials for publication in book form.

Americans were hungry for hope after so many years of a bleak economy and struggling to make ends meet. Stories of battles against impossible odds were well received by the public at the time. Also published in 1936 was Margaret Mitchell's popular Gone with the Wind, a novel that followed the riches-to-rags story of scrappy, determined Scarlett O'Hara during the upheavals of the Civil War. One of the year's most important films was the silent comedy Modern Times, in which Charlie Chaplin's Tramp character, something of a Depression-era "Everyman," struggles to survive the indignities of a dehumanized industrial society and ends on a hopeful note. Politics of the time focused on hope, with President Roosevelt's New Deal providing jobs and social services, such as the Social Security Act of 1935, aimed at alleviating suffering for large groups of Americans.

Carnegie capitalized on the sentiments of the times with the publication of How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book includes success stories that tapped into the "American Dream" at a time when the dream seemed all but dead to many. Carnegie spins tales of some of the most inspirational and popular role models in America, dating from the birth of the nation to contemporary times. Numerous anecdotes relate how the rich and famous rose to prominence, including politicians and business leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Schwab, John D. Rockefeller, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt. These inspirational stories, combined with Carnegie's practical guidance on how to deal with people and get ahead in business and life, helped propel How to Win Friends and Influence People to the top of the best-seller lists.

Reach, Influence, and Relevance Today

How to Win Friends and Influence People is still one of the most popular self-help books on the market, more than 80 years after its initial publication. It has sold more than 30 million copies and has been included on Time magazine's list of "All-TIME 100 Nonfiction Books" (2011), Boston Public Library's list of "The 100 Most Influential Books of the 20th Century," and countless other "must read" lists for business, self-help, and general nonfiction.

Numerous celebrities and leaders have been influenced by Carnegie's self-help ideas. In his early 20s business mogul Warren Buffett attended Carnegie's course in public speaking, which he says "changed his life." In fact he still has the diploma hanging in his office. Lee Iacocca, former CEO of the Chrysler Corporation, cited the influence of Carnegie's principles on his own career in his 2008 book Where Have All the Leaders Gone? Television and music personalities such as Johnny Cash, Chuck Norris, and Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN have graduated from Carnegie's training, as have restauranteurs Emeril Lagasse, Tom Monaghan (founder of Domino's Pizza), and Dave Thomas (founder of Wendy's). Political figures influenced by Carnegie include President Lyndon Johnson, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and former first lady Rosalynn Carter. This list goes on, and may include at least one notorious reader: Charles Manson. In the 2013 book Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, journalist Jeff Guinn proposes the infamous cult leader used what he learned from Carnegie's training course to sway his followers to commit multiple murders.

Although How to Win Friends and Influence People dates from 1936, it has kept up with the times, thanks to the work of Carnegie's family and the Dale Carnegie Organization. As Carnegie's widow, Dorothy, explains in the "Preface to the 1981 Edition," the original text has been updated, just as Carnegie constantly revised the material to make it more effective and relevant. Some sections from the original text have been dropped, such as chapters on writing business letters and creating a happy home life. In 2011 Carnegie's daughter, Donna, revised the book and republished it as How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age, with new material on modern concerns such as social media, publicity strategies, and email correspondence.

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