Dale Carnegie, Taming the Elephant, and Self Transcendence.

My Wartime edition of the Carnegie Classic

I never would have considered reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People if it had not been for Jonathan Haidt’s great book, The Righteous Mind – Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. After all, the title indicates it might be full of superficial strategies to get people to like you so you can sell them stuff. That did not turn out to be the case. You can see in the picture above, I read this book literally, “to death”. But a caveat – this is a 1945 Wartime edition and was meant to serve an immediate purpose, as well as being frugally produced for the war effort, so not particularly durable.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, one of the most useful ideas to come from Haidt’s book is the analogy of a person’s point of view to a rider and elephant. The elephant, for simplicity, the more “primitive” cognitive mechanisms decide on something, and the rider of the elephant “reason”, a more “advanced” mechanism acts as a lawyer, advocate or PR guy to justify the elephant’s decision rather than – as you might think – coolly weigh the evidence and formulate the most logical opinion. Haidt characterizes Carnegie as a “brilliant moral psychologist” who knows how to “talk to the elephant”; to appeal to emotions, which is the only way to actually begin any kind of meaningful relationship with another person – be it business, political or personal.

Of the elephant, Carnegie says: “When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity.” The rider will “…attempt by a form of reasoning, either fallacious or logical to justify their…acts”. But do not dwell on the negativity inherent in these assessments. In order to understand people, it is necessary to begin with a clear-headed view of human nature. This realistic psychological profile is the beginning of a series of strategies to decrease defenses and increase genuine communication in a way that would make Carl Rogers proud.

Carnegie’s little book, in diameter only as it is a tight 287 pages, is chock full of the sort of advice that memes and affirmations attempt to convey in a simplistic and ultimately lackluster fashion. In contrast, this book is neither simplistic nor lackluster. Instead, it is a deep and vibrant investigation into human nature with a genuine heart of research conveyed with accessible language and numerous examples. In order to demonstrate the universal applicability of his theory,  Carnegie references the stories of well known businessmen and celebrities of the time, but more importantly lavishly shares the insight of the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Teddy Roosevelt, and Freud and the early psychologist William James, as well as the timeless wisdom of the Buddha, Lao Tzu and Jesus Christ. In four sections, he succinctly summarizes ways that the greats have learned to productively deal with other people on a daily basis, in some of the most harrowing and history-altering circumstances, and in some in ways that permanently changed the morality of immense groups of followers for centuries after.

And what of the advice? Geniuses have a way of articulating things we already know but have failed to properly investigate. The book is filled with observations of ways to engender positive relations, among which are:

  • “Criticism is futile”, he says. It only puts people on the defensive and all the more determined to maintain fixedly their point of view in response to their wounded pride. Nobody responds well to criticism, no matter how correct the criticism seems to be. (This certainly played out in our momentous election)
  • People want to feel important. It is among the greatest of desires, and there is always something you can genuinely admire in someone else if you are willing to look for it. Let them know what it is! Holding someone in esteem gives them a noble ideal to live up to – and people will do their best to do so.
  • Take an interest in people. Listen carefully to what they have to say, and find something that sticks out. It might take a little patience, but eventually, anyone will say something that strikes you. From here you can begin to connect.
  • From Ben Franklin: Don’t directly contradict someone, and don’t convey a fixed opinion with the dogmatic words “always” “never” “undoubtedly”, etc. Observe that in certain cases, a person’s point of view may be correct, even if it is not completely so in this case.
  • Have the guts and the self-control to listen to people’s tirades. They are venting – once this anxiety is discharged, the person will calm down and a dialog can begin.
  • Show respect for other people’s ideas. Be open to the fact that what they have to say may add to or transform your point of view – and if it does, give them credit! As the Tao says, “The reason why rivers receive the homage of a hundred mountain streams is that they keep below them”. Ask yourself; do you want credit or results
  • Preserve the right mental attitude of courage, frankness and good cheer…and smile…
  • Make an effort to remember people’s names

“But wait!”, you may say. “How can you be interested, be genuinely interested in people? Isn’t this just positive psychology and again the dreary platitudes that sound good but you can never force yourself to really execute?” On the surface, perhaps. However, by following Carnegie’s directive to making a sincere effort to understand the emotional makeup of another person and stand in their shoes, you will necessarily find any straw man or adversary turns into another human being who has the same kind of fears and desires as you do. Once you find yourself open to listening, you will be transformed involuntarily – and that is the real genius of Dale Carnegie. By following his method you become not just a better communicator, salesman, friend and the like – you become a better person.

The book is not perfect… The title itself can be off-putting, implying the desire to get something over on someone, and to “win”. There are some cases in which the protagonists in the illustrative real-life narratives are not exactly operating from the prescribed standpoint of complete genuine appreciation, sometimes exaggerating the merits of their target with white lies. In other examples, he likely cherry picks stories involving known tyrants such as Andrew Carnegie (no relation) that illustrate his points. It is also dated. Many examples involve businessmen and celebrities who were the Elon Musks and the Brad Pitts of their day, but hearing how Ziegfeld presented each of his chorus girls with a dozen roses may cause the modern reader to wonder, “who was Ziegfeld and what is a chorus girl?”…And there are far more obscure examples.

Additionally, and this is a big one, it is not easy to follow the techniques in this book if you are stuck in your own importance, your own need for validation and instant gratification. This book is calling for is something far greater from the reader than following his techniques for making relationships more positive. This book is calling for ego transcendence and a view of the world in a way that is not unlike a spiritual transformation. In order to carry out any of the advice in this book, you must have decided upon an orientation toward the good, to genuinely want things to improve. This requires more than following 90-year-old advice; it requires a true desire for things to get better rather than an egoic need to being right. “I am not advocating a bag of tricks”, states Carnegie, “ I am talking about a new way of life.”


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