Monday, May 14, 2012

Dale is holding up remarkably well

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, self help

In the twelve years since I attended the Dale Carnegie Course, a lot has happened in my life. Not only did I start blogging, but I have Facebook and Google Plus, though I can't see the point of Twitter. It is hard to know how to manage relationships when I didn't grow up with these new media. E-mail is about forty years old, so I've learned best how to stay out of trouble with that (It is now 35 years since the last time an e-mail I sent brought someone raging to my office door…).

"The Course", when I took it, was still geared primarily toward face to face contact. Now new questions arise. Does Skype count? I have multitudes of colleagues and associates whom I never, or nearly never, see. I have fewer than 200 Facebook "friends", but I know a few people who have 500 or 1,000 or more. Broadcast publishing is the only way to reach most of them. Yet my son's preferred mode of communication is texting over our mobile phones (Talking takes too much time). When do we use what medium?

Dale Carnegie passed away nearly sixty years ago. His original best-seller is 75 years old. Is his advice still relevant? Reading the updated version, How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age, by the people at Dale Carnegie and Associates and Brent Cole, I find the basic principles are remarkably relevant. People haven't really changed, and their desires, hopes and dreams are different only in minor details. They still respond to a kind word, a smile, and a genuine listener. The trouble is, texting and e-mail are hard media; they are "cold". It takes ingenuity to engage someone using a cold medium.

The original How to Win Friends jump-started the entire genre of self help literature, which surprised Mr. Carnegie. He didn't think of it as self help at all. But now the genre contains tens of thousands of titles, and the challenge for the authors of the new book has been selecting from multitudes of good stories, and securing rights to repeat some of them.

When I began the book, I wondered if the authors would be able to match Carnegie's immensely readable style. I am happy to report that they did so. The reading is rapid and enjoyable. But now that I've read it, I find myself wanting to refer back to the examples and the exhortations. The lack of an index hampers this, but as there are 27 chapters in 230 pages, if I know the general subject, I can find the right chapter to look in.

The central issue in today's celebrity-driven culture (at least in America), is how to get attention while retaining self-respect. The noise level is incredible. This issue crops up in several chapters, and I find a notable quote at the end of the chapter Avoid Arguments: "Set yourself apart by being one who avoids the arguments that most jump into with both feet" (p 104). This is the opening chapter in the section "How to Merit and Maintain Others' Trust." This section alone is worth the cost of the whole book. Trust is the costliest currency, and never more so than now.

But how to be heard above the din? Here persistence pays off. The new media offer more ways to reach people than ever before. Broadcasting is sometimes useful, but is not always the answer. It still takes work to winnow a possible thousand or ten thousand "contacts" or "friends" down to the few dozen who might make a difference. Personal engagement with a few whose trust is worth winning is still the best way to have the most, and best, influence.

Near the end of the book (as it was in the 1936 edition) is the chapter, Give Others a Fine Reputation to Live up to. This is something I find personally hard. Encouragement doesn't come naturally to me, particularly encouragement that is based not on what I see today but on a person's potential (I am a lousy prophet). Yet I have, on occasion, overcome the tendency to say, "You should have done better," saying instead, "Let's put this behind us. I expect great things of you." It is not just some manipulation, but a heartfelt expectation, and I have seen very gratifying response. I'm still learning this lesson.

I have heard it said that Dale Carnegie's advice is "common sense." I don't find it that common. People who live these principles are exceedingly rare. The original book may have sold a few million copies—and I hope this edition sells millions more—, but a quick look around is all it takes to see that there is a long way to go. I need these principles, even after a dozen years of putting a few of them into practice. So do many others. I bought a few extra copies for colleagues of mine…

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