How Dale Carnegie’s self-help movement is now more about entitlement than enlightenment

Tom Jokinen in The Globe and Mail:

ScreenHunter_484 Jan. 07 15.55Want to change your life, your career, your outlook this year? Plenty of successful go-getters say they owe their go-getterness to Dale Carnegie’s bestseller How To Win Friends And Influence People: Warren Buffett, Lee Iacocca, Charles Manson. In 1957, Manson took a Carnegie self-improvement course while doing time in a California prison for car theft. “Virtually every word in the Carnegie publications resonated with Charlie,” writes Jeff Guinn in Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson. “For the first time in his life he was considered an outstanding pupil.” Carnegie’s advice was simple: make the other fellow feel important and he’ll follow you anywhere. Manson took it to heart, and from this homespun, self-improvement philosophy, the Manson Family was born 10 years later. There are still Family members in prison who are denied parole, year after year, because they still think of Charlie as a great man. The lesson? Don’t be so quick to dismiss Dale Carnegie as corn-pone pop psychology: This stuff works.

And sells. Considered the stem cell of the self-help publishing line, How To Win Friends… has sold over 30 million copies since its first printing in 1936 – more than Gone With The Wind and The Very Hungry Caterpillar.Carnegie’s skill was in adapting early-20th-century academic psychology, from Alfred Adler to William James, into cracker-barrel idiom: “Become genuinely interested in other people.” “Smile.” “Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” An off-the-rack hit, the book would redefine the American promise of the “pursuit of happiness,” as Steven Watts writes in his new biography Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America, a straight-up, warm-hearted account of the life of an unlikely American role model. It would also, according to Watts, launch a therapeutic industry that leads directly from Carnegie to Oprah, Dr. Phil, the Landmark seminars, and conference hall roomfuls of unhappy people standing on chairs and hollering about their neglectful parents. How did that happen? How did Dale Carnegie, who urged people to be nice to each other, spawn a pseudo-religion of narcissism?

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