Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★ (5/7)
Readability: ★★★★★★ (6/7)
Challenge Level: 1/5 (None) | ~240 pages ex-notes (288 official)
Blurb/Description: Nearly a century old, How To Win Friends and Influence People is still considered one of the 100 most influential books of all time.
Summary: This book offers a lot of practical advice on how to have more effective human interactions. No matter how good or bad you are (or think you are) at interaction, there are some good lessons in here for everyone.
Highlights: Carnegie’s points are all valid and useful; they’re also illustrated well with a broad range of examples from personal to business to historical. I think a lot of the parenting analogies are particularly on-point, at least from my experience as a kid, and have bookmarked them to reread when I eventually have a kid!
Lowlights: One of Carnegie’s last points in the book is to “dramatize,” and in my view, he does this too much: some of the examples are a little too cute, and the Pollyanna-ish tone starts to wear on me after a while (these concepts are highly effective, but not a silver bullet). Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People covers much of the same ground in a more measured and realistic way.
The concepts also start to get repetitive and predictable later in the book; meanwhile, the book shows its age in terms of some of the business examples – it’s hard to buy/believe that some of these techniques would provide you with an edge today, or that they’d even be feasible (for example, a busy executive isn’t likely to just wander around his plant with you for half a day).
You should buy a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People if: you’re a person who talks to other people and some days you don’t feel like you’re very good at it.
Reading Tips: You can skim this book pretty hard, as most of the examples in each chapter say the same thing; consider consider skipping the last section, Part Four: Be a Leader entirely, as it more or less rehashes previous concepts or extends them in predictable ways.
Pairs Well With:
A book on applying several of these techniques in the context of negotiation.
An American classic on self-improvement and effective communication.
A broader perspective on many of these topics.
Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”
The landmark book on individualism – it may seem like a weird suggestion, but Carnegie and Rand are two sides of the same coin, in a weird way.
Reread Value: 3/5 (Medium)
More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):
IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK. Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive. It was primarily created for my own personal reference.
Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference. Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.” Do so at your own peril.
I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases. First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.
Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall. However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.
Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made. I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning. Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.
Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.
Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.
Pages xvi – xvii: In the “things haven’t changed much” category, Carnegie notes that the ability to deal with people was one of the most valuable skills around, and yet it received short shrift in college education.
Pages xxiv – xxv: implicitly invoking concepts such as those in The Power of Habit ( PoH review + notes), and The Seven Sins of Memory ( 7SOM review + notes), Carnegie advocates for the Ben Franklin approach: daily application of these virtues
Page 5: like Franklin and Munger, Carnegie notes humans’ extraordinary ability to rationalize. Anyway, Carnegie starts by criticizing criticism, because it puts people’s backs up and starts a chain reaction of cognitive biases… my words, not his.
Page 13: Carnegie thinks that positive reinforcement is more effective than negative reinforcement – reminiscent of much discussion in 7 Habits.
Page 27: Carnegie calls appreciation / gratitude “one of the most neglected virtues of our daily existence.” Of course, it has to be sincere – people see through flattery. For a deeper look at gratitude, Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage has some nice points.
Pages 30-31: continuing with the self-interest / incentives theme, Carnegie makes a quip about fish preferring worms to strawberries and cream that reminded me a bit of the Munger anecdote about “I sell to people, not fish!” Anyway, it struck me on my most recent reread that – bizarrely and counterintuitively – Dale Carnegie and Ayn Rand have a lot in common.
They both believe that altruism doesn’t exist in the most fundamental sense of the world, and we’re all acting in our own self-interest all of the time; Carnegie notes that:
“[Donating to the Red Cross] is no exception to the rule [that you wanted something]. You gave the Red Cross the donation because you wanted to lend a helping hand […] if you hadn’t wanted that feeling more than you wanted your money, you would not have made the contribution.”
The difference, of course, is that Carnegie’s outlook on interacting with other human beings is substantially more realistic than Rand, who – despite a lot of sound intellectual arguments that in some cases I agree with to some extent –ultimately fails entirely to understand the humans vs. econs conundrum.
Pages 34 -35: Carnegie, without attribution, uses the Ben Franklin approach of listing advantages on one side of a paper and disadvantages on the other… anyway, the idea here is to phrase things in terms of other people’s interests rather than your own. He quotes Henry Ford on schema and empathy:
“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”
Page 42: Carnegie again highlights applying schema / empathy – “an increased tendency to think always in terms of other people’s point of view, and see things from their angle” – as one of the most important concepts in the book.
Page 44: this is a comment in passing, but one that I’ve found to be very true (harder to say than to apply, of course):
“No one with a trace of horse sense would expect a child three years old to react to the viewpoint of a father thirty years old. Yet that was precisely what that father had expected. It was absurd.”
Pages 51 – 52: cat people look away (actually, if you’re a cat person, I’m sorry, this isn’t the website for you, only dog people are allowed.) Carnegie cites his childhood dog as an example of “the greatest winner of friends that man has ever known” – if you want to get people to like you, be interested in them. Because, of course, people are interested in themselves.
Page 64, Page 66, Page 67: smile more. Also, on page 67, a note about happiness being a choice; cross-reference Shawn Achor’s “The Happiness Advantage” (THA review + notes), Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (7H review + notes), Stephen Colbert’s GQ interview, etc. See agency.
Page 73: people like hearing their names. Remember them. That said, don’t do it too much otherwise you start to sound creepy. And don’t use someone’s first, middle, and last name unless you’re their mother and they Did A Bad Thing. (Carnegie didn’t actually say that. That’s all me.)
Page 95: make the other person feel important. This isn’t really hard, but there are a lot of people who are bad at it. Put away your phone, look the other person in the eye, focus on listening rather than coming up with your response, and it’ll go a long way.
Page 97: on the positive effect of pleasantries like “please,” “I’m sorry,” and “thank you” – again, goes a long way
Page 110: Carnegie on arguments: avoid them. Inversion.
As he says pithily, “you can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.”
[By the latter, Carnegie is referring to the emotional impacts.] Carnegie also notes, not based on any science I don’t think, that “Nine times out of ten, an argument ends with each of the contestants more firmly convinced than ever that he is absolutely right” – which is true, and an unfortunate cognitive bias (confirmation bias, also overconfidence).
Page 112: a cute bit of poetry on how doggedly insisting on your right of way can end badly… cross-reference Covey on “I’m a lighthouse.”
Page 113: a good example of how to work around “petty tyrants.” Also, some good advice on Buddha and Lincoln about the practical value of taking the high road.
Pages 117 -118: Carnegie reminds us to be delicate when telling people that they’re wrong. Utility. Being right doesn’t always win you points… here is a fun little anecdote: so, my mom was born in the U.K. and went to school there until she was a teenager, at which point her family moved to India.
Eager to show off her British learning, one day in school, she corrected her teacher when he referred to a begonia or chrysanthemum as a “vegetable.” “Sir, it’s actually a flower,” she said.
Well, her teacher learned that begonias (chrysanthemums?) are actually flowers, and my mom learned (when she got her report card) a lesson about how Indian teachers feel about being corrected in front of the class…
Anyway, back to Carnegie: approach it gently and admit that you may have made a mistake.
Page 121: shoutout: I might not go this far (a lot of good books have been written since then) but Carnegie calls Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography (which I am fond of) “one of the most fascinating life stories ever written, one of the classics of American literature.”
Page 122: Carnegie on Franklin on feedback:
“one of the finest things I know about Ben Franklin is the way he accepted that smarting rebuke. He was big enough and wise enough to realize that it was true, to sense that he was headed for failure and social disaster. So he made a right about-face.”
Setting aside Franklin’s eventual success at social situations, I think the bigger takeaway here is simply the quality even more unique than being able to interact with people well is being able to take criticism well.
One of the biggest differences between me at 17 or 19 and me today is that my head used to be so full of what I was sure I knew that there wasn’t any room for, you know, incremental learnings. This wasn’t necessarily my fault: it was the reaction to a high-pressure, achievement-oriented childhood where winning took precedence over learning, combined with growing up in a very ideological, partisan circle of friends: but it was a problem nonetheless, and one that only I had the agency to correct.
Now, I try to take the Richard Feynman approach from page 24 of The Pleasure of Finding Things Out:
“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. […] I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things […] it doesn’t frighten me.”
“if we know we are going to be rebuked anyhow, isn’t it far better to beat the other person to it and do it ourselves?”
This is also a useful schema exercise.
Page 135: whenever possible, defuse, don’t escalate
Page 144: use the socratic method
Page 156 – 157: on getting buy-in: make the idea the other person’s
Page 161: at this point, the book mostly starts to repeat itself
Page 169: again, take the high road
Page 180: give people a reputation to live up to (see also Covey) – consistency bias
Page 187: use people’s egos…
First Read: 2014
Last Read: early 2018
Number of Times Read: 4
Review Date: early 2018
Notes Date: early 2018