How to Win Friends and Influence People

Tarig Hilal
8 min readJun 13, 2021

Carnegie, Dale -Publishers — Simon and Schuster, New York, copy right 1936

How to Win Friends and Influence People is a phenomenon of the self help genre. Study its lessons if you want to influence people, the damn stuff works — but in God’s name, please don’t use it as advice on how to make friends or, heaven forbid, as guidance for anything beyond the narrowly professional.

For at the heart of this book lies a moral lacuna, an inversion of the ethical hierarchy that if followed is at best, a recipe for unhappiness, at worse a blueprint for a destructive amorality.

It is I must add, a painful read, dated, micawberish, and repetitive; and yet…… many of its lessons endure, remaining, despite itself, a fascinating publication, both for what it gets right and for what it gets wrong.

Since it first came into print in 1936, How to Win Friends, has sold over 15,000,000 copies world wide, produced 613 editions and been published in 36 different languages.

In 2011, Time Magazine put it at no. 19 in its top 100 most influential non fiction books of all time and a 2012 Library of Congress survey identified Carnegie’s volume as one of 88 books that shaped America, alongside Slaughter House-Five, Grapes of Wrath and Invisible Man.

No less a man than Warren Buffet, claims Carnegie’s philosophy as an influence, crediting it with giving him the confidence to overcome his terror of public speaking and instilling in him the chutzpah to woo the woman who would eventually become his wife.

Other famous graduates of the Dale Carnegie Training course, that inspired Carnegie’s book, include, President Lyndon B Johnson, Walmart Founder, Sam Walton, Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca and former Speaker of the House John Boehner.

The book’s conversational style, bulleted chapter summaries, relentless optimism and exaggerated promise, presage the structure and form of the modern self help book. It is hard for example, to imagine books like the Power of Positive Thinking and Awaken the Giant Within without Dale Carnegie’s original volume.

It is in part because of this, that How to Win Friends… continues to ricochet its way through popular culture, popping up in unexpected places. The title, for example, of comedian Lenny Bruce’s autobiography How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, is a clear parody, Toby Young’s memoir, written 43 years later does the same and the British rock band Terrorvision used the books title as the name for their second album.

The How to Win Friends…. Wikipedia page counts a further 12 references in popular culture, but even a cursory internet search suggests this is the tip of the iceberg — just try typing how to win friends…into the Medium search bar to see what I mean.

The key to understanding the How to Win Friends sensation is in some ways simple. Dale Carnegie’s advice works. It works because it was born from struggle and eventual success, its advice tried and tested in thousands of seminars across America.

Born Dale Harbison Carnagey in Maryville, Missouri on November 24th 1888, Carnegie (He changed the spelling of his name, some suggest to associate himself with Andrew Carnegie), was a relentless practitioner of self improvement.

Raised on a farm, with a penchant for theatre and public speaking and a severe chip on his shoulder, Carnegie worked variously as a farm hand, salesman, writer and actor. He struggled mightily in his early years, regularly experiencing failure and frustration and at one point even considering suicide.

His big break came in 1912, when during a stint as a writer, he approached the YMCA schools in New York with a proposal to teach the art of public speaking to businessmen. Drawing from his time in public speaking, sales and theatre, he designed a course to teach self confidence & the art of persuasion. He was an instant hit.

Over the next four decades he would go on to teach tens of thousands of paying students in thousands of seminars across the United States, constantly, iterating and improving his offer.

How to Win Friends, is essentially a summary of this course. Based first on personal experiences, this was a book that was market tested for decades before publication, its content honed in a fiercely commercial environment, where students were customers, paying for results.

Organised into six parts, an introduction and a preface, the original How to Win Friends…. is predicated on a powerful and familiar idea; that is, that you can be better, indeed, that with the right technique, you can transform yourself.

The book starts with a bang, “Its sole purpose” it says, is to help readers “solve the biggest problem they face: the problem of getting along with and influencing people in everyday life”, promising to support readers to get out of mental ruts, make friends, increase their popularity, improve their earning power and arouse “enthusiasm among their associates.”

What follows is a condensed, high impact presentation of a series of common sense tips for getting along with people.

One of my personal favourites, is to remember to smile. Obvious you might think. Well, my guess is, probably less so in the 1930s, before the rise of Americana saw the advice repeated ad infinitum. Also, for something so bleedingly obvious, it is insufficiently practiced. Try it for a day, try and smile alot, its’ amazing how interactions change.

Other tips include showing genuine interest in people, remembering their names (this one is a killer piece of advice), making them feel important, addressing their interests & listening !

The essence of the message is to be positive and empathetic, with much of the book dedicated to practical ways to operationalise this advice and it is this method that is essential.

How to Win Friends is ultimately a practical book, a doer’s manual. It provides clear, structured, advice and repeats it again and again. The reader is encouraged to read and re-read its advice, to practice its lessons daily, and form study circles to create accountability.

This, as anyone who has mastered anything can tell you, is key— As Woody Allen famously said — 80% of success is showing up. Truth be told, so long as a self help framework falls broadly within the bounds of the reasonable, regular application is all most of us need to start making progress.

In all How to Win Friends contains 37 rules. Any one of these you might hear as a standalone piece of advice but taken in combination and applied consistently and over time they make for a powerful and effective toolkit.

So what is wrong with the Carnegie’s book? Its fundamental sin reveals itself in the claim that the biggest problem we face is getting along with and influencing people.

This might seem like an innocent piece of salesmanship, but it is not. The pursuit of popularity is a dangerous and ephemeral affair, at best a distraction, at worse corrupting. By elevating its import Carnegie misleads the reader and creates a moral ranking that subverts the rightful order of things, putting virtue in the service of popularity.

Whereas Aristotle teaches us that virtue should be practiced for its own sake, Carnegie’s credo tells us to take an interest in people, so that we are better able to engage them, to be genuine because that way lies the route to popularity & friendship, to empathise, so that we may influence. The result are practices that are manipulative, misanthropic and rooted in a profoundly impoverished view of human nature.

For whilst the How to Win Friends reader is assured that they are capable of wonderful things, the people that they are taught to have “human relations with” are lonely, selfish, childish irrational creatures “bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity,”¹, easily manipulated and easily fooled.

In one chapter titled “If you must find fault, this is the way to begin” Carnegie tells the story of a conversation President Calvin Coolidge held with a secretary.

Wanting to tell her to improve her work, President Coolidge begins with a compliment “Thats a pretty dress you are wearing this morning, and you are a very attractive woman.”, the young girl blushes in confusion, to which the President responds “Now don’t get stuck up, I just said that to make you feel good. From now on, I want you to be a little more careful with your punctuation”²

Apart from being cruel, the interaction described is crude and blatantly calculating. It is typical of the many examples that Carnegie encourages us to emulate.

Such cynicism is not without utility, assuming the worst of people can be an effective way to operate in the short run, but it is ultimately destructive. One of the darker chapters of the How Win Friends story is that the charismatic leader of the murderous Manson family cult, Charles Manson, honed his powers of manipulation in prison when he took a class based on the book.

Needless to say such an approach is not a basis for genuine friendships.

What makes all of this worse is that How to Win Friends cloaks itself in the language of wisdom, liberally quoting the sages; men, deities, like Jesus, Buddha & Confucius.

It is a familiar sleight of hand, the lowly sold under cover of the sublime. Think Coca Cola and the I would like to buy the world a Coke commercial or any number of Mc Donald ads.

Indeed How to Win Friends can feel alot like a Mc Donalds meal, attractively advertised, promising at first and for a while satisfying, but ultimately unhealthy.

It may seem somewhat unfair, to lay all these charges at the feet of man, who appears by all accounts to have been a decent chap, and whose advice has undoubtedly been helpful to many people. But Carnegie takes himself seriously, and so should we.

How to Win Friends is a book that claims that it has identified, and offers a solution to, the biggest problem we face. It fails on the first count, and on the second offers tools, that whilst effective are, if followed to their logical conclusion, deeply harmful.

Some justification can be sought in context. How to Win Friends was written for a society, hierarchical, repressed and deferential, that was perhaps in need of the particular medicine that Carnegie had to offer.

But we live in this age and the book is still selling, so we should assess it against our needs and if in its own time it was inadequate, in ours it falls woefully short.

A good self help book should be grounded in decency and virtue, never more so than in our age, with its turbo charged influencer algorithms, its dearth of purpose, its loss of faith, its erosion of family and its problems of loneliness, isolation & mental ill health. How to Win Friends is not that book.

So, if, for strictly professional reasons, you are interested in Carnegie’s insights, then I propose you read a decent summary. Otherwise, unless curiosity absolutely demands it, I would recommend skipping it entirely and picking up a copy of Enchiridion. This Stoic classic may not teach you to be popular, but it is more likely to help you find peace and purpose and in the proper order of things these are surely more worthy.


1. Carnegie, Dale, How to Win Friends and Influence People -Publishers — Simon and Schuster, New York, copy right 1936, P27

2. Ibid, p172