Epitaph of a Small Winner

Though he’s primarily associated with sad-suited midcentury businessmen, Dale Carnegie, who frequently aired his boredom with traditional career hierarchies and hymned his devotion to the power of personality, seems more like a precursor to many a modern tech entrepreneur. Hard labor, Carnegie argued, is less a path to success than fresh ideas are. Old models are to be questioned, then modified or thrown out completely. As Steven Watts suggests in his new biography, Self-Help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America (Other Press, $30), the conventional-wisdom business guru presaged many of the bedrock concepts of the information economy.

Carnegie’s early years were a predigital testament to the Silicon Valley maxim “Fail early and often.” Born into rural poverty on a farm in northwest Missouri in 1888, Dale Carnagey—who would later change the spelling to match that of the famous industrialist—was raised by a father who was constantly humiliated by financial failure and a mother who was an amateur but charismatic lay preacher. Young Carnegie “developed a pronounced aversion to the physical labor necessary to rural success” and vowed to “live in a big city and wear a white collar seven days a week.”

Whereas most students at the State Normal School in Warrensburg, Missouri, paid the modest housing fee to live on campus, Carnegie had to live on his parents’ farm nearby; he rode a horse into town each day and boarded it while he was in class. He smelled like horse shit. His clothes were patched and didn’t fit. His ears stuck out. When he asked a girl named Patsy to go buggy riding, she turned him down.

The big men on campus were all orators, and the turn-of-the-century version of the fraternity was the literary society, so Carnegie quickly signed up for one. By his sophomore year he was a campus-wide master debater. Carnegie stood out for his “more natural, conversational delivery,” Watts writes, “while spicing up his presentations with elements of emotion, particularly enthusiasm.”

He dropped out his junior year and hopped a train to Denver, where he found a job selling correspondence courses in western Nebraska. “I was pathetically eager to succeed,” Carnegie wrote. He managed both to lose money in a gold-mining scheme and to sell “hardly any” correspondence courses. This, he determined, was not a problem with his skills but a flaw in the product. So he switched products, selling meat for Armour. He was a rising star at the company, finally making enough to open up a bank account. But just as he was seeing a modicum of success in the world of tinned meats, Carnegie decided he was bored and built for bigger things. He announced to his parents he was decamping for New York to change “the course of my life.” He would become an actor.

After six months at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Carnegie landed a bit role in a traveling play called Polly of the Circus. His roommate on the tour later explained, “I would not say that he had any gift of conversation; he didn’t. He made speeches.” When the troupe stopped touring and no other acting jobs were forthcoming, Carnegie embarked on a brief career as a used-car salesman in New York. He relied on bluster. “I didn’t know what made an automobile truck run, and I didn’t want to know,” he said. He was fired several times.

Undeterred by the failure of his oratory skills on used-car lots across the city, Carnegie applied for teaching positions at Columbia and NYU and was roundly rejected. Finally, he convinced the smallest YMCA in the city, on 125th Street, to allow him to speak. He quickly noticed that his pupils “did not want to become orators but sought career advancement.” And he developed a method that relied on student participation, asking them to talk about things they were passionate about. By 1914, the YMCA circuit was treating him right. He was earning enough to rent a small office in Carnegie Hall, and he began writing magazine articles that supported the themes of his courses, perky profiles of great men who’d overcome great odds and losers who’d turned their lot around. He recognized that most Americans hated their jobs and felt they were destined for bigger things. Around this time he wrote to his parents, “Now you see how money is made. It is not by hard work.”

Apparently, it’s also not by telling the whole truth. His 1915 how-to book, The Art of Public Speaking, instructed readers to fake it till they make it. Project confidence and inner strength, but try not to seem too conceited. Personality, he argued, is a speaker’s most important asset: “that indefinable, imponderable which sums up what we are, and makes us different from others.”

The book was moderately successful, but Carnegie’s upward trajectory was interrupted by World War I. He was drafted, but, due to the loss of a finger in a farm accident back in Missouri, he was marooned in an office job on Long Island. When he tried to resume his career after being discharged in 1919, he found himself in the middle of a controversy worthy of Jonah Lehrer. One of his feel-good magazine articles, billed as a true story of a down-on-his-luck guy who enrolled in a public-speaking course and turned his fortunes around, was called out as a work of fiction rather than journalism—a charge that Carnegie later conceded was well founded.

After a speaking tour through Europe in the early 1920s at the behest of writer and critic Lowell Thomas, Carnegie returned to the citadels of American success with a renewed sense of mission. He developed another how-to guide to public speaking for businessmen, who were rapidly becoming his primary audience. He also scored a radio show about the backstories of public figures. Carnegie was adept at finding new models of success, Watts explains, just as America was undergoing “a sweeping transformation from old-fashioned entrepreneurship to complex corporate bureaucracies.” This—along with the Great Depression—set the stage for Carnegie’s biggest achievement, How to Win Friends and Influence People, published in 1936. Gone was any explicit reference to public speaking, and in its place were psychology-infused themes about how people are mainly self-interested and that, by playing to those interests with unwavering enthusiasm, success was a given.

Instead of judging people for what they want, Carnegie suggested, we should try to understand their cravings and cater to them. This line of thought, perhaps, explains such modern capitalist horrors as the Doritos Locos Tacos at Taco Bell—but it was clearly in harmony with the emergence of a mass consumer economy. In the early twentieth century, “a new ethos emerged that was preoccupied with personality development, personal happiness, interpersonal relations, and self-fulfillment,” Watts writes, describing it as “a form of individualism less concerned with religious salvation or overt economic profit than with emotional well-being.” Whereas Carnegie’s bootstrappy, individualist sensibility could be seen as libertarian, he was in fact decidedly apolitical—almost in the manner of a “Hey, I’m just doing me” Silicon Valley bro who can’t see the larger implications of his worldview. But he was so popular it didn’t matter: He still scored an invitation to dinner with FDR and Eleanor at the White House.

So he was surprised when the backlash arrived, and critics such as Sinclair Lewis accused Carnegie of insincere pandering, manipulative emotional one-upmanship, and economic tone deafness. If you’re always trying to figure out what other people want, the theory went, how can you authentically be yourself? How are working-class Americans supposed to glad-hand their way to the top? “I am not advocating a bag of tricks,” Carnegie replied defensively. “I am talking about a new way of life.”

Carnegie was dedicated to “changing the world,” in the start-up parlance of our time. Though not, apparently, engaging with it much. Years later, when reporters asked him how his principles might be applied to resolving World War II, he said, “If a friendly spirit and a determined desire to influence people peacefully were followed faithfully and intelligently by diplomats at their conference tables, there would be no war.” It was a reply clearly of a piece with Mark Zuckerberg’s claims that Internet connectivity can transform the developing world.

The details of Carnegie’s personal life are also strikingly modern. He married a divorced woman in the mid-1920s and divorced her in 1932. He had an affair with a married woman in the 1930s, and maintained a lifelong bond with her daughter, who called him “Uncle Dale” and may or may not have been his biological child. Late in life, he married and had a child with a much-younger woman, Dorothy, who took over what had become the family business. She proved a more effective manager than Carnegie, who was always more of a sales guy. In the wake of the success of How to Win Friends, he’d managed to push the nascent Dale Carnegie Institute to the brink of financial ruin by purchasing a building in Manhattan, forcing him to lay off his entire staff. “Dorothy’s business acumen,” Watts writes, “clearly exceeded her husband’s.” In 1953 she published her own book, How to Help Your Husband Get Ahead in His Social and Business Life.

Carnegie wrote his last big book, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, in 1948, when he was firmly ensconced as an American celebrity. The book pivoted on Carnegie’s observation that postwar America’s material wealth had failed to make the country much happier; were it published today, it would very likely be an Oprah’s Book Club pick. Not that it was anticapitalist. That would have been far too political for Carnegie. Mostly, it was more soft, safe advice about positive thinking and living in the moment. The “best single piece of advice about worry that I have ever discovered,” Carnegie informed his readers, was the Serenity Prayer. It was a curious declaration from a man who, if he had chosen to merely accept the things he could not change, would have probably taken his dying breath on a farm in rural Missouri.

Ann Friedman is a columnist for New York magazine’s website.