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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

The Recap Shelf: “How to Win Friends and Influence People”

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Have you ever tried to count all the career books in the world? Imagine how long that would take. Now think about the innumerable hours you might spend trying to read them all. You’d no longer have time to actually have a career.

So here’s the deal: The Muse is reading some classic and influential titles for you. We’ll pull out some of the highlights so you can get start putting their insights and advice into action right away and to help you decide which of the approximately three gazillion books (we didn’t feel like counting either, okay?) you might want to actually pick up and read in full.

So you’re welcome—and welcome to The Recap Shelf!

Dale Carnegie grew up a poor farm boy. (Before you ask, he was born Carnagey, and wasn’t related to the famous Carnegie family.) But by the time he published How to Win Friends and Influence People: The Only Book You Need to Lead You to Success in 1936, the courses he’d been teaching to adults for over two decades—in public speaking and human relations—were wildly popular. Demand only soared after the book came out.

The book, which Carnegie wrote as a course textbook to fill a void when he couldn’t find a good one, has been translated into dozens of languages and sold more than 30 million copies. It appears on the list of “Books That Shaped America” from the Library of Congress, which describes it as “the mother of all self-help books.” And leaders such as Warren Buffett have cited its influence.

The version you’re likely to find today is the one revised in 1981, when it “was slightly condensed, and some dated and vaguely racist language was removed,” according to The New York Times. That’s not to say the edition’s devoid of all sexism, for example, or outdated views on mental health, but it’s presumably better than the original.

While the American workplace and society have thankfully evolved since the first half of the 20th century (not enough, we know), the fundamental principles still apply. Here’s what you need to know:

The Ultimate Takeaway

If you read no further, remember this: Winning friends and influencing people has little to do with technical expertise and a lot to do with the so-called “soft skills” of communication and social interaction.

And the secret to that is to always think hard about what kinds of behavior make you respond positively to a friend, colleague, or leader, and adopt those when approaching others.

It seems so stunningly obvious—everyone likes to be appreciated and listened to, to feel important, to have their opinions respected, and to be allowed to save face.

You know all this and more about yourself, but do you keep in mind that the people you interact with feel the same way? If you did, and adjusted your behavior accordingly, you’d be much more likely to “win friends and influence people.”

The Principles

The 1981 edition includes four of six original sections, each of which is broken down into chapters detailing various principles. The part titled “Fundamental Techniques in Handling People,” for example, is composed of three principles: “don’t criticize, condemn, or complain”; “give honest and sincere appreciation”; and “arouse in the other person an eager want.”

The next parts are devoted to “Six Ways to Make People Like You” (including smiling and being a good listener), “How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking” (including avoiding arguments and admitting when you’re wrong “quickly and emphatically”), and “Be a Leader: How to Change People Without Giving Offense or Arousing Resentment” (including giving “the other person a fine reputation to live up to” and praising every improvement).

It would defeat the purpose of a quick recap to dig into all 30 of the principles. But let’s touch on a few recurring themes. First, you should work on changing your own conduct before you look at others.

“From a purely selfish standpoint, that is a lot more profitable than trying to improve others,” Carnegie writes, emphasizing that the book is about action—the reader should put the principles into play in their own life to form new habits.

Another fundamental point Carnegie makes over and over again can be gleaned even from studying the summarized principles. Notice the language in several (the emphasis is mine):

  • “Become genuinely interested in other people”
  • “Make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely
  • “Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view”
  • “Begin with praise and honest appreciation”

Carnegie’s advice is not about superficial or empty words, but rather changing your perspective to stop thinking so much about yourself and start finding genuine, sincere, and honest ways to interact with others more effectively.

“Of course flattery seldom works with discerning people. It is shallow, selfish, and insincere,” he writes. “Flattery is counterfeit, and like counterfeit money, it will eventually get you into trouble,” he adds. That’s not what he’s suggesting. “I am talking about a new way of life.

The Anecdotes

I have to admit that when I picked up How to Win Friends and Influence People, I wasn’t expecting the most exhilarating read. But what makes the book better than expected is that the advice is interspersed with brief anecdotes, both from regular people who’d taken one of the courses (relatable at their core even if some of the technologies and other details give away the age of the stories) and about famous figures.

Carnegie read countless biographies “trying to ascertain how the great leaders of all ages had dealt with people.” He seemed particularly fond of Abraham Lincoln, who said of the people in the south during the Civil War, “Don’t criticize them; they are just what we would be under similar circumstances.”

In addition to Lincoln, he looked to Benjamin Franklin, Sol Hurok, and Stevie Wonder (who surely wasn’t in the original edition), and quoted literary greats from William Shakespeare to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. (Yes, when he says “the great leaders of all ages,” he seems to be referring to the men.)

He also consulted the works of philosophers and psychologists, from Socrates and his famous method of asking incremental questions to lead opponents to the conclusion he wanted, to B.F. Skinner, whose experiments found that “an animal rewarded for good behavior will learn much more rapidly and retain what it learns far more effectively than an animal punished for bad behavior.”

The Thing You Should Say if You’re Trying to Reference It

“Are you sure that kind of aggressive approach won’t alienate the client? Maybe we should be trying a sweeter, more persuasive winning ‘friends and influencing people’ kind of strategy.”

Dale Carnegie’s advice may be more than 80 years old, and his principles are so steeped in common sense they hardly feel groundbreaking.

But “in an age so poisoned by incivility,” as Ron Charles put it for the Washington Post, “it’s not such a bad thing to review—or learn—the basic principles of humane behavior.” There’s a reason the book still sells. It might be just the reminder you need.