University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

The Enduring Value of Winning Friends and Influencing People

Man and women collaborating and working on an iPad together
March 14, 2024  |  By Stephen Caldwell

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Note: This is part of a series of Walton Insights reviews of classic books on business and leadership.  

A distinct but non-specific memory from my childhood connects my father to Dale Carnegie’s classic book, How to Win Friends & Influence People. I don’t recall if my dad suggested that I read the book, if he shared some insights from it with me, or if I just saw it on his bookshelf. I just know something happened decades ago that convinced me he read this book, found it valuable, and thought I should read it.

As with most great advice my father sent in my direction, it didn’t immediately stick.

Years later, however, I worked on a book project with someone who had actually followed his father’s advice and read the book. Tommy Spaulding struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia as a teenager, and his father rightly predicted that Carnegie’s message would have a huge impact on his son. Tommy finished the book and put the principles into practice during his highly successful career as a business leader, consultant, executive coach, and author.  

“I kept a copy of the book on my nightstand next to my bed as I made my way through high school, college, graduate school, and into my business career,” Tommy wrote in his first book It’s Not Just Who You Know. “I lived that book— I lived it, I would argue, like few others. Why? Because it resonated with my every instinct.” 

Because of Tommy, I finally read the book and quickly became a fan, as well, although not nearly adept as him at living it out.  

The original version of the book came out in 1936 and was based on Carnegie’s Depression-era courses on public speaking and human relations. The first 5,000 copies sold quickly and there were 17 editions printed within the next year!  

I have the 1981 “special anniversary” edition, which, it just so happens, came out the year I graduated from high school. (Maybe my father gave it to me.) This version includes some more modern illustrations and it drops two of the original sections (one on business letters and one on home life), but it maintains Carnegie’s unique, conversational voice and style as well as most of his original stories. Most importantly, the revisers stayed true to the content. 

By 1981 the book already had sold more than 15 million copies, and now it’s sold more than 30 million. It remains a top-seller because it’s well-written and offers sound advice on building relationships that helps you succeed in every area of life.  

The first chapter alone is worth the price of the book, because it reminds us of the futility of leading as a critic.  

“Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself,” Carnegie writes. “Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance, and arouses resentment.” 

In an era when everyone from national political leaders to coach-potato sports fans has a platform and seems to use it regularly to complain and criticize others, it’s great to have a reminder that such tactics are ineffective. Why, then, is that approach so popular? Because it’s easy and the more effective methods, which Carnegie outlines throughout the book, are hard

“Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain—and most fools do,” Carnegie writes. “But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”

What follows in the remainder of the book is straightforward advice that many of us know but that we often don’t follow—show genuine interest in other people, smile, remember people’s name, be a good listener, don’t tell people they are wrong, admit it when you are wrong, appeal to the other person’s nobler motives, ask questions rather than giving orders, encourage people, and on and on. 

Carnegie gives all this advice without making it feel like manipulative tactics for taking advantage of people. Manipulative people, of course, will manipulate people. Charles Manson supposedly used what he learned from the book to influence others to do his killings. But you can’t put these principles into practice without knowing whether you are using them for good or evil purposes. And if your intentions are deceptive, it’s not the book’s fault. Check your heart.  

Another knock on the book, voiced by critics like Sinclair Lewis, is that the advice is too simple and obvious. That’s true, but simple and obvious often get overlooked. And it’s difficult to move on to the complex and challenging if you don’t start with the basics.

Indeed, as Tommy would tell you, the principles and best practices in Carnegie’s book are just the starting point for building good relationships. They aren’t everything you need for really deep, long-term, and meaningful relationships. But you won’t get to those types of relationships without the right foundation, and Carnegie provides the foundation.

Matt WallerStephen Caldwell is Chief Word Architect for WordBuilders, Inc., where he spends most of his time helping clients discover, craft, and share the messages of their hearts. In addition to writing and editing for newspapers, magazines, and on numerous book projects, he has developed leadership and functional training for Fortune 500 companies. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.