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If ever there were a sad sack who needed the keep-your-chin-up advice of Dale Carnegie [1888-1955], it was Dale Carnegie.

Until he published How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936, the founding guru of the self-help movement had failed at almost everything he’d ever tried, professionally and personally.

He never graduated from college. He tried careers in farming, teaching, salesmanship, acting, journalism and novel writing; all flopped. His first marriage ended in a bitter divorce. He lost most of his savings in the stock market crash of 1929.

His failures often left him depressed. Once he was even suicidal. But his failures made him fascinated with successful people. What exactly did they do? What were their methods?

Carnegie decided it was simple self-confidence. All it needed was to be built up and constantly reinforced.

He studied the subject for years and later compiled his observations into his classic book about speaking and interacting with people.

That wasn’t easy for him, either. Carnegie was an intensely shy man who never completely overcame his own fear of public speaking.

Yet an estimated 50 million copies of his books have been sold in dozens lf languages. His training courses continue to thrive nationwide, having taught more than 7 million people.

Success at self-help was something he had to work as hard and learn as much as anyone else.

Great Role Models 

00751565.jpgSo he looked to those he most admired. His most famous books rely on quotations from and stories about Abe Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin and other wise figures.

“I realize now that healthy people don’t write books on health. It is the sick person who becomes interested in health. And in the same way, people who have a natural gift for diplomacy don’t write books on How to Win Friends and Influence. The reason I wrote the book was because I have blundered so often myself, that I began to study the subject for the good of my soul,” Carnegie said in 1937.

At least 15 million copies of the book have been sold since then, making it one of the most purchased books of the 20th century.

Carnegie was born in rural Missouri. His real name was Dale Carnagey. Despite rumors, he wasn’t related to steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.

He grew up in grinding poverty. He was painfully shy because of his shabby clothes and down-home ways.

“I worried for fear girls would laugh at me if I tipped my hat to them,” he wrote in How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, his other bestseller.

The turning point in his life came when Carnegie encountered that Chautauqua movement. It was a late 19th century religious movement that prompted spiritual health through adult education.

Carnegie noticed the ability of the Chautauqua lecturers to enthrall crowds with their strong words. Carnegie began practicing, lecturing and livestock in his father’s barn for hours on the subjects of the day.

To test his public mettle, he then entered debate contests in school. The first time out, he lost. He lost the second time, too, and several other attempts after that.

But he kept trying, and after several attempts, he won. Other victories followed, and soon he built up enough confidence to hold forth on any topic.

Confronting Fears 

images (4)Carnegie’s experience taught him that the only way to overcome fears was to confront them and not be discouraged by initial failures.

It was a lesson he needed.

Carnegie’s first jobs were as a traveling salesman. He sold everything from correspondence courses to hog lard. It was hard work, the hardest part being interacting with people and convincing them to buy his stuff. Those who could interact well succeeded more often than not, he noted.

It was the same thing with his brief acting career. Every night, he had to give the same performance to a new bunch of strangers – and make it convincing. Journalism and novel writing were similar – above all, he had to make his audience interested in what he had to say.

That can’t be done if the person trying to do the convincing doesn’t believe what he’s saying. Self-confidence, he reasoned, was the key not just in these pursuits but also in everything else.

Eventually, he got a job at the YMCA teaching the one thing he knew he could do: public speaking.

The YMCA was hesitant about giving him the job. It didn’t think Carnegie’s course was worth the $2-a-night salary he requested. To persuade YMCA officials, he struck a deal to work on commission. Soon he was pulling in $30 a night.

The essence of Carnegie’s job was getting his students to confront their fears of public speaking. Night after night, he simply made his students talk.

“The way to develop self-confidence, he said, is to do the thing you fear to do and get a record of successful experiences behind you,” wrote Lowell Thomas, a friend of Carnegie’s, in the original introduction of How to Win Friends and Influence People. 

Carnegie’s books evolved from the speaking courses he taught. He collected the tales, anecdotes and aphorisms he used in a single volume. He wrote them in part because there were no other books he could rely on. 

Source: “BUSINESS LEADERS & SUCCESS – 55 TOP BUSINESS LEADERS & HOW THEY ACHIEVED GREATNESS” (With an introduction from William J. O’Neil, founder of INVESTOR’S BUSINESS DAILY, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004, pages 35-37. 

Jakarta, 8 June 2014 

Frans Indrapradja

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