Before we get too deep into this, let me lay my cards on the table: neither of these books are exactly 100 years old. One is 91 and the other one is a sprightly 81. But sometimes it’s wise to round up.
The newer one, Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends And Influence People, may be the most famous self-help book of all time. Carnegie, a failed actor turned speech instructor, developed his methodology while teaching at the YMCA and spun it into a set of 30 principles that are easy to understand. Illustrated with personal stories from across the business world, it’s a dense read that’s packed with useful ideas.
Slightly lesser-known is The Richest Man In Babylon, George Samuel Clason’s 1926 tome that was originally written in pamphlet form and given away by banks and insurance companies to encourage thriftiness in their customers. In contrast to Carnegie’s tome, the anecdotes Clason uses to deliver his wisdom are fictional stories from the ancient world – most notably the city of Babylon, between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates.
When these guys were writing, the genre of “self-help” wasn’t really a thing. And they both had more specific goals in mind. Carnegie just wanted to help people improve their communication skills. Clason was only interested in money and making it grow. But their advice extends into fields far beyond those narrow niches.
Both of these books preach a gospel that in 2017 talk would be known as “mindfulness.” That term has become remarkably hot in the last few years. Simply explained, it means devoting your present consciousness to the experiences, both internal and external, that are happening to you right now. Not being lost in reverie of the past or fantasies of the future, just attending to what you need to accomplish in the present moment.
This makes sense, right? In today’s distraction-saturated, information-rich environment, being able to narrow your focus to the “right now” can be a powerful lever. Both Clason and Carnegie knew it, too. Their books are about making a better future for yourself, socially and financially, through actions you take in the present day. Even though economies and cultures have radically transformed in the intervening century, everything they prescribe is still valid.
In How To Win Friends, Carnegie shares quotations from some of humanity’s great thinkers, but one in specific stands out – “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” from Hamlet. That nugget of wisdom is embedded in a chapter mandating keeping a smile on your face and being aware of how that smile affects the people around you.
It’s easy to see the basic lesson Carnegie is imparting here. Psychologists call it “mirroring” – the unconscious tendency for people around us to replicate our emotional states. The trick in How To Win Friends is making that unconscious action conscious. Smiling – something that we all do without really thinking about it – is a perfect example of mindfulness in action. The benefit is in being conscious of the public face you display to others.
Clason didn’t really give a damn about how people perceived him, as long as the money was right. But at the core, his message is pretty similar: be aware of your moment-to-moment actions, take personal responsibility for them, and work to make them better.
The Richest Man In Babylon shares a number of tales from a successful man named Arkad, who is questioned about his ever-growing wealth by his less fortunate peers.
“Should I say to myself, ‘For a hundred days as I walk across the bridge into the city, I will pick from the road a pebble and cast it into the stream,’ I would do it. If on the seventh day I passed by without remembering, I would not say to myself, Tomorrow I will cast two pebbles which will do as well.’ Instead, I would retrace my steps and cast the pebble. Nor on the twentieth day would I say to myself, ‘Arkad, this is useless. What does it avail you to cast a pebble every day? Throw in a handful and be done with it.’ No, I would not say that nor do it. When I set a task for myself, I complete it. Therefore, I am careful not to start difficult and impractical tasks, because I love leisure.”
Arkad was no fool (if he even existed, which he didn’t). He knew that the single most effective key to success was awareness of your actions and responsibility for them. While his fellow Babylonians spent their wages freely and bemoaned their fate, Arkad realized that self-awareness and self-control were the keys to unlocking his future.
Humans haven’t changed much in the last hundred years, really. We’re a little taller and our vision is a little worse, but the pathways of our beautiful brains still run along the same patterns of risk and reward. Unfortunately, we haven’t gotten much better at working with said pathways in any meaningful way.
Here’s a good example, and one both Carnegie and Clason would love. Millions of Americans make one big decision at the start of the year. We call it a new year’s resolution – to get in shape, or quit smoking or whatever. But making that one decision is easy. Making the hundreds and thousands of small decisions to stick with it is where the challenge lies. How many people do you know who have already abandoned those promises for self-improvement because something else got in the way? It’s one thing to say “I’m going to be happy,” and another to make a conscious effort to smile each and every day.
World culture over the past century has made a tectonic shift toward consumption and away from production. The ease and convenience of the modern world leave citizens without the need to create their own entertainment. We’re seeing the passivity of the people come to the fore in some strange places, like the inexplicable popularity of watching other people play video games. It’s that passivity that these two books warn against, noting correctly that when you let other people make decisions for you, they probably won’t be to your benefit.
We’re seeing an interesting illustration of this right now in the American political process. Hundreds of thousands of people who thought they only had to make one big decision every four years to shape their future are learning that they’re going to have to actively resist each and every day, with their bodies and with their wallets, to keep this country on the track they think is right.
As you read self-help books, advice columns and other popular forms of personal course correction, you start to see the underlying principles beneath their gimmicks. Writers bring rules and guidelines and precepts to the table, but at the core they’re rooted in a few simple pieces of understanding on how the brain works. Without any formal study of psychology or behavior science, How To Win Friends And Influence People and The Richest Man In Babylon both zeroed in on some of these behaviors and gave people the tools to change them.
We’re going to talk more about Carnegie’s 30 principles and Clason’s Babylon tales on this blog in the weeks ahead, digging deeper into their methodology and applying it to how we live now. There’s a lot to be learned from them, even in this modern world.
Irfan Jafrey is Founder & CEO of Roosterly.com and Co-Founder and JafreyFoundation.org, a non-profit that every year, allows one deserving student to attend college that otherwise wouldn’t be able to.