Shaping Our Own Reality


By Veronica Chavez

Photo courtesy of Christian Schnettelker.

From 1900-1914, close to 10,000 immigrants passed through Ellis Island. These newcomers entered the United States with the sharp hunger for a better life.

They sought an environment that offered social and financial mobility, opportunities to essentially realize the American Dream. The idea that individuals could potentially come to a country–with “just two nickels in their pocket” as the popular hyperbolic idea goes–and make something of themselves is part of the popular legacy of the US. Just take a look at the commercial success of The Wolf of Wall Street and you’ll see that the passion that drives such a quest is still a cherished American pipe dream.

Also prevalent in America is the idea that somewhere out there in the vastness of uncertainty and chance exists a formula for success, a golden ratio, a step-by-step tutorial that could lead a person from any walk of life towards the right path.

Some might argue that Dale Carnegie succeeded in producing such a guide with his best-selling book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. First published in 1936, the book–spawned from Carnegie’s decades of experience in delivering sales and public speaking seminars–promises to enrich readers’ lives by rattling the very foundations of our perception when it comes to human interaction.

As written in the introduction, Carnegie’s book aims to, among other goals, “get you out of a mental rut and give you new thoughts, new visions, and new ambitions; enable you to make friends quickly, and help you to win people to your way of thinking.”

The book’s first edition also included business objectives, such as emphasizing how readers could win new clients and increase earning power. As time passed however, the book eventually became primarily known as a social interaction guide, with sections titled “Fundamental techniques in handling people,” and “Six ways to make people like you.”

Can the psychology of friendship truly be condensed to six simple notions, however?

I believe (to a degree) the answer is yes. I say this because Carnegie, in a way, is simply urging readers to be good people.

His advice is almost grandmother-like. Become genuinely interested in other people. Smile. Be a good listener. These are directions taught to kids in elementary school. At the same time though, Carnegie reminds us of social interaction rules that too often slip our minds.

“Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language,” Carnegie writes.

It’s common for us to take offense when others ask for our name after we’ve already told it to them. We’ve also probably felt the mild panic when we are in the inverse position, having forgotten the name of someone we only met a brief 20 minutes before. Still, it’s too often that individuals forget to make it a point to mentally note this information.

Because I’ve personally witnessed the powers of personalizing a conversation, along with the type of tool a name can be when it comes to garnering attention, focus, and persuasion, I feel almost certain that a person could potentially begin a decent number of friendships with this tactic alone. Most importantly, this maneuver can begin relationships with powerful people who can lead us down successful paths–an idea career coaches have long touted.

Not all of Carnegie’s tips are as simple though. Certain critics even find some of his advisories to be manipulative and disingenuous.

For example, in the section titled “Fundamental Techniques in Handling People” Carnegie advises readers to not criticize, condemn, or complain about other individuals. At a basic level he is advising people to follow the age-old saying “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

But how far do we take his advice? Are we expected to just become doormats to people who might actually deserve a bit of constructive criticism? It’s sections like these that remind readers–at least me–that Carnegie’s advice came from decades of sales seminars.

While it’s smart to keep things light and amicable with prospective clients, in my opinion, a friendship cannot be considered real without the honest exchange of thoughts–even if some of those thoughts are criticisms.

If you seek assistance but Carnegie’s tips are not to your liking, there are thousands of other self-help gurus out there to follow. After all, the self-improvement niche represents a $10 billion per year industry in the United States alone.

One of the contemporary leading personas in this niche is Tony Robbins. Robbins, a lifestyle coach, hosts seminars around the world hoping to enlighten others with his understanding of human nature, an outlook he acquired through extensive reading of psychological literature.

Robbins believes that humans are driven in life by several fundamental needs: certainty/comfort, variety, significance, connection/love, and contribution. According to Robbins, your actions are based on which of these needs you place as priority. Similarly, he argues that you are able to have better and more productive social interactions with friends, family members, and clients if you identify which human needs they hold closest to their hearts and base your influence around these needs.

Much like Carnegie’s counseling, many of Robbins’ advisories are so simply put and straightforward that followers get the notion that they knew these ideas before. So, how do we explain the success of these self-help experts?

Lucas Gallardo, a “Platinum Partnership member” of Tony Robbins’ seminars compares the help to climbing over a mountain. Gallardo shares that, “there are some lessons [taught at the seminar] that people could definitely learn through life. But sometimes it’s easier to get to the other side of the mountain if you had a map than if you didn’t, and Robbins takes the teachings of hundreds of philosophers and then crafts a map of sorts for people.”

While Robbins does present an intriguing interpretation of humans’ needs, some of his other philosophies may simplify the struggle of some individuals’ lives too deeply.

Robbins, a man that started out in poverty himself, believes that every individual’s unique circumstances in life provide him with some sort of advantage. For example, a man with a difficult life develops a thick skin and a hunger to get out of his less than desirable situation. He perhaps exhibits more drive than someone who is privileged from the start.

Since attending Robbins’ conferences, Gallardo attributes his success in his two most recent jobs completely to the persona’s refreshing guidance. At the same time Gallardo does not advise any individual to go and agree with Robbins’ advice blindly, even if that advice is under the umbrella of a successful enterprise.

“Going to just one of these seminars or reading a self-help book isn’t going to change your life forever,” Gallardo says, “but it will give you new things to think about so that you can start crafting your own path.”

As Tony Robbins advises, life is a constant process of taking in the aspects that benefit you and leaving those that don’t. To me, this line of thought applies to self-help as well.