Chapter 1: Lose the Negative Energy
If you want to gather honey, don’t kick over the beehive.
“This is an action book.”
That’s what Dale Carnegie said of the original How to Win Friends and Influence People
. He wanted readers to take real, practical information and tips from his writing and actually use them in their lives every day. That’s the goal with this book, too. You might look at the title and think it sounds sketchy, like “Isn’t that just manipulating people?” By the end, though, I think you’ll see how Dale Carnegie’s tips ultimately boil down to “how to be a good person and a leader whom others respect.” Because the best way to win friends and influence people? Sincere kindness.
And kindness begins with empathy.
We’re going to talk about empathy a lot
throughout this whole book, because it’s such a fundamental part of figuring out how people work. Learning to understand how others feel and putting yourself in their position will be hugely helpful to you when it comes to making friends, becoming a leader, and having great relationships with all the people in your life. Let’s start off with a situation from your own point of view, first.
Imagine this: You wake up one morning trapped inside a dystopian novel where every move you make—from the clothes you pick out to the social media you use to the questions you answer in class—gets recorded on a giant scoreboard for everyone to see. You realize that your score is changing how people see and treat you (just like theirs is changing your view of them), but you can’t quite figure out which choices are increasing your tally and which are hurting you. It feels like your place in life is totally random, like your head is going to explode from the effort of trying to figure it all out. What are you doing wrong?
Spoiler alert: This dystopian novel is called high school. But you knew that already, right? Add to that the pressure to succeed, to have your whole life after senior year figured out by age fourteen, and it’s enough to make anyone want to sink into an endless black hole of YouTube and Netflix.
You have more control than you might think, though. It all starts with how you treat other people. This goes way beyond whether you bully people or not, but it’s as good a place as any to start, so here we go.
Recent studies show that 20 percent of students ages twelve to eighteen have been bullied, and 15 percent of those were bullied online or by text. Another study found that 30 percent of young people admitted to bullying others, and 70 percent had seen bullying happen at school.I
You probably aren’t surprised by those numbers, and neither were the girls we interviewed for this book—except to say they would have thought the number was higher. Many of them shared their own experiences, including Julie, age fourteen:
There was a girl in my class named Marie that everyone made fun of. She’s a total perfectionist and always used the full hour to take a test that the rest of the class finished in ten minutes. She’s obsessed with ballet and all she ever wanted to talk about was her dance classes. Also, it was kind of the way she looked. I tried to be nice to her, but I also participated in teasing her. She laughed at herself and didn’t let people know that she was hurt by what they said about her, but her mom told my mom that she cried every day after school. When my mom confronted me about it, I felt terrible. I told her that I tried sticking up for Marie, but it was hard. You want people to like you and I didn’t want to become a target by sticking up for her. I know how horrible that is. I’ve been teased before, too.
Honestly, no judgment for Julie here; most of us have been in a position where standing up for someone or something would put us at risk, and it’s not easy. But look closely at her words: She isn’t really putting herself in Marie’s shoes, regardless of her own past experiences. If she were truly empathizing with Marie, she wouldn’t be able not
to stick up for her, right? Instead, Julie is responding to her mom’s criticism, which was probably painful and made her feel like she needed to defend herself. Dale Carnegie once said, “Criticism is futile. It puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself.” He felt so
strongly about criticism that he always taught this principle first: Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.
What’s your first reaction when you’re on the receiving end of these three Cs? Do you instantly take the criticism to heart and say, “Hmm, you’re right, thank you for telling me”? Or do you feel cornered, hurt, or angry? Criticizing, condemning, and complaining are like building a giant brick wall between you and the other person. It’s hard for anything else to get through once it’s there, because you feel like you need to protect yourself, to block out any future hurt.
Julie’s example is an obvious one. She’s got all three Cs going here: criticizing Marie, condemning her for her looks and personality, and complaining that she herself can’t do anything to help. It’s tempting to climb on a moral high horse and think, “I would never act like that.” Everyone does, though, at least occasionally, if we’re honest with ourselves. And judging Julie in this situation is a form of criticism and condemnation, too. Dale Carnegie believed that “any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain—it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.” No one wants to see themselves as a bully, or someone too cowardly to go against the crowd. You don’t have to make the same mistake yourself. By finding ways to be less critical of others, anyone can learn how to deal with tough situations in a way that will build others up instead of tear them down.
GIVING UP JUDGMENT
In high school it’s an everyday occurrence to be present when someone is being made fun of or gossiped about, and there’s probably not a single person who isn’t guilty of it themselves.
—Lily, Rhode Island
It’s one thing to know we should be empathetic, but it’s another to actually be
empathetic. There’s nothing revolutionary here: People have been telling you all your life to “do unto others as you would have done to you,” right? So why is it so hard to stop and do what we know is the right thing? The truth is that the bullying we see everywhere at school and even at work would end tomorrow if every single person put forth a real, honest effort to see things from another person’s perspective.
This is not to say that you should give up all the opinions, ideas, and perspectives that make you who you are, or never critique the people and systems that perpetuate injustice. There’s a big difference between judgments or stereotypes and constructive criticism that comes from a place of genuine goodwill toward another person. Confused? Look at it this way: Even if some truth exists in your complaints about people, snapping at them over their faults—or worse, humiliating them—won’t get you very far when it comes to actually getting them to change. Dale Carnegie took the example of the world-famous psychologist B. F. Skinner: “He proved through his experiments 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.… Later studies have shown that the same applies to humans. By criticizing, we do not make lasting changes and often incur resentment.” What do you think—sounds legit? Before you answer, take this quick quiz to see if you know the difference between constructive and destructive criticism.
Your best friend bombs on a test, and you know they didn’t study at all. You:
- a) Assure them they’ll do better next time and offer to study together.
- b) Point out that they didn’t study, so at least they know it wasn’t their best effort.
- c) Tell them you’re shocked that staying up until three a.m. watching videos on their phone didn’t magically teach them algebra.
Your friend decides to start posting their artwork online and it’s… rough. You:
- a) Like the post and encourage their newfound hobby.
- b) Tell them you look forward to seeing them improve.
- c) Tell them their Avengers fan art looks like a kid’s crayon drawing of a family.
Your tone-deaf sister plans to audition for the high school musical. You:
- a) Invite your musically gifted friend over to give her some quick voice coaching.
- b) Suggest she wait and audition for next semester’s (nonmusical) play.
- c) Ask her when Les Misérables became a comedy.
Your parents are binge-watching a show you find excruciatingly terrible. You:
- a) Leave them to enjoy it and find something else to do.
- b) Suggest they watch a different show you think is way better.
- c) Point out all the bad acting and cheesy special effects. They’re hogging the TV and wasting it on garbage.
There are two truths about criticism: Everyone’s a critic (at least occasionally) and no one likes a critic (even occasionally). Sometimes the comments you intend as helpful observations will come across as judgment. If you don’t choose your words carefully, even constructive criticism can be like a wrecking ball to a friendship. So, if people routinely flinch when you open your mouth to speak—and you answered b
to any of the above—it may be time to check yourself. Yeah, some of the b
answers don’t seem that bad, but even a subtle cut is still a cut, and each one undermines your relationship with a person.
A good rule of thumb to follow before you say something harsh: Consider how you would feel if someone said the same thing to you. And don’t lie to yourself here, saying you’d be grateful for the feedback, no matter how harsh—really
try to put yourself in that person’s place, in that moment. That’s not to say you can never suggest how others might do things better. It’s just that when you do, you should make sure your words are received in the generous spirit you intended for them. But before you open your mouth, make sure your intentions really are generous. Ask yourself:
- Is the thing I’m about to criticize something that the person can or would want to change? Hint: This pretty much rules out comments on the way a person looks, talks, walks, laughs, speaks, or dresses—anything to do with their basic identity. Before you cross into that territory, check your motive. Why are you saying it? Your words will likely have zero benefit to either you or your target, will be needlessly hurtful, and may cost you a friend or earn you a lasting enemy.
- Have I considered the matter through the other person’s worldview (impacted by their race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.) and checked my own privilege?
- Could my words possibly keep the person from doing something dangerous or negative?
- Do I have this person’s best interests at heart?
If the answer to any of the above is no, then you should probably keep your comments to yourself—at least until you can offer them in a more productive way.
And remember, all of this applies in texts, DMs, and on social media, too. If anything, those comments can feel even worse because they’re just there
, forever, every time you open the text thread. Even worse, on social media, they’re out there for others to see, too, which adds a whole other layer of awful feeling on top of the original hurt. Take an extra beat in text-based and online communication, where tone and humor can be so hard to read and where our brains go into overdrive trying to interpret meaning. Be as clear as possible to save others that moment of doubt.
But what about when you’re
the one being criticized, condemned, or complained about? Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten you.
USE NEGATIVE ENERGY AS ROCKET FUEL
It’s hardest to resist the three Cs when you’re faced with other people’s negativity. You already know this, of course, because you’ve lived it. People criticize you. They unfairly condemn you for things you may or may not have thought, said, or done. They complain about you, and to
you, over all kinds of things. As you go through life, I guarantee you’ll encounter people who seem bent on dragging you down. You can’t control what others say and do, but you can
decide how you will respond. Sure, everyone gets angry. People do and say insensitive things all the time. Negativity doesn’t just hurt the person on the receiving end, though.
One time a girl in my high school criticized me on what I was wearing. She said that I looked ugly in it. I reacted by telling her to shut up and go away. I felt horrible, ugly, hurt, and angry all at once. I tried to hold in all my emotions, and all the hurt turned to hate. I hated her.
—Beth, 17, Pennsylvania
Awful, right? The person who said that to Beth was cruel, but Beth ended up feeling twice as bad because of how she reacted. That’s not to victim blame or anything—that other girl was totally in the wrong. You can decide whether you’ll let others’ hurtful words destroy your mood and fester inside you, though, causing you to take your pain and anger out on everyone around you. Or, you can shake it off, put your best foot forward, and prove your critics wrong.
Atoosa Rubenstein, former editor in chief of Seventeen
, was only twenty-six when she was appointed to her first editor in chief position at CosmoGirl
. Some people were jealous of her success, especially older staff members. To help Atoosa deal with this response, the editor of Cosmopolitan
suggested she’d gain some favor by reaching out to those employees. Rubenstein says: “I sent an email to two people (one of whom is now the editor in chief of another magazine) saying, ‘You have such great experience, I respect you so much. I would love to hear if you have any recommendations for who would be good to work on my team.’ Well, one of the women meant to reply to the other, but instead she replied to me and wrote something like, ‘Oh look, the little fashion girl needs a grammarian.’
“Now, the truth is I really see the good in people, so I read it, but it took me a minute to see what she meant. Once I did, I was really hurt. A minute later she came barreling down the hall and said, ‘I sent you an email by accident. You don’t have to read it. Just delete it.’ She was too late, of course, but I didn’t say a word about it then and I haven’t said anything about it since—not out of fear, but because I genuinely believe in always putting out a good vibe. I took that negativity she threw in my direction and used it as rocket fuel.”
That rocket fuel, says Rubenstein, helped her make CosmoGirl
one of the most popular teen magazines on the market. The more people criticized her or questioned her abilities, she explained, the more determined she was to prove her critics wrong by making her magazine even better.
You have the same options when you’re faced with criticism, condemnation, or complaining—whether it’s justified or not. You can counter it by snapping back with more negativity, which probably won’t improve either your relationship with the person or the problem at hand, or you can pause before responding, to consider how you can prove the person wrong by completely crushing your goals.
There are times, though, where the healthiest thing to do might be to cut ties with a toxic person. Is there someone in your life who you feel like is always cutting you down with negative comments? Maybe you have a friendship that’s turned into constant criticism, or you’re dating someone who always seems to feel the need to bring you down so they feel superior. You don’t have to put up with that. It’s perfectly okay to call out that kind of behavior—it’s not
criticizing if you’re sincerely addressing something that hurts you. If you feel safe doing so, have a real, straightforward conversation where you tell the other person exactly what behavior of theirs hurts you, and ask them to stop.
One in three teens will be in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, and that includes behavior like this. Be especially wary if someone you’re dating is always criticizing your friends to isolate you from them, lowering your self-esteem with hurtful words, embarrassing you in front of others/online, or trying to control you. This kind of behavior can show up in close friendships, too. Just know that you never have to tolerate it, it’s not your fault, and there are people who want to help you. Reach out to a friend, a trusted adult, or a hotline, and get yourself the loving treatment you deserve. A healthy relationship should be one in which you both support each other, feel respected, and can speak openly and honestly without fear. It doesn’t mean things are always perfect and shiny, but it means you can be yourself and be liked for who you are.
CHECK IN WITH YOURSELF
- In the past six months, has anyone stopped speaking to you, even temporarily, due to something you said?
- Have you ever embarrassed someone at school or in another social setting?
- Would you describe the person you’re dating, your friends, your family members, or teammates as overly sensitive?
If you answered yes to any or all of the above, you may be pushing people away with the three Cs. On a piece of paper, jot down one or two specific comments you made recently that seemed to alienate, anger, or offend someone. Why did you say those things? How did the situation make you feel? How would the situation have changed if you thought about the other person’s perspective first?
Next, think of a time in the last six months when someone in your life has unfairly criticized, condemned, or complained about you. What did they say? How did you react? Did you snap back and hurt them in return, or did you use their negative energy for rocket fuel? Write down your answers along with an alternative way you could have handled the situation. Is there anyone in your life so toxic you might be better off without them? Consider carefully and know that you have options.
THE WHOLE POINT
Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. Dale Carnegie was passionate about teaching people this first principle, and he claimed the most important thing you could take away from a book like this is “an increased tendency to think always in terms of other people’s point of view and see things from their angle.” If you are truly empathetic toward other people, you won’t feel the need to judge them or offer empty criticism, and you’ll keep from alienating people you could learn from, team up with, or even befriend. By watching out for the three Cs in life, you can become the kind of person other people want to be around: a kinder and more supportive friend, family member, partner, and teammate, and a leader who can make things happen in the world. I