In human nature, we are all built to be self-centered creatures. As kids, we get attention and care from our parents and the society, and we get used to being the center of attention of our surroundings. As we grow up, we become less and less so, we learn to be friends with other people, and begin to give other people our attention and care. However, most of us are not doing it enough. This is where Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” comes in handy. I just finished reading it for the first time, and I plan to revisit it every year, because it has improved my people skills by at least an order of magnitude in the last month.
When I was at Princeton meeting a professor last year, I noticed that he had baby pictures on his door, so I asked about his kids. He told me their names, ages, and how it was exhausting taking care of them while being a professor. I did not know what to follow up with, and I didn’t want to let the conversation go off tangent when I was there to talk about research stuff, so there was just silence after he told me about his family. He probably found it awkward as well, then he started talking about his research.
A few chapters of the Dale Carnegie book has taught me how to make people enjoy ones company, some of the take away lessons including: be genuinely interested in other people, be a good listener, encourage others to talk about themselves, make other people feel important. I have always imagined professors to be some kind of scholarly authority who are only interested in academia and nothing else, but I decided to give the new skills I learned a try.
When I got together with a Berkeley professor to talk about research, I knew he was from UK, so I started our conversation with my recent trip to the UK. He immediately asked where in UK did I visit, and then talked on and on about who was buried in Westminster Abby, who was killed by which King and how. This went on for more than 20 minutes, during that time, I would make some comments and ask questions to encourage that he keep going. After the conversation was warmed up, we started to talk about research and it was very natural and pleasant, the nervousness and awkwardness that I usually feel around a professor was no longer there.
Shortly After, I was to meet with a professor at Columbia. I have never met him in person before, but I made sure that I studied his CV to figure out how to start the conversation and show him that I am interested in his research and him as a person. I noticed that he had a background in mechanics, and over the years his interest gradually shifted to biomedicine. So I asked about his early years as a student, what made him shift his interest and how he made the transition. He was very glad to tell me all about it, and he assured me I could do it too if I work hard. At the end of the conversation, he offered me a position in his lab. I was very pleasantly surprised that the conversation with both professors lasted more than an hour and a half, which was much longer than what I usually get when talking to professors. By the time I walked out of their offices, I had not only learned a lot about their research interests, I also learned about their hobbies and personalities, which enabled me to see them more as persons than as authorities, and this will help me be more comfortable around them as I conduct research in their labs.
It is not hard to notice that the techniques that we can learn to win friends have heavy emphasis on how we should treat them. More than half of the summarizing bullet points from the book contain the words “the other person”: let the other person save face, let the other person do a great deal of talking, try honestly see things from the other person’s perspective, etc. Although we may be intrinsically self-centered, we really need to try putting ourselves into others’ shoes. We like it when other people show interest in our lives, so we should learn to reciprocate. Once we can master that, we will be making meaningful friendships and relationships that will last. I am lucky to have encountered this book, and I look forward to make it a daily routine to practice all the lessons from the book.
2 thoughts on “Win Friends and Influence People”
Wow! This is really a coincidence, but I read this book at around the same time you did (assuming you read the book and then blogged immediately).
I enjoyed it tremendously. I hope it proves useful to you in the future!
I’ve also wondered about the right balance to have conversations with professors that aren’t about research. There’s a huge variability in what professors at my school (Berkeley) are like — some are very open about talking about non-research, others like to keep their personal lives separate. My general rule of thumb is to make things as easy as possible, and I try to keep saying things like: “I think this option will work and save you time, I think this alternative will benefit you in another way” etc.
It appears that we did read that book around the same time and blog about it afterwards! And thank you for the link, your article is much more of a book review than mine 😛
As for talking to professors, it definitely depends on the individual. But typically you can get a sense of what they are like within the first few minutes of the conversation, and then you can take more control and gauge the conversation to their liking. The book definitely has taught me to be a better listener.