Universal Ethics > Thought of the Month > February 2020

Do This and You will be Welcome Anywhere... Become genuinely interested in other people.
- Dale Carnegie, from How to Win Friends and Influence People

That quote is from the title of a chapter in Dale Carnegie's famous book, published in 1936, and from the conclusion of the chapter. Here's a further excerpt from that chapter:

"You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than in two years by trying to get other people interested in you."

"Yet I know and you know people who blunder through life trying to wigwag other people into becoming interested in them."

"Of course, it doesn't work. People are not interested in you. They are not interested in me. They are interested in themselves--morning, noon, and after dinner..."

"If we merely try to impress people and get people interested in us, we will never have many true, sincere friends. Friends, real friends, are not made this way."

  • Dale Carnegie, from How to Win Friends and Influence People, published 1936 (part 2, chapter 1)

This is good advice anytime, but in this month of February, 2020 in which Valentine's Day is celebrated, friendship and love are things that people may particularly have on their minds. Single adults may wonder how to develop friendships that may lead to love. Married adults may wonder how much their partner really loves them, or what they could do feel more loved.

As this month approached, I was trying to come up with a "thought for the month" that would be suitable for Valentine's day. I tried writing a few ideas, but I wasn't satisfied, and before I knew it Valentine's day had passed. Of course on that day my wife and I did the usual things that are traditions for that day, such as giving chocolate hearts to each other and our kids. But still I had no advice to offer on the fundamental question that people worry about, of how they truly know if they are loved! It is a question that many people feel is crucial to their sense of self-worth and happiness.

It seemed that apparently I know nothing about love. And then I realized that I was making the same mistake that Dale Carnegie described. I was concerned primarily about myself and my own happiness, and trying to judge it as if it were a meter to be constantly monitored.

Instead it would serve me better to be more concerned about how other people feel. This is only going to happen by taking interest in other people, starting with one's own family and then beyond.

Imagine what the world would be like if everyone did that! What if each person, instead of putting 100% of his interest in himself (or herself), split it to put 50% of interest in himself and 50% to others around him? And what if, upon discovering the hopes and desires and hobbies of others, one was to take action to help them in their goals and express admiration of their accomplishments?

This would still leave plenty of self-interest for the person to take care of himself. A person does in fact need to take care of himself, to have adequate food, exercise, etc.; otherwise he won't have the ability to help others.

Some people have more "spare capacity" than others, and at some parts of their lives they may do more receiving than giving. What is more important is their willingness to help if they could; it's that willingness that makes the expanding wave of generosity spread.

I recently spent time contemplating the "utility theory" of ethics and attempting to calculate an "overall satisfaction score" for a society. Do you realize that it is extremely difficult to do a calculation of that sort? Not only do people vary in what gives each of them satisfaction (a significant complication), but also one needs to consider animals, the ecology, and future generations. It's basically a problem of trying to do a calculation with infinite amounts! Moreover, one's own contribution to such a score is typically infinitesimal!

But what one can do, is to make a difference to one person near them, right now or very soon. If you can't judge how much satisfaction an action gives to another, you can at least judge if it makes their situation better or worse. It is the same strategy that organizations use for gradual, incremental change, known as "continuous improvement."

Moreover, in order to judge what you could do that another person might appreciate, you need to take an interest in them. That was Dale Carnegie's advice. It is pretty evident from his book that is something he took seriously; it is filled with anecdotes that he has gathered from a wide variety of people.

How does one "take interest?" The most obvious way is to hold conversations with people whenever the opportunity arises, in which you inquire about things that they like to talk about.

If you are genuinely interested in other people, you will remember the things you discover. Remembering is not always easy. When people are interested in learning music, arts, or other skills, they typically keep notes. So if you are interested in other people, it is also a good idea to keep a diary or personal notes of some sort. The effort to do that demonstrates that it matters to you. But be aware that must be of genuine interest and not just an exercise in fact gathering; otherwise it would come across to the others as shallow and manipulative.

Coming back to the matter of "Valentine's day", I still have no fantastic advice to offer today for finding or increasing love. But showing interest in other people must surely be a step in the right direction.

Even if you think you know someone well, taking an interest is helpful. In my case, my wife and I grew up in different nations, so there will be things about her childhood that I will never fully know and vice versa. Couples often get complacent about taking interest in each other, assuming they know, but they don't fully know each other, and we are no more immune to that than anybody else.

Each of us has a limited lifespan. As youth we don't think much about it, but as adults the end of that lifespan begins to become a matter of more concern. What will we have achieved to feel proud of as we near the end? Now that my life has a few decades past, I begin to think of that and realize that self-centered thinking is not a mode that will give much satisfaction. The only thing that lives past a person's own life, are the interest and caring that he has shown to others, that they may benefit from and carry forward with them. It is those little infinitesimal things that one does for others repeatedly that produce the most durable satisfaction.

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