The local real estate agent has always seemed a decent sort when I’ve talked to him. However, he has one annoying habit: he persists in filling my mail box with notepads and calendars that I will never use, because I don’t think the little things in my life should be converted into advertising. Today, he left a flier that included a quote that contained all the elements that I detest in Dale Carnegie and similar business gurus.
The quote was: “Did you ever see an unhappy horse? Did you ever see a bird that had the blues? One reason why birds and horses are not unhappy is because they are not trying to impress other birds and horses.”
Like much of what Carnegie had to say, the banality alone is enough to drive me screaming down the hall, banging my head against the walls in the hopes of driving the quote from my mind (perhaps I exaggerate). But such a quote passes for wisdom because it is short and makes a general statement, the way that aphorisms are expected to do. I suppose you could say that the quote is a triumph of style over substance; people sense the aphorism-like structure, then assume the profundity they expect, even though it isn’t there.
However, what really gets up my nostril about the quote (to use a wonderful Scots or Aussie expression I picked up from a live Eric Bogle album) is how sweepingly and utterly wrong it is on every possible level.
For the record, I have lived with four parrots for over two decades and I have seen my share of horses, considering that I’m a city-dweller. So I am in a position to confound Carnegie by saying that, yes, I have seen unhappy birds and horses. Many times.
I have also seen them trying to impress potential mates, sexual rivals, and the humans in their lives. They are social animals, and all social animals that I am aware of learn to do these things early. Many continue the attempts until their last moments.
Anybody who can assert that birds and horses are not unhappy and never try to impress simply hasn’t been paying attention. Both have enough sense of self that they have no trouble being unhappy (most often because they are being mistreated by humans) or worrying what others think of them. Moreover,they are in no way shy about revealing their feelings. It speaks volumes – if not flashdrives full of ASCII text – that Carnegie never noticed, and, this blindness alone disqualifies him from making any general statements about existence. I would sooner trust someone who had never noticed gravity, or was unable to judge an oncoming car’s speed well enough to cross the road safely.
Carnegie further reveals the shallowness of his own perceptions (or perhaps how sheltered a life he lived) in his implication that all unhappiness stems from the wish to impress. Hunger, poverty, violence, envy, unrequited love – you can’t begin to list all the causes of unhappiness without sounding banal yourself. But the point is: how could he have missed the falseness in what he said? Did he simply not care about the truth of what he said, so long as it sounded clever? Or was he so obsessed himself with impressing others that he was trying to elevate his own personality to the status of a universal truth? Either way, he reveals himself as an untrustworthy guide to any part of life, and unfit to dispense advice of any kind.
Personally, I work too hard to evolve a mental map of the complexities around me to accept over-siimplistic and inaccurate observations simply because their structure leads me to expect wisdom. Yet that describes every line of Carnegie that I have ever read. Next to him, Ayn Rand is a towering genius of literature; her prose may be tortured, and her world view is that of a failure dreaming of the esteem they would like to believe is their due, but at least her thoughts have some complexity and a relation – however distant – to observable truth. By contrast, Carnegie has only a superficial glibness that cannot hide his inability to say anything that is accurate, let alone profound. It says a lot about the business world (none of it good) that such a shallow thinker continues to be read and admired.