Scott Adams, creator of the famous comic strip Dilbert and Dale Carnegie course graduate, describes how to embrace failure and still succeed in his new book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. The below excerpt details his positive experience as a Dale Carnegie course student and his first-hand account witnessing the power of honest praise:
I took one public-speaking class in college. It helped a little. I took two more classes in public speaking during my corporate career. The company paid for both. Those classes helped a little too. Then one day my employer—the local phone company—announced it would pick up the tab for any employee who took the Dale Carnegie class on his or her own time. Anyone who wanted to learn more could attend a presentation in the big lecture room. I was curious and had heard good things about Dale Carnegie courses, so I decided to go and see what it was all about.
The regional director for Dale Carnegie, whose name I inexplicably remember twenty years later—Tony Snow—gave the shortest and most persuasive sales pitch I have ever seen. I’ll condense it further here, but the essence was this: “Instead of describing the Dale Carnegie course myself, I’ve asked two of your fellow employees who took the course to tell you what they think.” He introduced the first guy and walked off. Tony Snow was done selling.
My fellow employee bounded onto the stage as if he had just won the lottery. His energy and enthusiasm were infectious. He had no notes. He prowled the stage and owned it. We, the audience, locked onto him like a tail and we let him wag us. He was funny, expressive, engaging, and spontaneous. It was the best speech by a nonprofessional I had ever seen. I could tell he loved every second onstage, and yet he had the discipline to keep things brief.
When he was done, Tony Snow thanked him and introduced the second speaker. The second guy was completely different in style from the first speaker but every bit as good. He was enjoying himself. He projected. He was clear and concise. He owned us. When he was done, Tony Snow thanked the audience and told us how we could get more information about the course. Tony Snow: magnificent bastard.
I signed up that day.
On day one our instructor explained the Dale Carnegie method he would be employing. Rule one was that no one would ever be criticized or corrected. Only positive reinforcement would be allowed, from the instructor or from the other students. I was immediately skeptical. How was I supposed to learn if I didn’t know what I was doing wrong?
The next rule was that every person would speak to the rest of the class during each session, but we had to volunteer to go next. This rule was more important than you might think, because most of the people in the class were deathly afraid of public speaking. The instructor acknowledged that sometimes the class would need to sit quietly for long periods waiting for the next volunteer. And wait we did.
On day one we sat like frightened squirrels, hoping someone would go first. For some reason, going first seemed extra bad, even though we all knew we would go eventually. The instructor stood in front of the frozen class and waited patiently, not judging, clearly having gone through this before.
Eventually someone volunteered, and then another. Our speaking assignment was something simple. I think we simply had to say something about ourselves. For most people, including me, this was a relatively easy task. But for many in the class it was nearly impossible. One young lady who had been forced by her employer to take the class was so frightened that she literally couldn’t form words. In the cool, air-conditioned room, beads of sweat ran from her forehead down to her chin and dropped onto the carpet. The audience watched in shared pain as she battled her own demons and tried to form words. A few words came out, just barely, and she returned to her seat defeated, humiliated, broken.
Then an interesting thing happened. I rank it as one of the most fascinating things I have ever witnessed. The instructor went to the front and looked at the broken student. The room was dead silent. I’ll always remember his words. He said, “Wow. That was brave.” My brain spun in my head. Twenty-some students had been thinking this woman had just crashed and burned in the most dramatically humiliating way. She had clearly thought the same thing. In four words, the instructor had completely reinterpreted the situation. Every one of us knew the instructor was right. We had just witnessed an extraordinary act of personal bravery, the likes of which one rarely sees. That was the takeaway. Period.
I looked at the student’s face as she reacted to the instructor’s comment. She had been alone in her misery, fighting a losing fight. But somehow the instructor understood what was happening inside her and he respected it. I swear I saw a light come on in her eyes. She looked up from the floor. She had a reprieve. She was still in the fight. The next week she volunteered to speak again. (See how powerful this volunteering thing is? She owned the choice.) She didn’t do well, but she got through it without perspiring or locking up, and the instructor praised her for her progress.
By the end of the course, some weeks later, every member of the class could have sold Tony Snow’s product. Every time we spoke, we got compliments from the instructor and sometimes other students. We got applause. It felt great. Today when I see a stage and a thousand people waiting to hear me speak, a little recording goes off in my head that says today is a good day. I’m the happiest person in the room. The audience only gets to listen, but I get to speak, to feel, to be fully alive. I will absorb their energy and turn it into something good. And when I’m done, there’s a 100 percent chance that people will say good things about me.
There are several things to learn from that story. The most important is the transformative power of praise versus the corrosive impact of criticism. I’ve had a number of occasions since then to test the powers of praise, and I find it an amazing force, especially for adults. Children are accustomed to a continual stream of criticisms and praise, but adults can go weeks without a compliment while enduring criticism both at work and at home. Adults are starved for a kind word. When you understand the power of honest praise (as opposed to bullshitting, flattery, and sucking up), you realize that withholding it borders on immoral. If you see something that impresses you, a decent respect to humanity insists you voice your praise.
“Wow. That was brave,” is the best and cleanest example I’ve seen in which looking at something in a different way changes everything. When the instructor switched our focus from the student’s poor speaking performance to her bravery, everything changed. Positivity is far more than a mental preference. It changes your brain, literally, and it changes the people around you. It’s the nearest thing we have to magic.
Excerpted from How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright (c) Scott Adams, 2013.