Not since the first English settlers stepped off the Mayflower, it seems, have so many people been trying so hard to improve themselves and their businesses.
In the '80s, people have been dressing for success, power-lunching, managing in one minute, searching for excellence and trooping into seminars to learn how to sell better, lead more effectively and become one with the universe.
Despite such an expanding menu of opportunities for self-enhancement, hundreds of Orange County business people each year attend classes that ignore the trendy topics and concentrate on the theories of a fellow who taught courses in public speaking 74 years ago--Dale Carnegie.
Worldwide, Dale Carnegie courses drew a record number of students last year, and this year looks like another record setter, said Robert King, who offers Dale Carnegie courses in Orange County.
About 114,000 students around the world took Carnegie courses last year, up from 103,000 the year before, he said. About 1,000 of the students last year enrolled at King's Anaheim center.
"No doubt about it, self-improvement is a trend," said King, whose center draws students from throughout Orange and Riverside counties.
And what's new in the Dale Carnegie courses?
Not much. The basic principles remain largely unchanged from the days when Carnegie began teaching in New York in 1912.
"Effective Speaking and Human Relations," the basic Dale Carnegie course, stresses skill development in communications, leadership, persuasion and attitude control, abilities that can be utilized in business and social situations, Carnegie teachers say.
Enthusiasm and confidence are at the core of these and other Dale Carnegie courses, offered in hundreds of cities around the world. The relentlessly upbeat philosophy has been translated into 22 languages.
All this is presented in an atmosphere that is "overwhelmingly positive," a hallmark of the Carnegie philosophy. So strong is the positive outlook theme that Carnegie grads confronted with a catastrophic flood probably would get most of their excitement from the challenge of quickly building a top-quality boat.
But Carnegie courses are not Pollyanna development classes. "Nothing is more dangerous than an enthusiastic incompetent," said King, outlining a "success triangle" whose sides are labeled "skills, attitudes and knowledge."
The Carnegie schools try to infuse grads with a set of interpersonal skills that expand the "attitude" side of the triangle and provide the tools for developing the other two sides.
"It becomes a positive cycle of self-development," said Chuck Shepard, one of the Dale Carnegie teachers in Anaheim.
Carnegie died in 1955 and the privately held Dale Carnegie & Associates Inc., based in Garden City, N.Y., is run by Carnegie's son-in-law, J. Oliver Crom.
Some truly motivated grads still make their way to the small Dale Carnegie museum at the company's distribution center in nearby Hauppauge. There, they can check Carnegie's grade-school report card and see a page from the original manuscript of "How to Win Friends and Influence People."
From that original manuscript have come several revisions and translations published in 36 languages. At last count, about 15 million copies have been sold. In the book--still one of the all-tome best sellers--each of Carnegie's basic principles (such as, "Make the other person feel important") are reinforced with homespun tales ranging from anecdotes about Gen. Robert E. Lee to a success story told by a TWA flight attendant.
The book doesn't speculate as to what might happen when two Carnegie grads meet, because one of the book's principles is "let the other person do a great deal of the talking."
But Carnegie's precepts--sage advice such as smile, remember names, be a good listener and admit mistakes--have survived all of the new managerial, leadership and self-improvement theories of the last decade.
And while they don't acknowledge his influence, many human relations-type courses offered today appear to borrow substantially from Carnegie's teachings. For example, seminars and workshops offered recently by various groups in Orange County promise to help participants improve relationships, speak more effectively, be more persuasive and listen better--all skills recognized by Carnegie decades ago as being crucial to business success.
"Human nature hasn't changed that much in 75 years," King said.
Patty Tutor, a senior systems analyst at Allergan Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Irvine, apparently agreed. Tutor's company paid the $695 cost of the 14-week, 44-student course. Employers pay the fees for about 55% of all Carnegie students.
A 1986 Dale Carnegie graduate, Tutor said she was "really happy" with the basic course. Public speaking skills, remembering and using people's names, giving compliments, controlling worry and leading a meeting were among the skills that Tutor said she learned from the course and has applied at her job.
Another Carnegie graduate has confessed that he was "an introvert, a shrinking violet," before he took the basic course. These days, no one accuses Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca of being shy.
Several years ago, when Los Angeles-based Western Airlines was in deep financial trouble, the carrier decided to provide Carnegie training for all ticket agents. Later, when the carrier had regained its fiscal footing, company officials attributed at least a part of its turnaround to the enthusiasm and interpersonal skills the agents had learned at the course. In all, about 2,000 employees at Western, which recently merged with Delta Air Lines, took Dale Carnegie courses.
Because they end up telling so many stories about their lives, Carnegie grads often develop comradeships that endure beyond graduation day.
Although he was critical of the Dale Carnegie course's relentless avoidance of "the three Cs--criticizing, condemning and complaining--Ralph Keyes, author of "Is There Life After High School," wrote later in an article in Human Behavior magazine that he missed both the classes and his classmates.
Some grads apparently need more help than Carnegie can provide, however.
In writing to his instructor to thank him for the guidance he provided in the course, one recent Orange County graduate misspelled the teacher's name and half a dozen other words in the brief letter.