Ted Lasso, Meet Your Father

Last week Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal had this to say about “Ted Lasso,” an AppleTV comedy he resisted, as did I, until well after its first season was complete:

“Ted Lasso” turns out to be the ideal television distraction for these times, almost a salve, simply for the fact that it radiates a rare commodity in a deeply toxic moment: Optimism.

The show is about a second-tier American college football coach, played by mustachioed “Saturday Night Live” alum Jason Sudeikis, who is hired to run a fictional Premier League football club, AFC Richmond, and set up to fail by the team’s owner.

I avoided the show, like Gay, in expectation of a lot of lame jokes on the differences between football and football, and about tea and bangers and boots. But I gave it a shot over the holidays and I, too, was seduced, from the first episode.

All the lame jokes are there. Every cross-the-pond punchline ever written, before episode four. The optimism is also there, a sunniness jarring amid a pandemic and political and cultural turmoil. What’s missing is credit to that optimism’s source, which is also enjoying a moment right now.

When it comes to radiating optimism, there is nothing like Dale Carnegie’s century-old self-help classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People, which, simultaneously with the applause for Ted Lasso, has climbed back into the Amazon non-fiction top twenty.

I’ve yet to see it mentioned by any of the show’s writers but the influence of Carnegie’s classic on Ted Lasso is unmistakable. The character is drunk on its spirit. It’s as though the writers have the book open in front of them at script meetings.

Born in Missouri in 1888, Dale Carnegie (above) was a farm boy turned lard salesman turned self-help guru, one of America’s first (at least of the secular variety), and probably it’s all-time greatest. He wrote several books, each of them interesting in its own way, but nothing quite like How to Win Friends, which has never been out of print since it was published in 1936. It has sold at least 30 million copies. It placed #19 on Time’s list of the 100 most influential books. It sits at seventh in the Library of Congress’s survey of most influential books in American history, and eighth on the New York Public Library’s all-time highest check-out ranking.

Warren Buffett took the Dale Carnegie Institute’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” course at age 20 and $85-billion later still has the certificate hanging on his office wall in place of his master’s degree from Columbia.

The book is a phenom. Carnegie’s homespun advice, simple to state and difficult to follow (at least in my experience), runs like this:

  • Don’t criticize, or complain, or dwell on negatives.

  • Smile. Maintain eye contact. Show an honest appreciation of other people, and a genuine interest in them. Remember their names, because people love to hear their own names.

  • Encourage people to talk about themselves, and be a good listener. Try to see things through their eyes, and be quick with praise and encouragement.

  • Acknowledge your own mistakes, emphatically and quickly. Avoid fights and confrontation. Ask questions rather than make demands. Don’t worry about your own importance; try to make others feel important.

  • Remember, a great man shows his greatness by the way he treats little men.

From the first glimpse of Lasso in the show’s pilot, he is smiling. Smiling and dancing with his players, full of joy. Told by a stranger on the plane to London that he’s bound to fail, he smiles and says, “Yup, I’ve heard that before.”

He lands at Heathrow airport, finds the chauffeur holding a “Lasso” card, smiles, locks eyes, asks his name, and shakes hands. He then insists on carrying his own bags and, after Ollie the driver has shown him the sites, thanks him for his consideration.

Arriving at his new stadium, Coach Lasso is run off the turf by the equipment manager who mistakes him for an interloper. Lasso calls this most junior of employees “sir,” apologizes for being on the grass, and asks his name. “No one ever asks me my name,” says the young man who, asked again, coughs up “Nathan.”

“Oh I love that name,” says Lasso, before teasing, “hey, love your hotdogs.”

Nate’s never heard of Nathan’s Hotdogs

“I love this kid,” says Lasso, taking Nate (below) into his inner circle.

The coach is aware he is a walking self-help book, and the writers occasionally let him take the piss, as his new friends’ say. The team’s owner, Rebecca, asks Ted if he believes in ghosts: “Uh-hmmm, I do. But more importantly, I think they need to believe in themselves.”

On goes Lasso, asking people their opinions and experiences, expressing concern for their personal welfare, picking them up when they’re down, treating them with respect even after they’ve insulted him.

Whatever is dished out—scowls from players or abuse from fans—Lasso accepts with humility and equanimity, refusing to reciprocate, or betray disappointment, or complain. He’s even relentlessly kind while speaking on the phone with his estranged wife.

If Ted Lasso has a stock phrase, it’s “I appreciate that.” Or, “I appreciate you.” People, said Carnegie, want nothing more than to be appreciated, and Lasso appreciates them all. The buskers on the street, the kids playing football in the park, the talents of the most assholic players on his roster. There are no cracks in his veneer, because it’s not a veneer. It’s all genuine, as Carnegie insisted it be.

How to Win Friends and Influence People has always had detractors. They note that Charles Manson found the book useful. Donald Trump, too. The novelist Sinclair Lewis (not smiling, below) famously called it a manual for con artists, teaching them “how to smile and bob and pretend to be interested in people’s hobbies precisely so that you may screw things out of them.” More mildly, a New Yorker piece two years ago said Carnegie’s “great epiphany is that when you are nice to people they are more likely to be nice back. My kindergarten teacher had covered similar ground.”

It’s true that Carnegie can be used disingenuously, and that it’s not especially original or profound. That makes it easy to be cynical about. Yet it endures.

Its appeal comes as much from its sincerity as its optimism. Carnegie’s heart was in his work. He was absolutely convinced that his methods would bring people together for their mutual happiness and success, and millions upon millions have found him absolutely convincing on that point. Including Eminem.

As Gay notes, “Ted Lasso,” landing amid prevailing gloom, has somehow managed to shine through. That was exactly the point of How to Win Friends and Influence People.Carnegie wrote it in the depths of the Great Depression, with unemployment hovering around 17%. It was intended to encourage a battered people to keep their chins up, smile, and give of themselves until things turned around.

“Dale Carnegie sells people what most of them desperately need,” said Saturday Evening Post in 1937. “He sells them hope.”

That’s still true today, only now he is joined in the effort by his unmistakeable progeny, Ted Lasso.

Why Amazon won’t rule forever

We’ve talked before about the clutter on Amazon’s site. What began as a simple book retailing operation now sells detergent and gadgets and clothing and everything else under the sun. Finding the books you want is increasingly difficult, and once you find them, you have to wade past Amazon’s preferred formats—ebooks and audiobooks—to find a physical copy, and then there is often a range of options from a range of sellers of the physical copy. These are the 133 current options for Obama’s A Promised Land:

Yes, Amazon’s prices are difficult to beat on bestsellers but it’s a messy and increasingly unpleasant user experience. A friend this week pointed out two other ways in which the mega-retailer is deteriorating.

Search for a successful book such as Chris Voss’s Never Split the Difference and up pop seven Never Split the Difference rip-offs, “books” that gut the contents — i.e., steal the intellectual property of — bestsellers. Amazon not only allows these scam artists to list their wares, but its search results push them at buyers:

The same friend notes that it’s almost impossible today to search for a title without Amazon serving up “content-farm garbage with soft-core porn covers” of the same name. She searched for Sophia Amoruso’s #Girl Boss and got this:

There will always be book buyers who lean to Amazon because they’re buying everything else there and because they’re especially price-sensitive, but their numbers are going to shrink over time as alternatives develop better customer experiences with similar fast-shipping promises. They already exist through most of the U.S. (we’ll write more about this in future newsletters).

Amazon’s prices on top bestsellers are likely to remain unbeatable until antitrust authorities admit that allowing Bezos to sell those books at a loss is classicly anti-competitive behavior. Even if that doesn’t happen, the age of viable Amazon alternatives is about to dawn.

We’d like to collect more of these ugly Amazon experiences so if you see one, please pass it along.