Several months ago, I reviewed a book by Dilbert creator, Scott Adams, titled How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. In the book, Adams shares his accumulated wisdom for living a successful life. The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead by Charles Murray is a similar book.
In the introduction, Murray describes how this compendium started as a workplace, intranet guide to English grammar and usage that expanded into proper behavior in the workplace. Ultimately, the book included advice toward achieving not only success in the workplace but also success in living.
The book’s intended audience is:
- “You are in or near your twenties. You are intelligent. It’s not essential that you have a college degree, but you probably do. Many of you attended a well-known college or university; some of you attended an elite one. You are ambitious – you daydream about becoming a CEO, a high-powered lawyer, head of the World Bank, Pulitzer Prize winner, or president of the United States. Your ambitions are not confined to outward measures of success. You want to become excellent at something. You plan to marry eventually, if not already. You aspire to be a good person. You aspire to genuine happiness. To put it another way, you are me long ago.”
Murray is a 71-year-old libertarian political scientist who works for a conservative think-tank in D.C. called the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of a controversial book titled The Bell Curve, which argued that intelligence is a better predictor of success in life than is socio-economic status or education. It also argued that some races are more intelligent than others, whether produced by genetics or environment.
Also, as suggested by the book’s title, Murray is a curmudgeon, which he initially defines as “an ill-tempered old man,” but then he tweaks that definition to better fit the group of people who generally make decisions that affect a young employees career arc:
- “Highly successful people of both genders who are inwardly grumpy about many aspects of contemporary culture, make quick and pitiless judgments about your behavior in the workplace, and don’t hesitate to act on those judgments in deciding who gets promoted and who gets fired. Be warned that curmudgeons usually don’t give off many clues that they’re doing these things.”
Murray admits that there are some industries that are not run by curmudgeons – e.g., entertainment or information technology – but my experience in the insurance industry suggests that Murray is mistaken about the prevalence of curmudgeons at the helm of American commerce. Yes, we all have encountered curmudgeons in the workplace, but this quality does not bode well for success, except perhaps in the world of conservative think tanks.
Regardless of the prevalence of full-fledged curmudgeons, however, the insights of this curmudgeon are worthwhile in helping a fledgling college grad navigate the workplace filled with a lot of executives who have curmudgeon tendencies from time to time.
The first section of the book provides insights regarding how to present yourself in the workplace:
- Don’t suck up. Although I agree that a strong employee will do better without becoming a sycophant, I have seen weak employees survive by becoming sycophants.
- Don’t use first names of older people. I agree, even though my upbringing causes me extreme discomfort with the word “mister.”
- Don’t use vulgar language unless the boss uses it freely.
- No piercings or tattoos.
- Dress like your bosses.
- Don’t act like any work is beneath you.
- From the bottom, it looks like management has unlimited numbers of good people to select for advancement, but from the top, it looks like good people are hard to find. Be a good worker, and you will be noticed. I’m not persuaded by this assertion.
The second section of the book provides insights on thinking and writing well. Murray obviously sees good writing and good thinking as related – “The process of writing is your most valuable single tool for developing better ideas. The process of writing is the dominant source of intellectual creativity.” Outside of creativity, however, Murray feels most strongly about “rigor”:
- “If your major in college was anything except one of the hard sciences, you may not have experienced much demand to be rigorous up to this point in your life. How many of your teachers not only demanded that you write papers instead of taking multiple-choice tests, but handed back those papers with every error in syntax, usage, and spelling marked in red, and every error in logic pointed out? How often during class discussion have you been criticized for a sloppy argument, even though your conclusion may have been correct?…. graduates of even the most elite universities can leave school still innocent of what it means to be pushed to the limits of their intellectual potential.”
Getting a B.A. from Harvard in history and a PhD from MIT in political science may not have been rigorous for Murray, but I disagree that these studies in general aren’t as rigorous the hard sciences. (David Brooks and Tom Friedman of the NY Times had a similar disagreement a few weeks ago, and that was the subject of a blogpost.)
The third section of the book is titled, “On the Formation of Who You Are.” The first thing he suggests is that you leave home. Suffice to say that boomerang kids are not welcome, and parents who allow this are not doing their kids any favor – “Don’t argue that you can’t find a job that pays enough to support yourself. You can. You just can’t find a job that will support you in the style to which you have been accustomed. So accustom yourself to a new style. Learn to get by on little – prove to yourself how resourceful you can be. Move out. No matter what.”
Because most kids are excessively praised and pampered and encouraged, Murray thinks many kids have been stunted:
- “You probably possess two of the most important personal qualities for success – high cognitive ability and good interpersonal skills. But it is unlikely that you have already developed another important trait: resilience.”
Most modern kids are taught that being judgmental is bad. That is wrong. You must make judgments about what it means to live a good life:
- “The purpose of a human life is not just to pass the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, with as little trouble as possible. Life should consist of something more than leisure and transient pleasures. Can we agree on that?… For those who are still with me, the first step in thinking about what it means to live a good life is to accept that you’re going to have to make judgments – not just statements about your personal tastes and preferences, but judgments about what are the excellences that human beings should strive to realize, which in turn means judgments about what is right and wrong, good and evil.”
- “I want to emphasize that being judgmental is not the same as being intolerant. It is appropriate to be tolerant of behaviors that you wouldn’t engage in yourself, and even ones of which you disapprove but which you also judge to fall within the range of choices that people should be free to make in a free society. But you can’t let your desire to be tolerant get in the way of your obligation to reach moral judgments. You need to think through your assessment of alternative codes of behavior, drawing upon as much accumulated human wisdom as you can about virtue and vice, and about the consequences of different behaviors for human flourishing. You not only need to do this; you must. The failure to do so doesn’t define you as nonjudgmental. It defines you as lazy.”
The preceding principle reminds me of Mike Callen’s call for the action with the preponderance of favorable outcomes. Murray’s guiding principle is, “Don’t ruin your love affair with yourself,” by which he means that you should hold yourself in high regard and that all of your action should enable this high regard to continue.
The final section of the book is titled, “On the Pursuit of Happiness.” Murray believes that lasting and justified happiness flows from four sources – family, vocation, community, and faith. Money and fame are not on the list. “An unavoidable side effect of ambition is to be gnawed by ambition about whether you’re going to succeed. You’re bound to feel it in your twenties and thirties. Put it away in your forties. By that time, you should have learned enough to recognize that fame and wealth are trivial – really, truly trivial – to a life well live.” I’m happy to report that my life followed the track that Murray suggested.
Although Murray is technically a Deist, he suggests that you take religion more seriously than you have been socialized to.
And finally, he concludes with some advice on who, not whether, to marry.
Murray’s words of wisdom mostly ring true. My youngest son is in the demographic that Murray hopes to reach, and I have strongly suggested to him that he would be well served reading this little 142-page book.