The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead

In The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead, author Charles Murray writes the advice he would give to himself if he were a twentysomething or near that, while recognizing that person vanished decades ago.

The Curmedgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead
The Curmedgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead

This advice is especially relevant to young people entering private industry, working for bosses who select people for employment, job assignments, and promotions. The bosses, usually older people, make judgements and use their judgements to make personnel decisions about young people.

We all make judgements about other people. Often it’s not considered polite or politically correct to voice these judgements, so we reserve these judgements for ourselves or others close to us. These judgements usually don’t affect those we judged, except in the private sector workplace. Murray recognizes that technology companies tend to have younger managers and executives.

I’ve viewed some these beliefs and judgements as unwritten rules that I sometimes violated, to my detriment. So writing these down is a boon to everyone, especially for women and minorities who might not share the same background and beliefs as their bosses.

Murray’s writing is spare and concise. I’ll quote liberally in this post because Murray’s writing is so clear. One section is devoted to writing, where Murray cites Strunk and White. Murray follows their advice on writing while expanding the book to cover “dos and don’ts of right behavior, tough thinking, clear writing, and living a good life”.

The Curmedgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead is a set of essays offering advice, organized by domain:

  • On the presentation of self in the workplace
  • On thinking and writing well
  • On the formation of who you are
  • On the pursuit of happiness

On the presentation of self in the workplace, manners at the office and in general discusses the sense of entitlement of the younger generation, as viewed by the older generation. The baby boomers started this fifty years ago, and we passed it on to our children. Murray offers “react according to how that situation is affecting others around you, and fight the temptation to think first about how things affect you.” He quotes C.S. Lewis: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It’s thinking of yourself less.”

What to do if you have a bad boss is important — you seldom get to choose your boss. If your boss asks you to do something unethical or immoral, consult someone you trust, and tell them your story. If that doesn’t work, and you don’t have a family to support, you might quit. If your boss is nice but incompetent, consider what are you trying to learn, and does the incompetence get in the way? Dealing with the boss who’s a jerk is more difficult — there are several kinds of jerks and approaches to deal with them.” “But in all cases when you have problems in your interactions with your boss, there’s one more question you have to ask yourself: To what extent is your boss at fault, and to what extent are you a neophyte about supervisor-subordinate relationships?” “So if you think you have a bad boss, first go to a quiet room, look deep into your soul, and determine whether you are a victim or a self-absorbed naïf.”

On the formation of who you are, confront your inner hothouse flower deals with resilience, especially for “those of you who have had parents and teachers who were too caring and wonderful for your own good”. Resilience is how far can you be pushed and still bounce back without breaking. Many young people have been protected from this experience and learning. As remedies, Murray suggests enlisting in the service or moving to a strange place for a few years. “Spend serious time coping with situations that stress you psychologically and with people from alien backgrounds who stretch your understanding of life”.

On the pursuit of happiness, Murray defines happiness as “lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole”. He argues there are only four sources of happiness: family, vocation (which includes passionately pursued avocations and causes), community, and faith. Not all are required to be happy, but it helps. Two pieces of advice from the happiness domain are:

One is to show up — give yourself the possibility of finding satisfaction in the four domains, not necessarily succeeding. “Not showing up for family means deciding not to marry, or deliberately choosing to get into extended relationships only with people who are unavailable for marriage, or fleeing whenever a relationship starts to become dangerously important, or marrying and then putting no effort into it.” To me, Murray’s show up means make a commitment to what’s important.

A second is to take clichés about marriage seriously:

  • Marry someone with similar tastes and preferences. Many differences, e.g., liking the same flavors of ice cream, don’t matter. But not liking each other’s friends, not getting the other’s humor, or differing ethical impulses are deal breakers.
  • What you see is what you’re going to get. Be prepared to live with whatever bothers you, or forget it.
  • It is absolutely crucial that you really, really like your spouse. “You hear it all the time from people who are in great marriages: I’m married to my best friend.”
  • A good marriage is the best thing that can ever happen to you. “Above all else, realize that this cliche is true.”

As a baby boomer, I found myself agreeing frequently while reading The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead. One might view all this as common sense. What’s uncommon, however, is that Murray wrote all this in one small, well-written volume. IMHO, a gem.


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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

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