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Dr. Murray's Guide to Getting Ahead

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Charles Murray’s new book addresses topics ranging from the specifics of day-to-day workplace behavior to the ultimate sources of human flourishing.

Hi chuck,

How r u. Just read ur new book its literally great. Your like so smart and its so cool of you to share so much uninterested advice with young people that will probably impact their of success positively. Youve called it the curmudgeons guide to getting ahead but the amount of useful pointers warrants calling it the curmudgeons guide to the galaxy its very masterful.

ttyl - stan

That got annoying pretty quickly. A frustration with poor grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word choice, as well as unnecessarily annoying behavior generally appears to have been the impetus behind my esteemed colleague Dr. Charles Murray’s new (short) book, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead – Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life. But that was just the original driving force: the book, which is organized as a series of 35 life lessons, addresses topics ranging from the specifics of day-to-day workplace behavior to the ultimate sources of human flourishing.

Murray starts out with straightforward advice on how to harvest the low-hanging fruit of not setting oneself up for failure. “On the Presentation of Self in the Workplace” is the title of the first of four sets of lessons, and it is both the most practical and the most curmudgeonly part of the book. Don’t use the f-word all the time, or the word “like,” avoid facial tattoos, wear pants to work, that kind of stuff. It’s mostly useful advice, most of it is quite reasonable, and some of it is quite amusing too.

We then move on to instructions for thinking and writing well, and it is in this part of the book that the tone of Murray’s advice starts shifting from curmudgeonly to caring. The first few lessons in this part are, you know, pretty cranky (“Disinterested does NOT, repeat NOT, mean ‘lack of interest’ or ‘uninterested’”), but they become more amiable quite rapidly when he describes rare moments of unforeseen glory in writing (“Not much about writing is magical. These moments are. Don’t count on them.”).

We are no longer dealing with simple rules of thumb that will help you avoid getting fired: the goal now is eudaimonia.

This more personal and cautionary (prudent?) tone persists and becomes dominant in the last two parts of the book, “On the Formation of Who You Are” and “On the Pursuit of Happiness.” We are no longer dealing with simple rules of thumb that will help you avoid getting fired: the goal now is eudaimonia. And while some of Murray’s advice in this second half of the book is still of particular interest to the young, he rapidly escalates his level of ambition. No longer does he focus merely on life decisions for upwardly mobile people in their twenties, important and irreversible as those may be. The objective now becomes to present everyone with a map for the road to durable happiness and satisfaction. Does he succeed? Buy his book, follow his advice, and find out for yourself. It may take a while until you reach firm conclusions on whether he does – I personally started following every piece of advice he gives to the letter this morning, but I’ll need a bit more time until I can definitively conclude that watching clips of Groundhog Day on loop will make me happy and successful rather than incapable of telling movie scenes from the early ’90s apart from acid flashbacks. For now I’m somewhat suspicious that it’s a scam, and that Murray is merely attempting to revive the floundering career of his brother Bill.

One thing I can say: this book will do little to solve the problems highlighted in Murray’s previous book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. The Curmudgeon’s Guide is a book written for the people of Belmont, the fictional town in Coming Apart where those who are getting ahead live. They, and their children, are the people who will be reading this book. But I guess that’s hard to avoid at this point, and the only way to end that dynamic would be, in my estimation of Murray’s views, to take lesson 25, “Being judgmental is good,” seriously. That would involve having the meritocratic and cultural elite move from merely setting examples to pontificating just a little more often. Just like Charles.

Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. AEI will host a forum on his book on April 17. See Murray discuss The Curmudgeon’s Guide on “America’s Newsroom.”

FURTHER READING: Murray writes “AEI Classics: Americans Remain Wary of Washington,” “The Europe Syndrome and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism,” “Are Too Many People Going to College?” and “Abolish the SAT.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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