Review of The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead by Charles Murray (Crown, 2014), 140 pages; $17.95.
If you've ever wondered what a libertarian curmudgeon's guide to life, love, and making a living might look like, well look no further. Charles Murray, the social scientist and best-selling author of such books as Losing Ground (1984) and Coming Apart (2012), has given us such a book in The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead. Aimed at those in their 20s or those approaching those years, much of the book's advice is just as applicable to someone in their 30s or 40s, or someone, like me, in their 50s. Interestingly, the book started off as a kind of workplace advice column – really a series of blogs on the American Enterprise Institute's intranet – for interns and the like at the Washington, DC think-tank where Murray, now 71 years-old, has worked since 1990, turning out one provocative and controversial book after another.
Murray gives sound tips on exactly what the book's subtitle indicates: how to write well, think well, act well, and live well. Each of these areas is challenging, of course, especially for those going from college to adult life. What's remarkable about the book is how nicely Murray is able to compress so much good counsel into 140 pages. Murray, who isn't particularly religious (he calls himself an agnostic), respects religion, however, and very much encourages the reader to take it seriously too, even if he may have had a secular upbringing (Wait a minute. Let me scratch that "very" in the proceeding sentence. Murray says we should rarely use it!). He just doesn't evangelize for a specific faith. That's fine with me, a Catholic conservative, in a book of this nature.
Much of the soundness of Murray's little guide-book can be attributed to the fact that he takes an Aristotelian approach to living the good life. So, he includes discussion of what is necessary for living that life, for example, the cardinal virtues, and what that life is all about: happiness (Tips #29—#35). That's refreshing to see in a self-help book, where those topics are rarely treated or treated poorly. But to call Murray's book a "self-help" book misleads. Murray dishes out some bracing "no excuses" advice (He is a curmudgeon after all!). No tattoos or body piercings. Dress appropriately. Get rid of "like" as a filler word when you speak. Use words properly. Leave home early and get a job – any job – particularly one that involves serving others. Change how you view time vis-à-vis your career. Acquire and develop the aforementioned moral virtues. Get married – and this might surprise some – try doing so in your 20s. Choose a religious faith and live its traditions. For a cinematic portrayal of the kind of life Murray thinks worth living, the reader is encouraged to watch Groundhog Day, a wonderful piece of pop culture, now over 20 years-old, on what it means to lead a fulfilling and happy life (He notes it's much easier than slogging through the Nicomachean Ethics!).
For this moral theologian, Murray's distinction, in tip #27, between being nice and being good is crucial. Anyone can be nice (It can be a "one-off" act), but to live a good life over the long haul necessitates the consistency and coherency that a good character provides – and that comes from having the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. Another key Murray distinction is that between "can do" and "may do." Although Murray is a libertarian who believes, accordingly, in the maximization of personal freedom, he has no trouble at all judging – indeed he says it's necessary and unavoidable – that certain behaviors are "vulgar, unseemly, dishonorable." Good for him. Young people swim in a sea of relativism and subjectivism today. But Murray is willing to affirm an objective moral order. And he wants you to affirm it too.
Murray hopes that his tips will help you to climb the corporate ladder, to get that promotion, to be successful in your chosen profession, and, most importantly, to be happy in life. But he reminds you that along the way, many of your bosses, managers, supervisors, etc. will be "closet curmudgeons" like him. So, for example, you will have to avoid "sucking up," using first names (unless given permission), and bad manners. Murray also offers advice on how to properly use (or not use!) strong language (e.g., f-bombs), write emails, and deal with bad bosses. Possibly his best advice for those just starting out today: don't think of yourself as entitled and don't think it's too difficult to "stand out." The "successful curmudgeons" will notice you! But I also welcomed Tip #29: "Show up." Show up for family, vocation, community, and faith. That is, don't neglect these four central dimensions of human existence.
Much of your happiness, Murray argues, will depend on two accomplishments: finding "work that you enjoy" and finding "your soul mate." This is so true. And Murray's book is a fine guide to doing both. It should get you thinking about those two areas in ways you may have never done so before. It did so for me. But there's also much fun packed into all this serious advice.
So you can see that Murray's book is more than a career guide on how to "get ahead" – to help you avoid those lethal workplace mistakes that can either prevent you from being hired or even get you fired. It's also a practical toolkit for how to lead a worthy and worthwhile life as you're getting ahead. It's ideal for your son or daughter whose transitioning from their late teens to young adulthood, for book study groups, or high school business and vocational courses. I read it in two sittings during the evening hours. I hope you read it too.
Mark S. Latkovic is Professor of Moral and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Mich.