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Curmudgeon offers words of wisdom

bookMay is fast approaching, and with May comes the season of graduations.

Daughters and sons, nephews and nieces, young people we’ve cherished for one reason or another: they’re about to embark on the next journey in their life, and we want to speed them along their way with a meaningful gift. Cash is always handy, of course, to the young — and I might add, to some of us who are old — but cash is a cold gift, the sort of boon and gratuity given by most of us out of desperation, ignorant of what those just graduating from high school or college might need or want.


While these graduates may well appreciate hard cash, there is a gift available this season to accompany your check. Charles Murray’s The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life is written for young people in their late teens and through their twenties, and offers some great advice to grads and to anyone that age struggling with all that life can throw at them these days.

As Murray writes in the introduction to The Curmudgeon’s Guide: “I wish I could tell you that this little book will fix all that [your problems]. It won’t, but it might help.”

And he’s right. While the future offers no guarantees, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead does give the young some excellent advice. Here are just a few highlights from Murray’s bits of wisdom, culled, I might add, from a lifetime of experience:

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“Don’t use first names with people considerably older than you until asked, and sometimes not even then.”

“Excise the word ‘like’ from your spoken English.”

“On piercings, tattoos, and hair of a color not known to nature,” Murray strongly advises jobseekers not to display any of these. Of tattoos visible during a job interview, he writes that with the exception of a former member of the armed forces with a tattoo of his unit’s insignia, “show up with a visible tattoo and you are toast before you open your mouth.”

On the “proper use of strong language,” Murray is for strong language, but only in certain situations.

The author encourages readers to “leave home.” Murray strongly advises 20-somethings to “jump out of the nest.”

Murray implores young people to “get real jobs.” He strongly opposes working internships that pay no money. He also advises young people who have grown up in upper-middle class homes and neighborhoods to find work first in such places as restaurants and construction. Here, he contends, the privileged will find their best chance at expanding their horizons and their understanding of people.

Murray suggests that readers “come to grips with the difference between being nice and being good.” Here he discusses both the four cardinal virtues originated by the ancient Greeks — courage, justice, temperance, and prudence (also called wisdom) — and brings Aristotle into the argument as well. He has some excellent comments in this section, mostly pointing out that being nice is easy and being good is difficult.

The author’s concise tips on writing, that valuable tool  which so many young people ignore or neglect, would benefit even skilled writers. Especially striking is his solution to the use of third person singular pronouns: he and she. As anyone who spends time writing knows, we’ve spent the last 40 years trying to figure out how to use gender-neutral pronouns. Traditionalists want to maintain the use of ‘he,’ while others recommend either ‘he’ or ‘she,’ or, in what sane writers should regard as an abomination before the muse, ‘s/he.’ Murray’s recommendation: “Unless there is an obvious reason not to, use the gender of the author or, in a co-written text, the gender of the principal author.” This solution will strike many readers as eminently practical.

The last chapter in The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead — On the Pursuit of Happiness — is only 22 pages long, but Murray crams it full of advice on subjects ranging from marriage to the practice of religion. Section 29— Show Up —strikes me as particularly wise. Murray stresses here the importance of  “showing up,” not only for work, but for family, community and faith. He points out how easy it is not to show up these days, when so many spend so much time sitting in front of a screen, and advocates engaging with people and events in person. “You are not going to reach old age satisfied with who you have been and what you have done because you interfaced with a screen. Thus the first essential step in the pursuit of happiness: Show up,” he writes.

The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead is to the point, witty, packed with excellent advice and short in length. Any young graduate will find at least several treasures here, sharply-cut diamonds of wisdom certain to help them find their way in the world.

One final note: at the very end of his book, Murray recommends watching the movie “Groundhog Day” repeatedly. Fans of this movie would heartily second this recommendation. The movie is all about effort, about the transformation of the self such effort produces. So if you’re looking for a second gift to accompany the book, you’ll find it in “Groundhog Day.” Wrap up the book and the DVD, and you’ll give your graduate a worthy gift.

The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life, by Charles Murray. Crown Business, 2014. 146 pages

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