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Dr. Charles Murray’s book “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead” was released today. The book, available here, details the “dos and don’ts of right behavior, tough thinking, clear writing, and living a good life.” On April 17th, AEI will be hosting an event on “The Curmudgeon’s Guide”- see more details here. Below, the author answers a few questions about his book, his favorite piece of advice, and Bill Murray.
“The Curmudgeon’s Guide” is very different from any of your other books. Where does it fit in your own view of your work?
It’s the most fun I’ve had with a book since my wife and I wrote “Apollo” in the late 1980s. In fact, “The Curmudgeon’s Guide” started out purely for fun. I volunteered to write a series of tips for AEI’s interns and research assistants about how to avoid offending grumpy old people like me. I began with things like “Excise the word ‘like’ from your spoken English,” but as time went on, I got into more substantive topics. Then my boss, Karlyn Bowman, suggested I turn the series into a book, and here we are.
Why do you think Millennials need this advice so much?
Not all of them do need it. I wrote for twenty-somethings who have grown up in loving homes, have gone to good schools, haven’t ever really held jobs except maybe an internship or two, and suddenly find themselves out of college and facing the real world. Not to put too fine a point on it: a lot of them are clueless about how a workplace operates, and a lot of them are far too ready to stay in the academic cocoon, going directly to graduate school without the least idea of what they truly want for a career. Those Millennials are my target audience.
What’s your favorite tip from the book?
I’m fond of just about all of them—in fact, I’m probably too fond of this book for my own good. But if I had to name just one, it is “Watch ‘Groundhog Day’ repeatedly.” It comes from so far out of left field, after I’ve been discussing super-serious topics about the life well lived, that I imagine my readers coming across the title and saying to themselves, “What the hell is this about?”
How can a young person stand out in the workplace?
The easiest way is to work as hard as you can, for as many hours as are needed, and not make a big deal out of it. The highly successful people in your organization almost all behaved exactly the same way when they were in their twenties (and probably throughout their careers), and they are going to see something of themselves in you. That’s a really good way to attract their interest. The little secret that is seldom revealed in this era of praising everyone for everything is that very few people work as hard as they can, and the ones who do have it made. But of course, there’s one other thing: you have to be competent while you’re working all those hours.
You write in tip #25 that “Being judgmental is good, and you don’t have a choice anyway.” This is a rather unusual message in a culture that often says the opposite. Could you elaborate on that?
You’re encouraging me to vent on one of my most passionately held complaints about contemporary culture. What makes humans special is their ability to process information, evaluate it, and make judgments. Nonjudgmentalism is, at bottom, an ethic that tells us to avoid acknowledging to ourselves that we like some things better than others, think some ways of behaving are more virtuous than others, and that we downright disapprove of some ways of behaving. I’m all in favor of tolerance. But tolerance means accepting things with which you do not necessarily agree, but think that people should be free to do in a free society. That’s very different from refusing to think about things and reach considered judgments about good and bad, right and wrong, true and false.
Before you went to graduate school, you joined the Peace Corps and went to Thailand for five years. How was that experience valuable, and would you recommend something similar for others?
It was transformative. The first two months in Thailand, my culture shock was so severe that I envied a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer who was in a car accident and suffered severe injuries, because he had an honorable excuse to quit and go home. I had to stay—and by a few months later, I was in love with Thailand. But it wasn’t just fun. I learned things that profoundly affected the way I saw the world forever after (I talk about those Thai experiences in the introduction to one of my books, “In Pursuit”). But most of all, I became at home in what had been a totally alien culture. It was like adding a whole new world to the one I had known in the States. Do I recommend that others do something similar? When my daughter Anna was graduating from college and told her friends that she was buying a one-way ticket to Bologna, Italy, where she would get a job (any job) and live for a few years, her friends thought that sounded cool, but asked her “What do your parents think?” assuming that we must be appalled at this hare-brained scheme. “In my family,” Anna would reply, “it’s practically obligatory.”
In an increasingly secular society, why is it important to take religion seriously?
I went to Harvard at a time when college socialized its students to be secular as assiduously as college in the previous century had socialized them to be devout. The same thing holds true today. It took me a long time to realize that the Christian religion—the one I grew up with as a child—doesn’t consist of Sunday school stories that are easy to dismiss. It needs to be grappled with in its full complexity and depth. The same is true of the other great religious traditions. Think of it this way: if there are truths underlying the great religious traditions, being oblivious of them is a hugely important moral shortcoming. Maybe after taking religion seriously you’ll decide that you’re an atheist after all. But at least you won’t be one of the unreflective atheists that infest most college campuses.
Other than buying your book, what’s the most important thing for college graduates to do as they prepare for the real world?
Ponder the extent to which they may be self-absorbed naïfs who are about as resilient as Baccarat champagne flutes. If that’s what they are, it’s probably not their fault. They have been the victims of excessively happy childhoods and excessively patient and understanding parents. But sooner or later, life is going to get tough. You don’t want the first tests of your toughness and resilience to come when you’re 35 with a spouse and children and you shatter into a thousand glittering shards. Use the years right after college to jump out of the nest and force yourself to learn to fly before you hit the ground. Put yourself in harm’s way. Trust me: it won’t only help you grow up; it will turn out to be more fun than you could have imagined.
A question about “Watch ‘Groundhog Day’ repeatedly.” Do you know Bill Murray?
I’ve been touting “Groundhog Day” since I said in “Human Accomplishment” 10 years ago that it was one of the few films that would still be watched a century from now. I keep hoping that Bill will see these wonderful things I say about “Groundhog Day” and tell me to give him a ring the next time I get to L.A. Hasn’t happened. It’s too bad. I think cousin Bill and I would get along great.
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