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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Reading List: The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead

Murray, Charles. The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead. New York: Crown Business, 2014. ISBN 978-0-8041-4144-4.
Who, after reaching middle age and having learned, through the tedious but persuasive process of trial and error, what works and what doesn't, how to decide who is worthy of trust, and to distinguish passing fads from enduring values, hasn't dreamed of having a conversation with their twenty year old self, downloading this painfully acquired wisdom to give their younger self a leg up on the slippery, knife-edged-rungs of the ladder of life?

This slim book (144 pages) is a concentrated dose of wisdom applicable to young people entering the job market today. Those of my generation and the author's (he is a few years my senior) often worked at summer jobs during high school and part-time jobs while at university. This provided an introduction to the workplace, with its different social interactions than school or family life (in the business world, don't expect to be thanked for doing your job). Today's graduates entering the workforce often have no experience whatsoever in that environment and are bewildered because the incentives are so different from anything they've experienced before. They may have been a star student, but now they find themselves doing tedious work with little intellectual content, under strict deadlines, reporting to superiors who treat them as replaceable minions, not colleagues. Welcome to the real world.

This is an intensely practical book. Based upon a series of postings the author made on an internal site for interns and entry-level personnel at the American Enterprise Institute, he gives guidelines on writing, speaking, manners, appearance, and life strategy. As the author notes (p. 16), “Lots of the senior people who can help or hinder your career are closeted curmudgeons like me, including executives in their forties who have every appearance of being open minded and cool.” Even if you do not wish to become a curmudgeon yourself as you age (good luck with that, dude or dudette!), your advancement in your career will depend upon the approbation of those people you will become if you are fortunate enough to one day advance to their positions.

As a curmudgeon myself (hey, I hadn't yet turned forty when I found myself wandering the corridors of the company I'd founded and silently asking myself, “Who hired that?”), I found nothing in this book with which I disagree, and my only regret is that I couldn't have read it when I was 20. He warns millennials, “You're approaching adulthood with the elastic limit of a Baccarat champagne flute” (p. 96) and counsels them to spend some of those years when their plasticity is greatest and the penalty for errors is minimal in stretching themselves beyond their comfort zone, preparing for the challenges and adversity which will no doubt come later in life. Doug Casey has said that he could parachute naked into a country in sub-saharan Africa and within one week be in the ruler's office pitching a development scheme. That's rather more extreme than what Murray is advocating, but why not go large? Geronimo!

Throughout, Murray argues that what are often disdained as clichés are simply the accumulated wisdom of hundreds of generations of massively parallel trial and error search of the space of solutions of human problems, and that we ignore them at our peril. This is the essence of conservatism—valuing the wisdom of the past. But that does not mean one should be a conservative in the sense of believing that the past provides a unique template for the future. Those who came before did not have the computational power we have, nor the ability to communicate data worldwide almost instantaneously and nearly for free, nor the capacity, given the will, to migrate from Earth and make our species multi-planetary, nor to fix the aging bug and live forever. These innovations will fundamentally change human and post-human society, and yet I believe those who create them, and those who prosper in those new worlds will be exemplars of the timeless virtues which Murray describes here.

And when you get a tattoo or piercing, consider how it will look when you're seventy.

Posted at May 13, 2014 00:15