In need of a stern lecture on proper professional behavior from a fatherly figure? Then 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 just what the social historian ordered.
Best known as the co-author of The Bell Curve, a controversial 1994 book on intelligence in American society that some viewed as justifying racism, Murray steps away from his libertarian leanings here to offer career and social guidance for ambitious college graduates still in their twenties.
Murray says The Curmudgeon’s Guide “began as a lark”: a series of grammatical tips offered to entry-level staffers at the American Enterprise Institute, where Murray is a fellow. Guidance for proper grammar, however, was the thin edge of the wedge for Murray. Soon his thoughts turned to proper office attire (jacket and tie), what to do after college (travel alone), when to get married (early, but not too early), and even what movie to watch (Groundhog Day).
His patronizing, irascible tone is reminiscent of a respected, well-intentioned family member imparting his worldly knowledge to an uninterested young adult who would rather be partying in Cancun or playing video games in a basement than figuring out how to get ahead in life.
Murray admits as much by labeling himself a curmudgeon, which he defines as “highly successful people of both genders who are inwardly grumpy about many aspects of contemporary culture, make quick and pitiless judgements about your behavior in the workplace, and don’t hesitate to act on those judgements in deciding who gets promoted and who gets fired.”
Murray does not sugarcoat his thoughts. He wrings his hands over the reader’s “parents and teachers who were too caring and wonderful for your own good.” According to Murray, the biggest thing holding back America’s next generation of professionals is the coddled upbringing that has robbed them of their resilience. (Dear Mom and Dad: j’accuse!)
Yet, any twentysomething reading Murray’s book must be resilient to make it through the opening section on workplace etiquette. Yes, most people understand that you sound unprofessional if you use the word “like” as a verbal tic, but I would imagine that there is not such a clear consensus on male earrings, visible tattoos and unnatural hair colors. On such subjects, Murray’s curmudgeonly tone sounds archaic. How else to explain his statement to those with visible tattoos, piercings or dyed hair: “You embody that which we find most distasteful about the current cultural sensibility.”
The book is divided into four sections - workplace etiquette, writing and thinking guidelines, what to do after college, and how to be happy in the long run. While the segment on grammatical rules can feel tedious, Murray’s message reverberates more powerfully in the later sections, when he has a chance to expound on topics more thoughtful than when to use notorious vs. famous, or the confusion between masterful and masterly.
This is particularly evident when discussing the ability to “make judgements,” which Murray laments as unfairly maligned. “We can refuse to voice our judgements,” he writes, “but we cannot keep from having them unless we refuse to think about what is before our eyes.”
Though The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead is aimed at young professionals, Murray’s aggressive disdain for the cultural norms of the last three decades will most likely relegate his audience to people similar to himself: aging curmudgeons for whom this book of advice holds no meaning other than to reaffirm their views on the proper path to success.
But it’s hard to imagine Murray caring too much what young readers think of his views. “This was my chance to vent beyond the confines of the dinner table,” he writes, “but to such a small audience that I could give my unvarnished views without getting into trouble.”
“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, Random House, April 8, 2014