Friday, July 4, 2014

The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead by Charles Murray

 I think I finally figured out why I've enjoyed Charles Murray's earlier writings so much - it appears that I'm actually a curmudgeon! Now, my children could have told you that years ago, but Murray's guidelines contain things I think about nearly every day of my professional life, so my status is externally confirmed now.

Aside from tips to the younger generation about avoiding the entitlement mentality, using good manners, and avoiding questionable style choices, Murray communicates clearly about clear communication, and avoiding buzzwords and cliches, such as the ubiquitous "I'll be there for you." He translates that phrase, roughly, as "I hereby make a meaningless pretend commitment." and says a more appropriate answer might be "Who do you want me to kill?" I love it.

Of course, I have my own pet peeves when it comes to CorpSpeak (my new term for crazy things people who work in big corporations say). The first is, "I have (or don't have) visibility to that", which means that they are unaware or unable to access the item in question. Visibility is a noun which is properly used in a sentence such as, "Visibility is excellent today, luckily for our pilot - and the passengers." I'll share more with you when the time is right.

One of the grammatical errors he explains well is using "which" and "that" interchangeably. I'm probably guilty of this one quite often. "That introduces essential clauses while which introduces nonessential clauses." If the clause is not crucial to understanding the sentence, use which.

One of Murray's tips definitely identifies him as a curmudgeon of my generation, when it comes to writing.

"Edit the piece in hard copy before before sending out the final version." People of my generation grew up with, at best, electric typewriters, and we are unable to really visualize structure and perform edits without a hard copy to scribble on. I think that my children's generation, having used digital visual media their entire lives, may not have this problem, so it might not be the best tip for a newbie in the job force, but I completely can relate to it.

On editing, and how often new material will flow from your fingertips in the midst of an edit, quoting co-author Dick Herrnstein,

"I remember once when I noticed a rough transition between paragraphs. By the time I fixed it, I had seven new chapters."

I think this explains a lot about The Wheel of Time.

Perhaps his most important bit of advice for writers is simply, "Don't wait for the muse." When you have to write as part of your job, or you intend to write in  order to put a roof over your head and food on the table, you absolutely must set a time and a place for writing, and do it consistently and persistently every working day. If you wait for the muse to strike, it could be a long time before that happens, and it could also strike at a horribly inconvenient time, with no way to take a message when Calliope calls.

Murray also dispels the myth that you need to achieve great success at a young age, like Facebook's Zuckerberg. The median age at which artists and composers have created their greatest works is forty, while writers' greatest literature has been created at a median age of fifty. I guess there's hope for us middle-aged curmudgeons yet.

He also proposes several strategies to increase your personal resilience, so that you won't be overwhelmed when whirlwinds of change make life...interesting in the Chinese curse sense. One option is joining the military, which has a culture which is completely foreign to the one most people experience while growing up, and another is to "pick a place in a strange part of the world that you'd like to get to know, buy a one way airplane ticket, and go...stay for at least three years."

Something he said that you might want to think deeply upon,

"What I am about to say assumes that the purpose of a human life is not just to pass the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, with as little trouble as possible. Life should consist of something more than leisure and transient pleasures. Can we agree on that?"

I'm not so sure that we do, here in America today. They're giving us bread and circuses, and that which passes for meaningful is generally based on deception and manipulation. Think about it.

On value judgments (a curmudgeonly relic from a bygone era),

"I want to emphasize that being judgmental is not the same as being intolerant. It is appropriate to be tolerant of behaviors that you wouldn't engage in yourself, and even ones of which you disapprove but which you also judge to fall within the range of choices that people should be entitled to make in a free society. But you can't let your desire to be tolerant get in the way of your obligation to reach moral judgments. You need to think through your assessment of alternative codes of behavior, drawing upon as much accumulated human wisdom as you can about virtue and vice, and about the consequences of different behaviors for human flourishing. You not only need to do it; you must. The failure to do so doesn't define you as nonjudgmental. It defines you as lazy."

And again, on virtue,

"Lacking the cardinal virtues (courage, justice, wisdom, temperance), you can act in those other virtuous ways (being kind, compassionate, merciful, tolerant) haphazardly, and occasionally have the effect you wish, but you cannot consistently have the effect you wish, nor will you be able to bring yourself to behave in those other virtuous ways when the going gets rough. You will still mean well. You will still be nice. You won't be good."

An interesting thought,

"What was true in 1875 had been true throughout human history. Day to day, people didn't have any choice but to show up."

It was not possible to disengage from family, friends, vocation, community, or faith. You needed to be "present to win". After the invention of the phonograph and motion pictures, you could be entertained without showing up for a concert or play. After the introduction of commercial radio, then television, and now electronic media, it is possible to live a life completely alone, and never to directly engage with a living, breathing human.

This is the kind of pocket reference guide to life that ought to be on everyone's nightstand.

1 comment:

Laying down the Law said...

Since we'd talked about this book over dinner, I skipped the review when you first posted.

My loss. Some great quotes in here, and now I want to read it.