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The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead:

Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life

Charles Murray

The first thing you need to understand is that most large organizations are run by curmudgeons like me. Technically a curmudgeon is an ill-tempered old man. I use the term more broadly to describe highly successful people who are inwardly grumpy about many aspects of contemporary culture, make quick and pitiless judgements about your behaviour in the workplace, and don't hesitate to act on those judgments in deciding who gets promoted and who gets fired.

Lots of senior people in your workplace who can help or hinder your career are closet curmudgeons like me, including younger execs who appear to be open-minded and cool. Curmudgeons of all ages remain closeted partly because they want to be polite, but also so they don't sound like old out-of-touch geezers.

If you want to get ahead you should avoid doing things that will make them write you off.

Don't suck up.
Don't use first names for superiors unless they've told you 3 times to.
Eliminate 'like' from your vocab Don't swear, even if the others do
No visible tatts or piercings

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Working with an abusive boss. When they are very good at doing something you want to become good at, you should stay. The less talented, the less reason to stay. But first, must ask yourself, how much of the problem is because you aren't very experienced at boss/subordinate relationships? What you see as arbitrary or hostile treatment may be no more than how bosses have always behaved. People in charge may not feel the need to say 'Please' or to explain a refusal.

Many middle-class kids have a deprived upbringing, because their parents have treated them too well - rarely punished you, praised you when you did well, consoled you when you didn't and were generally fair and understanding. So you probably have two of the most important personal qualities - high cognitive abilities and good interpersonal skills. But you won't have developed resilience.

Two good ways to increase resilience - join army or VSA. The army forces you to deal with extreme supervisor-subordinate relationships, perform under unusually stressful conditions and deal with people from a wide range of backgrounds. Or, forcing yourself to plunge into a foreign culture, not as a backpacking tourist, because you will just meet other people like yourself.

In the past, people subscribed to unwritten codes of behaviour that weren't enforced by law, and they judged one another by whether or not they adhered to those codes. But now people do the opposite - they agree not to judge others, and they get offended when others judge them - except you can't make racist, sexist or homophobic remarks.


The transition from university to adult life is treacherous, and this is nowhere more visible than among graduates in their first real jobs. A few years ago I took it upon myself to start writing tips for the young staff where I work on how to avoid doing things that would make their supervisors write them off. When it comes to a life filled with deep and lasting satisfaction, most of the cliches are true. How could I make them sound fresh to a new generation? Here's how I tried.

Consider marrying young

The age of marriage for graduates has been increasing for decades, and this cultural shift has been a good thing. Many 22-year-olds are saved from bad marriages because they go into relationships at that age assuming that marriage is still out of the question.

But should you assume that marriage is still out of the question when you're 25? I'm not suggesting that you decide ahead of time that you will get married in your twenties. You've got to wait until the right person comes along. I'm just pointing out that you shouldn't exclude the possibility. If you wait until your thirties, your marriage is likely to be a merger. If you get married in your twenties, it is likely to be a start-up.

Merger marriages often involve highly educated couples in their thirties, both people well on their way to success. Lots of things can be said in favour of them. The bride and groom may be less likely to outgrow each other or to feel impelled, 10 years into the marriage, to make up for their lost youth.

But let me put in a word for start-up marriages, in which the success of the partners isn't yet assured. For one thing you will have memories of your life together when it was all still up in the air. Even more important, you and your spouse will have made your way together. Whatever happens, you will have shared the experience. And each of you will know that you wouldn't have become the person you are without the other.

Many merger marriages are happy, but a certain kind of symbiosis, in which two people become more than the sum of the individuals, is perhaps more common in start-ups.

Opposites don't attract for long

Ready for some cliches about marriage? Here they come. Because they're true.

Marry someone with similar tastes and preferences. Which tastes and preferences? The ones that will affect life almost every day. It is OK if you like ballet and your spouse doesn't. Reasonable people can accommodate each other on such differences. But if you dislike each other's friends or don't get each other's sense of humour or have different ethical impulses, break it off and find someone else.

Personal habits that you find objectionable are probably deal-breakers. The historian Jacques Barzun identified the top three as punctuality, orderliness and thriftiness. It doesn't make any difference what point of the spectrum you're on, he observed: 'Some couples are very happy living always in debt, always being late and finding leftover pizza under a sofa cushion.' You just have to be at the same point on the spectrum. Intractable differences will become, over time, a fingernail dragged across the blackboard of a marriage.

What you see is what you're going to get. If something about your prospective spouse bothers you but you think you can change them after you're married, you're wrong. They will undoubtedly change during a long marriage but not in ways you can control.

It is crucial that you really, really like your spouse. You hear it all the time from people who are in great marriages: 'I'm married to my best friend.' They are being literal. A good working definition of 'soulmate' is 'your closest friend, to whom you are also sexually attracted'.

Another cause for worry is the grand passion. You know a relationship is a grand passion if you find yourself behaving like an adolescent long after adolescence has passed - you are obsessed. Not to worry. Everyone should experience at least one grand passion. Just don't act on it while the storm is raging.

A good marriage is the best thing that can ever happen to you. Above all else, realise that this cliche is true. The downside risks of marrying - and they are real - are nothing compared with what you will gain from a good one.

There is a time to stop fretting about fame and fortune

One of my assumptions about you is that you are ambitious - meaning that you hope to become famous, rich or both, and intend to devote intense energy over the next few decades to pursuing those dreams. That is as it should be. I look with suspicion on any talented twentysomething who doesn't feel that way. I wish you luck.

But suppose you arrive at 40, and you enjoy your work, have found your soulmate, are raising a couple of terrific kids and recognise that you will probably never become either rich or famous. At that point it is important to supplement your youthful ambition with mature understanding.

Years ago I was watching a television profile of the billionaire music and film producer David Geffen. At some point he said: 'Show me someone who thinks that money buys happiness, and I'll show you someone who has never had a lot of money.'

The remark was accompanied by an ineffably sad smile on Geffen's face, which said that he had been there and knew what he was talking about. The vignette struck me in a way that 'money can't buy happiness' never had, and my visceral reaction was reinforced by one especially memorable shot taken down the length of Geffen's private jet, along the rows of empty leather seats and sofas, to where he sat all alone in the rear.

The problem that you face in your twenties and thirties is that you are gnawed by anxiety that you won't be a big success. It is an inevitable side effect of ambition. My little story about David Geffen won't help - now. Pull it out again in 20 years.

Fame and wealth do accomplish something: they cure ambition anxiety. But that's all. It isn't much.

Watch Groundhog Day repeatedly

The movie Groundhog Day was made more than two decades ago, but it is smart and funny and a brilliant moral fable that deals with the most fundamental issues of virtue and happiness.

An egocentric television weatherman played by Bill Murray is sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover Groundhog Day. He hates the assignment, disdains the town and its people and can't wait to get back to Pittsburgh. But a snowstorm strikes, he's stuck and when he wakes up the next morning it is Groundhog Day again. And again and again and again.

Without the slightest bit of preaching, the movie shows the bumpy, unplanned evolution of his protagonist from a jerk to a fully realised human being - a person who has learnt to experience deep, lasting and justified satisfaction with life even though he has only one day to work with.

You could learn the same truths by studying Aristotle's Ethics carefully, but watching Groundhog Day repeatedly is a lot more fun.

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