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My suspicion is that this isn’t the last time I’ll have something to say about Charles Murray’s new book, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 142 pp. Unless I miss my guess, it will appear on my list of the Top Ten Books of 2014. Continue reading . . .

My suspicion is that this isn’t the last time I’ll have something to say about Charles Murray’s new book, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 142 pp. Unless I miss my guess, it will appear on my list of the Top Ten Books of 2014.

There are two things you should know up front. First, this is not a Christian book, but every Christian should read it. That means you won’t necessarily agree with everything he says (I didn’t), but you can learn greatly from most of it. Second, you may be asking, “What in the world is a ‘curmudgeon’?” Technically, a curmudgeon is “a crusty, ill-tempered old man.” Murray uses the term more broadly to describe “highly successful people of both genders who are inwardly grumpy about many aspects of contemporary culture, make quick and pitiless judgments about your behavior in the workplace, and don’t hesitate to act on those judgments in deciding who gets promoted and who gets fired” (15-16). Murray’s opinion is that most large organizations in the private sector are run by curmudgeons just like him and that if you hope to succeed or go far in life you need to come to grips with what they are like and what they expect of you.

In a nutshell, this short and highly readable book (not to mention hilarious; yes, I broke out laughing numerous times while reading it) is designed to provide tips (grammatical, social, personal, relational, etc.) that will enable you to live a good and successful life in your chosen field of endeavor. So let me mention just a few that Murray discusses.

(1) Don’t suck up! Don’t flatter your supervisor or boss by pretending to agree with their bad ideas or attempt to ingratiate yourself with them when they are obviously in the wrong. Highly successful people tend to value honesty and courage. Murray isn’t recommending that you go out of your way to disagree with them or be deliberately abrasive. “Just don’t trim your views if they go against the grain of the discussion. Express yourself forthrightly, and the odds are that you’ll get points for it” (19).

(2) Don’t use first names with people considerably older than you until asked, and sometimes not even then. I don’t think that needs additional explanation.

(3) Excise the word “like” from your spoken English! Please! Murray’s advice regarding the use of “like” is simple and to the point: “STOP IT!” He’s convinced that there isn’t another flaw among members of recent generations that irritates curmudgeons more. “Many of us have a hard time staying in conversation with people who use like in every sentence. We resist hiring them. If assigned such people on our staffs, we avoid interacting with them. Yes, our reactions really can be that extreme. Even moderate use of like as a verbal tic lowers our estimate of the offender’s IQ and moral worth” (22).

(4) Stop “sharing” and simply “tell” people something. Stop “reaching out” and simply “invite” them. Murray has numerous other examples of poorly chosen words that we need to delete from our vocabulary and usage, such as the use of the word “data” as a singular noun (it’s plural) and the use of “grow” with reference to something that is not a plant or some other living thing (don’t speak of “growing the economy” or “growing your business”).

(5) Murray has a wonderfully helpful and pointed discussion of the use of the “F” word in our culture. For heaven’s sake, “F-ing” is not the only adjective in the English language! In fact, I’m not even sure it’s an adjective, but whatever it is, find a less offensive synonym!

(6) This next one may anger some of you. Says Murray, “If you have visible tattoos, piercings, or hair of a color not found in nature, curmudgeons will not hire you except for positions where they don’t have to see you, and perhaps not even those. If you are hired by someone else, curmudgeons will not give you a fair chance to prove yourself. In such cases, we judge on appearances, thinking that you embody that which we find most distasteful about the current cultural sensibility” (30). Murray concedes that it’s terribly unfair. “But you won’t get anywhere by trying to reason with us” (30).

(7) Murray also discusses proper dress for the office, the sorts of email and text-message abbreviations that drive him crazy, and overall manners at the office and in general.

(8) Quite a few curmudgeons, such as Murray, “believe that a malady afflicts many of today’s twenty-somethings: their sense of entitlement. It is their impression that too many of you think doing routine office tasks is beneath you, and your supervisors are insufficiently sensitive to your needs. Curmudgeons are also likely to think that you have a higher opinion of your abilities than your performance warrants” (42).

(9) Murray has numerous excellent insights on writing and speaking well. Here are a few:

the misuse of “disinterested” when you mean “uninterested”
99% of the time when people use the word “literally” they actually mean its opposite: “figuratively”
mistakenly putting an apostrophe in ‘its’ (‘its’ is the possessive; ‘it’s’ is the contraction of ‘it is’)
confusing “affect” (which is most often a verb) with “effect” (which is most often a noun)
using “unique” to mean “unusual” (“unique” means one of a kind, so something cannot be “somewhat unique” or “very unique”)
misuse of the phrase, “one of the only” (“only” means precisely that; there can’t be more than one!)
confusing “farther” with “further” (“farther” involves physical distance)
confusing “less” with “fewer” (when you are referring to an amount, use “less”; when you are referring to a number of things, use “fewer”; thus, you drink “less” milk but you drink “fewer” glasses of it)
using “concerted effort” when only one person is involved (by definition, a concerted effort can be made only by more than one person)
using “decimate” to mean destroy (“decimate” means to reduce by a tenth!)

Murray devotes several pages to other verbal and grammatical errors we make without thinking.

(10) The next section of the book is devoted to the formation of the individual. His advice is spot on. I’ll mention only two things.

First, “if you haven’t left home already, it’s time to jump out of the nest, and these days you can’t count on parents to do the right thing and push you out” (86). “Don’t argue that you can’t find a job that pays enough to support yourself. You can. You just can’t find a job that will support you in the style to which you have been accustomed. So accustom yourself to a new style. Learn to get by on little – prove to yourself how resourceful you can be. Move out. No matter what” (86).

Second, “being judgmental is good, and you don’t have a choice anyway” (104). The ability to make judgments about what is good and bad, or right and wrong, is what distinguishes Homo sapiens from every other living creature. Read the following explanation carefully:

“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. To refuse to think about what constitutes moral behavior – not just for you, but for human beings as a species – is to reject one of the fundamental responsibilities of living a human life” (110).

(11) Finally, although Murray describes himself as an agnostic (130), one of his recommendations to everyone is to take religion seriously, “especially if you’ve been socialized not to” (129). He doesn’t endorse many books, but he does encourage everyone to read C. S. Lewis’s, Mere Christianity.

Well, that’s enough. I trust you caught something of what Murray is attempting to accomplish in this little book. Please get it and read it. Even if you’re not a curmudgeon (like me!), you’ll eventually have to work for (or with) one, and you may end up growing into one as the years pass. So this book is a good place to start.


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