The Magazine

Back to Basics

The right way, and the wrong way, to begin the journey.

Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By KELLY JANE TORRANCE
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Charles Murray was invited to speak in April at Azusa Pacific University about this, his latest book. The event had been scheduled for months, but two days before Murray’s appearance the president of Azusa Pacific canceled it, writing to the American Enterprise Institute (where Murray is the W. H. Brady scholar) that “I realized we needed more time to prepare for a visit.” What had frightened the president? Advice to work hard, eschew the allures of fame and fortune, cover any visible tattoos? Perhaps this admonition: “Excise the word like from your spoken English.” Of course, it wasn’t the actual topic of his graduation-season talk that made Charles Murray the latest victim of academic intolerance: Just two of the 22 chapters in his 1994 study The Bell Curve (written with Richard Herrnstein) dealt with race, but those were the two that got the most attention.

Charles Murray

Charles Murray

The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead is a small, chatty volume offering advice about starting adult life on the right foot; it won’t garner the controversy The Bell Curve did. But as befits a product from one of our most astute social scientists, The Curmudgeon’s Guide is no token graduation gift along the lines of, say, Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! In telling the young how not to act, Murray explains why so many need his advice. Bad behavior often shares origins with wider social ills.

Take one passage from the first section, “On the Presentation of Self in the Workplace.” Murray notes that “too many of you think doing routine office tasks is beneath you, and your supervisors are insufficiently sensitive to your needs.” He warns readers to “be advised that curmudgeons are hypersensitive to any vibe that you give off when you’re told to go pick up something in the mailroom. You don’t have to say anything, or even roll your eyes. The slightest of sighs will lodge in their memory like their first kiss, only in a bad way.”

Wise words, and Murray could have ended them there. But he goes on to unravel why that sense of entitlement has become so widespread. It began with the baby boomers—the original Me Generation—and was furthered by postwar prosperity. 

More young adults now have grown up as the only child in the family, never having had to share their parents’ attention and get along with siblings. Increasing affluence has meant that adolescents with siblings often reach college without ever having shared a bedroom with another person, maybe not even a bathroom. 

With the increasing ability to conduct life electronically—from ordering food to finding a spouse—manners are likely only to get worse. 

Murray might be a curmudgeon, but he hasn’t lost touch with his youth, or his youthful missteps. An amusing anecdote from his own career illustrates the pitfalls of the modern dress code. “A few decades ago,” he writes, “I had dashed into the office just to pick up something and leave. I wasn’t going to be in the building more than ten minutes, so I arrived wearing a flannel shirt and jeans.” As the elevator door opened, “out stepped Irving Kristol, AEI’s most revered scholar. Irving was a warm and unpretentious person and a good friend. But there was no warmth in his eyes as he deliberately looked me up and down; said, ‘Well, what have we here?’; and walked away without another word.” From then on, “I never arrived at AEI in anything except a coat and tie.”

Such guidance for the workplace makes up the first half of the book. “Internships are affirmative action for the advantaged,” he declares. (They also don’t expose you to anyone outside your own caste.) “What to do if you have a bad boss” is especially helpful, its counsel often missing from this sort of book. But more important than getting ahead—and more useful than his “bare-bones usage primer”—is getting to the good life. “Two accomplishments will, if you pull them off, almost surely produce happiness: Find work that you enjoy, and find your soul mate.” 

The “easy part,” he says, is “finding your vocation.” For the harder task, he offers some unexpectedly specific advice: When, for example, should one give up on a potential partner? “Do you sometimes pick at each other’s sore spots? You have fun together, the sex is great, but one of you is controlling, or nags the other, or won’t let a difference of opinion go.” Forget the twentysomethings: This is an insight that many don’t begin to fathom until they’re older, and some never do, to their misfortune. Murray offered this more succinct summary in a recent talk: “How do I define ‘soul mate’? Your soul mate is someone you really, really, really like and to whom you also feel some sexual attraction.”

And he leaves those in search of a good and happy life with one final tip: Read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics carefully and/or watch Groundhog Day repeatedly. The combination of the serious and the silly makes that particular movie “a profound moral fable” worth seeing over and over again. That same combination makes The Curmudgeon’s Guide worth examining long after you’ve learned the difference between “which” and “that.”

Kelly Jane Torrance is assistant managing editor of The Weekly Standard.