Interview: Curmudgeon Charles Murray Has Advice for Ambitious Young Adults

If you are a recent college graduate, or you are looking for a graduation gift, Charles Murray's new book may be for you. The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don'ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life compiles many pieces of advice for young adults entering the workforce.

Murray, a political scientist and W. H. Brady scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, initially wrote many parts of the book for AEI's young interns through its internal electronic communication board. He was eventually encouraged to collect all of those thoughts for the book.

The book includes a wide variety of topics, including language and writing, personal appearance, manners and etiquette, the types of jobs to look for, what to do about an incompetent boss, and when and who to marry.

The book may not be appropriate for all young adults, Murray acknowledges. His advice comes from his long career working with people in the "corporate, financial, publishing, journalistic and scholarly worlds." He has no experience in the information technology or entertainment industries, but "most organizations in the private sector are run by curmudgeons like me."

In a Tuesday email interview with The Christian Post, Murray writes about his target audience and how he, though an agnostic, concluded that a good life can be found by taking religion seriously.

Here is the unedited interview:

CP: Why should anyone take advice from a curmudgeon?

Murray: If you're talking about the dictionary definition of "curmudgeon" – a grumpy old man – no one should. I made up my own definition: "Your bosses 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." Since it takes a curmudgeon to know a curmudgeon, it's not a bad idea for new graduates to pay attention to the things I know that they don't.

CP: Is today's generation of young adults, those in their 20s, different than previous generations?

Murray: I can't generalize for the whole generation. If you're asking about my target audience of young adults – high IQ, ambitious, probably with a new college degree – I think the biggest difference is how many of them lack exposure to a real workplace before graduating.

A lot of them have held internships, but that's useless (interns can't get fired). Remarkably few of them have been working construction, or clerking in stores, or waiting tables during their summers, let alone during the school year. That leaves a lot of them as naifs when they get their first job. And often they are naifs whose feelings are easily hurt by a boss who is insufficiently attentive to their feelings. Or to put it even more broadly, I think there's a resilience problem among my target audience. It's not their fault. They have been the victims of a deprived upbringing in which way too many of the adults in their lives were always patient and understanding. But, as I put it in the book, they come to adulthood with the resilience of Baccarat champagne flutes.

CP: You point out that today's curmudgeons are different than previous generations of curmudgeons in that they are more likely to hide their curmudgeonly thoughts. Why is that?

Murray: Partly because so many of them are aging baby-boomers who have been scared to death of appearing old and out of date since they left their own 20s. To voice one's curmudgeonly thoughts – "I hate tattoos," "If that kid says 'like' even one more time, I'm going to fire him," and such things, instantly labels one as a geezer. And don't discount the extent to which closeted curmudgeons feel guilty about their grumpy thoughts. They know they're supposed to be in touch with their feelings, supportive, compassionate, and they want to be seen as the great boss who is a wonderful mentor and a people person. Whatever happened to the "tough but fair" boss? The "crusty but lovable in a funny kind of way" boss? I dunno, but they are not in vogue.

CP: You advise those who do not take religion seriously to do so. You also describe yourself as agnostic with regard to religion. How did an agnostic come to the conclusion that people can improve their lives by taking religion seriously?

Murray: It's my wife's doing. She has been taking religion seriously for about 25 years now – she was a lapsed Methodist in her late 30s, and then found Quakerism – and watching her has made me realize a couple of things. First, it's palpably obvious to me that serious Christians (I'll talk in terms of the religion I've been watching) have some things going for them that I wish I shared. It's hard to describe, but watching them gives me the uneasy feeling that they know something I don't.

Second, I've come to realize that being serious about religion takes concentration and work. It's great if someone has a road-to-Damascus experience, but I think that deep and lasting faith is a lifetime project, and includes a lot of homework.

Third, I cannot escape the power of the Christian story. I think I'm very much where C.S. Lewis was before he converted. Certainly, I find that Mere Christianity speaks to me. So why am I still an agnostic? Beats me. I'm in the middle of a process that may very well lead me to where C.S. Lewis ended up, but it would be dishonest of me to claim that I'm there yet.

CP: Regarding young adults who do have strong religious commitments and are just entering the workforce, any advice you would give them?

Murray: I guess I'm more worried about them when they enter college. The degree to which the zeitgeist in college says "smart people don't believe that stuff any more" can be intimidating to 19-year-olds who consider themselves smart and deeply want to be accepted as smart by their peers and professors. It takes a lot of courage, self-confidence, and stubbornness to be an openly committed Christian - or openly committed to any of the great religious traditions – as an undergraduate in selective colleges or in the honors programs of large universities.

I think the social pressure to be an atheist once you get off a college campus and into a workplace drops precipitously. Maybe my workplace isn't typical. The president of AEI is a devout Christian, as are several senior scholars, and AEI also has scholars like Leon Kass, who has written luminous works about Judaism. But I'm not sure that AEI is so exceptional. A lot more workplaces have religiously devout people in senior positions than colleges do.

CP: Could it be that curmudgeons just need to lighten up?

Murray: Bah. Humbug.

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