The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead and related random thoughts

I just finished Charles Murray’s The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life.  It’s a short book and actually targeted at 20 somethings just starting out in the world (a fact I didn’t realize when I bought the book).  Murray is an American right-of-centre political and social scientist and his last book, Coming Apart, was a very good read.  It was a data rich commentary on the causes of the widening gap between the rich and poor in the US.

The Curmudgeon’s Guide is his view of how a young person today should start out on their own and has some interesting tips and ideas but I couldn’t help thinking that Murray (71 years old) is actually talking to my generation (40s).   Some of the stuff he talks about I think has actually mutated once or even twice since he was starting out.

The most interesting thing for me, as a Canadian from a small urban area in New Brunswick, is his advice to the middle upper class young people that are reading his book.  They were pampered by their parents, went to all the right schools, worked internships but never grunt work.  The way he describes these kids – as if they had never been in contact with the rest of us.  He recommends they work a part time job in a restaurant or work in a resort as a waiter for a summer.   He wants them to immerse themselves in the lives of the ‘rest of America’.  This is actually a theme coming out of his last book.

For me this is a strange narrative.  I went to all the wrong schools, scrubbed toilets and flipped pizza all the way through university and then climbed my way from a temporary, two-month job at $12/hour working in government to a reasonably successful career where folks pay me a fairly good amount of money to provide my thoughts and ideas on various subjects.

I did have one interesting ‘internship’ that is usually reserved for high rollers. I’m not sure how it happened but I was a page in the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick in 1991 and the other pages were high rollers.  One is a big time lawyer in Moncton and previously rumoured candidate to take over from Shawn Graham.  I’ll let you figure that one out.

This kind of mashing together rich, middle and poor in New Brunswick (and much of Canada) has definite benefits.  We don’t have the hard and fast class distinctions as in the US.  I went to school with all kinds.  I was kind of poor as a kid (not dirt poor) but I didn’t know it.  My dad always drove a new car and we lived in decent housing.  My kids today all have friends from all ‘classes’ such as that is in Moncton.  This is probably a big reason why we don’t have as much an issue with class distinction and social mobility.

But at the same time I worry there is a tendency to drop expectations to the lowest common denominator.    When a high school brings in a program for the ‘advanced’ kids, it is frowned upon by some.  When we do anything to separate excellence out of the pack, we have this gnawing feeling that we shouldn’t be leaving the rest behind.

But we need some folks to stand out.   To be excellent in business, entrepreneurship, the arts, etc.  We need to be a society where everyone has the chance to pursue their dreams but we can’t resent the folks that end up outperforming everyone else.

There has to be a Canadian way where you can have a good Gini coefficient and have an environment where some folks excel.  If the bookends are a highly stratified society where only a smaller and smaller group get into the top and a completely equal society where everyone waits in bread lines in their single pair of shoes, I think we have to find a middle way.


2 thoughts on “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead and related random thoughts

  1. > we can’t resent the folks that end up outperforming everyone else.

    I don’t think we do. What we resent are the liars and the cheaters, the people who abuse their positions, the people who steal, the people who victimize the poor and the elderly.

  2. You went to school with all kinds did you? You walked past and were regularly brutalized by the druggies? You went to school like on the Simpsons, where brutality was the norm? Your school was like fort knox because of the XXXX kids who would beat the heck out of you for the slightest of reasons. You spent your lunch hours and after school watching over your little brother so he didn’t get thrown into a garbage can and thrown into the river?

    Heck, in New Brunswick its built right in. In Fredericton its called “Ecole Ste. Anne”. Or Rothesay Netherwood, which will cost you $55,000 a year. In Oromocto they had two middle schools, one that the enlisted men, people who lived in the cheap apartments, and native kids went to, and one that officers and higher income people went to. It was only in the last decade that they finally started mixing up the schools population.

    You had a page job (which most parents in Fredericton would kill to get their kids), made $12 an hour, which would be about $18 today, something most people raising a family don’t make. I believe you went to an american school, which in this country meant more than the best canadian schools (granted, not so much anymore). Even that guy who lied about his degree and ran the energy institute only went to Maine and Winsconsin,but it still got him plum jobs. So, no, not quite the working class hero.

    Its those in the upper income levels who NEVER see class structures. Its ironic because in the states they will EMPHATICALLY tell you there are no class divisions-that is something the british do (and by extension Canada).
    You may not see class distinctions, but like most upper class white guys, you probably don’t do much ‘slumming’. They are all over the place. When I first moved to ontario I got a job as a landscaping foreman based on the fact that I went to university and was the only guy who wore a suit to the interview. And I’ll be the first to admit that any of those guys who showed up in jeans would have done a far better job.

    It wasn’t the fact that you think that you had ‘lousy jobs’, its the fact that you HAD jobs, and were able to do them fairly well. You probably weren’t worried whether your drug addled sister was going to show up at your apartment and rob you, or whether your supervisor was going to fire you that day because you refused his generous offer of a promotion if you slept with him, or whether your dad with alzheimer’s is going to wander out into traffic again, or whether your sisters boyfriend is going to keep hitting on you, or whether your ADHD medication is going to need to be changed because of the increased stress, or deal with massive cramps because its that time of the month, or worry about your children or siblings being beaten up at school….and on and on.

    Sorry to be so critical, but if you are thinking that the big distinction here is that ‘rich kids never do grunt work’, and ‘poor kids do’, then you are missing the whole point of WHY people reject the trickle down notion of having programs in our educational system where ‘smarter’ kids can excel and then go on to create jobs for the dumber kids.

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