Interview: Charles Murray on The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead


What is a curmudgeon? “Well, the technical definition is a grumpy old man, and I fit that pretty well,” Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute says kiddingly in our latest interview. But curmudgeons of both sexes are people “who are inwardly somewhat grumpy about the sensibility of the world in which their new employees are coming to work and make hasty and pitiless judgments when they don’t like something.”


And one thing they really don’t like, he adds, are young people entering the corporate world after graduating from elite colleges, where they’ve been taught that they were special, delicate snowflakes. To help young people negotiate the minefield that is their first corporate job, Murray recently wrote, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life.

During our interview, he’ll discuss:

● The inspiration of the new book.

● His recent “open letter to the students of Azusa Pacific University,” after the university rescinded his speaking opportunity.

● What does the average curmudgeon think about tattoos, piercings, and hair colors not found in nature?

● Now that age of the mandatory suit and tie has passed in many industries, how does a new employ navigate the complexities of contemporary office dress?

● How did young people gain such a sense of supreme entitlement?

● What’s wrong with being “nonjudgmental?”

● Plus some thoughts on Murray’s earlier books, such as Apollo and Coming Apart.

And much more. Click here to listen:


(17 minutes, 31 seconds long; 16 MB file size. Want to download instead of streaming? Right click here to download this interview to your hard drive. Or right click here to download the 5 MB lo-fi edition.)

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Transcript of our interview begins on the following page; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.


MR. DRISCOLL:  This is Ed Driscoll for PJ, and we’re talking with Dr. Charles Murray, the author of 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 published by Random House, and available from and your local bookstore. And Charles, thank you for stopping by today.

MR. MURRAY:  My pleasure, Ed.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Charles, could you talk about how your new book came about?

MR. MURRAY:  Yeah.  It was just a chance.  We have interns and young staff at the American Enterprise Institute and they were getting weekly tips on our local Intranet for staff on English usage.  And I have all of these opinions that I’ve been voicing over the dinner table all these years, and I said hey, this is my chance to vent to a somewhat larger audience, but I still won’t get in any trouble.


So I did that.  And as time went on, people liked the tips and somebody said you ought to make them into a book.  So I did.

MR. DRISCOLL:  We should probably start with the title.  How do you define the word “curmudgeon?”

MR. MURRAY:  Well, the technical definition is a grumpy old man, and I fit that pretty well.  But I expand it in the book to refer to senior people of either sex in organizations who are inwardly somewhat grumpy about the sensibility of the world in which their new employees are coming to work and make hasty and pitiless judgments when they don’t like something.

What I’m really trying to do, Ed, is say to new graduates entering the workplace, people aren’t going to tell you that they’re thinking these things, but they are.  And you ought to be aware of it.

MR. DRISCOLL:  As I was prepping for this interview, I came across your “open letter to the students of Azusa Pacific University.”

MR. MURRAY:  Just this morning.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Could you discuss what happened there?

MR. MURRAY:  Oh, I was going to go speak to them tomorrow ‑‑ actually going to be talking about Curmudgeon’s Guide, and this has been in my calendar for a couple of months.  And I have discovered, as of yesterday afternoon, that they have decided my appearance should be postponed on account of needing more time for a review of my full scholarship.

Well, the thought police has struck again.  And so I decided that I would vent a little bit regarding that.  So I did an open letter that I posted on AEI’s Ideas page, its blog.

I had a lot of fun writing it, by the way.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Do you think the postponement is a euphemism for cancelled?

MR. MURRAY:  Yeah.  It definitely is.  And I will also say they may think they postponed it, but I certainly don’t look at it that way.  I think that the administration behaved in that kind of way which most irritates me.

Ed, the degree of cowardice, just plain, simple cowardice in academia is unbelievable.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Charles, we’ll come back to higher education’s often sadly low state in a moment, but I wanted to get into the content of the book itself. What does the average curmudgeon think about tattoos, piercings, and hair colors not found in nature?

MR. MURRAY:  We don’t like ’em.

And the problem here is that I have run into members of the younger generation with tattoos who want to explain it to me, that this is a new art form and I don’t understand the aesthetics of tattoos and I’m living in the past.

To which my response in the book is look, do you want to say that I and other curmudgeons are being unreasonable when we don’t want to hire you because you have a tattoo?  Yeah, we’re being unreasonable.  That doesn’t change the reality that if you walk into a job interview with visible tattoos, with a whole lot of senior people in a whole lot of organizations, you have two-and-a-half strikes against you right off the bat.


MR. DRISCOLL:  You mentioned office clothing in the Curmudgeon’s Guide. I remember a few years ago, I visited the giant Adobe software company building in downtown San Jose to write a magazine article. The inversion going on there was just fascinating: those on the lowest totem pole, the security guards wore ties, the janitors wore uniforms, and the higher you want up the corporate ladder, the funkier one could be dressed. Beyond Silicon Valley, how does one negotiate, as you put it, “the minefield of contemporary office dress?”

MR. MURRAY:  Well, if I were given a job as a twenty-three year old in Silicon Valley, I would watch very closely how the people three or four rungs above me dressed.  And I would model my dress code on theirs.  There is ‑‑ you know, you’re talking to a guy who works at home, and if you were to pop in on me unannounced at 9:30 in the morning, you would see me sitting there unshaven with a T-shirt on and my hair uncombed.  So I’m in no position to talk about any standards of dress.  But you do want to be in tune with whatever those standards are in your organization.

MR. DRISCOLL:  I think in The Curmudgeon’s Guide, you talk about going into the AEI building twenty years ago and running into…was it Irving Kristol?

MR. MURRAY:  It was Irving Kristol.

I was popping in to pick up something from AEI; I was going to be in and out in ten minutes.  So I had a flannel shirt on and Levis.  Irving Kristol was a good friend of mine, but he was also a very revered older figure.  And he was this sweetheart, but he got out of that elevator and saw me in my flannel shirt and jeans, and he very deliberately looked me up and down and said what have we here, and walked away.

And as I said in the book, for the next twenty years, I never went inside AEI’s front door without a coat and tie in place.

MR. DRISCOLL:  There’s a section in The Curmudgeon’s Guide called “The Unentitled Shall Inherit the Earth” in which you write the quote, “Many curmudgeons believe that a malady affects 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 some of your performance warrants.”

This dovetails of some of your previous books such as Coming Apart, but how did young people gain such a sense of supreme entitlement?

MR. MURRAY:  Well, it’s not their fault; they were raised by baby boomers and their immediate successors.  I’m talking about upper middle class kids, basically, now.  They were raised in an environment where the most important thing their parents could do was to raise their self-esteem which means that they were not criticized, their parents were patient and understanding, and then their schoolteachers were patient and understanding.  They went to colleges which, in my view, have become institutions for prolonging adolescence rather than halfway houses to adulthood, and those professors were patient and understanding.


So how else are you going to feel when you get to your first job except that I’m a very special person and you expect to be treated with consideration and you’ve never been in a supervisor-subordinate relationship in many cases because you probably haven’t held summer jobs, you know, waiting tables.  So what do you expect?  Of course they feel entitled.  I’m doing my very best to disabuse them of that.

Supervisor-subordinate relationships are not filled with patience and understanding.

MR. DRISCOLL:  It doesn’t sound like there’s much of a coincidence that as young people gained a massive sense of entitlement, their thinking and writing skills, largely, deteriorated.  What advice do you have for young people to sharpen both their cognitive and their journalistic skills?

MR. MURRAY:  Get a really, really talented writer as a supervisor who is also nasty.  The way to improve your writing is to have someone whose writing you admire rip your own writing apart.  That sure worked for me when I was at a mentor.

We’re talking about something, Ed, that I think is really important to understand.  I’m not talking about being mean and nasty in the same flippant way I just put it.  The fact is who are the teachers that we remember with the greatest gratitude and the greatest affection?  They were not the nice guys.  They were the ones who held our feet to our fire and one day, after we tried as hard as we possibly could, they sort of said well, not bad.  And that was a compliment that we’d treasure forever after.

It’s a wonderful experience.  It’s the kind that my generation, the baby boomers, have been criminally negligent at giving to our kids.

MR. DRISCOLL:  There’s a wonderful piece of advice in The Curmudgeon’s Guide for young people from elite backgrounds to, in addition to working in places such as soup kitchens or Habitat for Humanity, to spend plenty of time with what you would call the vast middle.  What would they learn from that?

MR. MURRAY:  They would learn something really valuable because a lot of these kids are going to rise to positions where they have great influence over the culture and politics and the economy of the United States.  They would learn that there is a huge population of people out there who do not have degrees from Harvard and Yale ‑‑ they may not have college degrees at all ‑‑ they’re working as insurance agents and shopkeepers and welders and things like this, and guess what: in their neighborhoods, in their towns, they can handle their lives just fine, thank you very much.  They do not require your benevolence and your compassion and your superior wisdom as how to live their lives.


I think one of the big problems we have right now is a ruling class which is increasingly ignorant of the resilience, the resourcefulness, the decency of ordinary Americans with whom they have had very little contact.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Charles, your 2012 book, Coming Apart helped to introduce a phrase that brilliantly sums up elite leftists. As you write, “The new upper class still does a good job of practicing some of the virtues, but it no longer preaches them. It has lost self-confidence in the rightness of its own customs and values, and preaches nonjudgmentalism instead.”

Considering Ayn Rand was standing for the judgmentalism in her 1964 book, the Virtue of Selfishness, It seems that the concept of nonjudgmentalism has been in the general culture since at least the 1950s. And as you write in the new book, “Being judgmental is good, and you don’t have a choice anyway.” That’s bound to shake a few people – and not just millenials. Could you talk about the virtues of judgmentalism?

MR. MURRAY: I’m baffled by the nonjudgmentalism because there is a big difference between being tolerant and making judgments.  I’m a Libertarian so I think there should be very few laws against just about anything, laws that can be enforced by the cops and where they can throw you in jail and that kind of thing.  So I am tolerant of a wide variety of behaviors of which I may personally disapprove.

That has no relationship whatsoever to my responsibility as a human being to make judgments as best I possibly can about right and wrong, good and bad, truth and falsehood, beauty and ugliness, the good and the bad.  You know, all of these things, when we are forming our own selves, require us to do the very best we can.  And that means judgments reached after hard homework and thought.

The reason I say we don’t have a choice anyway is we have judgments.  I mean, just being awake from moment to moment, we make judgments about things.  The question is, are you going to make them rigorously and wisely, or are you going to be sloppy and foolish about them.

MR. DRISCOLL: Charles, the first book you co-wrote that I read was your brilliant 1989 book Apollo, co-written with your wife Catherine Bly Cox, which focused not on the astronauts, but on the young short sleeve shirt, skinny tie and Hush Puppy shoe clad engineers who staffed NASA facilities such as Mission Control. How did those people measure up to the advice you offer in the Curmudgeon’s Guide, and how do they compare to the uber-politically correct NASA of today?

MR. MURRAY:  They were the embodiment of what twenty-somethings should be, and I could rhapsodize for them at some period of time.  Just let me put it this way:  Mission Control during the Apollo program, when the prestige of the nation was dependent on split second decisions by those kids, guys sitting in mission control. Because don’t kid yourself; those are the guys who could save or lose a mission much more than the astronauts could; the people who were doing it were in their twenties.  They were being led by flight directors who were in their early thirties.  They were taking on responsibilities on the full floodlight of worldwide attention and pulling it off.


I mean, you talk about self-discipline, you talk about passion, all the things that I want this generation to be.  And I started out by saying I had a great time writing this book.  The only other book that even competes with being as much fun to write was Apollo.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Is it a coincidence that as NASA’s culture has changed, it has seemed to dramatically lose its way over the past several years?

MR. MURRAY:  No.  What happened with NASA was it became a bureaucracy.  The race to the moon was a race as to whether we could get there before NASA became a bureaucracy.

[During the 1960s], the decade when we got there, NASA was run like an entrepreneurial wide-open venture.  You know, people ignoring organization charts, talking to whoever could solve the problem, riding roughshod over rules and regulations, doing what needed to be done.  No large government organization can be like that for very long and even by the time the latter moon missions were going on, NASA was already solidifying into a normal, unfortunately, bureaucracy.

MR. DRISCOLL: Charles, last question. Your previous book, Coming Apart, painted a rather bleak portrait of America in the Obama years. The fact that you needed to write the Curmudgeon’s Guide indicates that there are significant gaps in the basic common sense that young people used to be taught. Where do you see the American culture headed in the next decade or so?

MR. MURRAY:  Well, just let me interject that I’m not blaming it on the Obama years; I’m saying that we’re looking at an evolution that’s been going on for a long time.  The Obama years are a continuation of it.

I think a lot depends on whether we have a cultural renewal in this country.  And a lot of whether that cultural renewal takes place will be determined by the behavior of the new elite and whether they will decide that it’s time for them to get their act together in terms of the role they are playing in America’s culture.  And they have been remiss, so far.  I see hopeful signs that a lot of them are beginning to see that they’ve got to start behaving differently, and I will do everything I can to push that healthy urge along.

MR. DRISCOLL:  This is Ed Driscoll and we’ve been talking with Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute and the author of 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 published by Random House, and available from and your local bookstore. And Charles, thanks once again for stopping by PJ


MR. MURRAY:  My pleasure.  Thanks, Ed.

(End of recording; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.)

Transcribed by, with minor revisions (including hyperlinks) by Ed Driscoll. Artwork created using elements from



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