Long before the self-help genre was a multi-billion-dollar thing, a 17th-century Jesuit named Baltasar Gracián crafted 300 principles of success from his observations of successful merchants, artists, warriors, and nobility of of Europe. These centuries-old maxims remain remarkably relevant today.
Gracián was a Jesuit scholar, writer, and philosopher in 17th-century Spain and his work , translated as The Art of Worldly Wisdom, was later appreciated by folks such as Nietzsche and Churchill. Arthur Schopenhauer called it, “a unique book for constant use for those who wish to prosper in the great world.” In other words, a copy belongs right there next to your Stephen Covey and Tony Robbins tomes.
Here is my “best-of” selection of Gracián’s collected wisdom. (Today we would call these “tweets.”)
Master the art of being lucky. There are rules to luck, for to the wise not all is accident; therefore try to help luck along. Some are satisfied to politely stand and await the bidding of Fortune; better those who push forward, and who employ their enterprise, who on the wings of their worth and valor seek to embrace luck and effectively gain her favor. No one has more good luck, or more bad luck, than he has wisdom or unwisdom. — In other words, Gracián says you gotta make your own breaks, folks.
Make courtesy your calling-card. Politeness is the main ingredient of culture. It is neglected nowadays and seems out of date. Truth-speaking, and keeping your word seem to come from the good old times. What a misfortune for our age that it regards virtue as a stranger and vice as a matter of course! Better too much courtesy than too little; it costs little and helps much. Politeness and honor have the advantage that they remain with him who displays them to others. — As Aretha sang, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, right?
Give to live. The wise man would rather see men needing him than thanking him. More is to be got from dependence than from courtesy. He that has satisfied his thirst turns his back on the well; when dependence disappears, so does good behavior and respect. Let it be one of the chief lessons of experience to keep hope alive without entirely satisfying it, by preserving it to make oneself always needed even by the wealthy and powerful.
— Pro tip: Gracián is saying that while you should be courteous and polite, and doing so can set you apart, don’t count on it from others.
The power of patience. Never be in a hurry, never be in a passion. First be master over yourself if you would be master over others. You must patiently pass through the circumference of time before arriving at the center of opportunity. A wise reserve seasons the aims and matures the means. Time’s crutch affects more than the iron club of Hercules. Remember the maxim: “Time and I against any two.” Fortune herself rewards waiting with the first prize. — A tad wordy, but you can feel him here. In a world of instant gratification, patience can be an ally.
Control your image. Do not be a wild card, a jack-of-all-trades. It is great misfortune to be of use to nobody—scarcely less to be of use to everybody. People who reach this stage lose by gaining, and in the end bore those who desired them before. The remedy against this extreme is to moderate your brilliance. Be extraordinary in your excellence, if you like, but be ordinary in your display of it. The more light a torch gives, the more it burns away and the nearer it is to burning out. Show yourself less and you will be rewarded by being esteemed more. — Too much of anything is too much, and sometimes this includes ourselves.
Stay relevant. Thought and taste change with the times. Do not be old-fashioned in your ways of thinking, and let your taste be in the modern style. In everything the taste of the many carries the votes; one must follow it in the hope of leading to higher things. In the adornment of the body as of the mind adapt yourself to the present, even though the past may appear better. — Don’t get hung up on the good old days.
Stand for something. The world is in chaos. Honorable dealing is deteriorating, good friends are few, truth is held in disrepute, good service is underpaid, poor service is overpaid. Whole nations are committed to evil dealings: With one you fear insecurity, with another, inconsistency, with a third, betrayal. This being what it is, let the bad faith of others serve not as an example, but as warning. The real danger of the situation lies in the unhinging of your own integrity: accepting less than your best, being overly tolerant of stupidity, forgiving incompetence, and fraternizing with the non-spiritual. The man of principle never forgets what he is, because he clearly sees what the others are. — Be the hero people are looking for.
Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Arouse no exaggerated expectations. It is easy to form ideals but very difficult to realize them. However excellent something is, it never suffices to fulfill expectations. As people find themselves disappointed they are more readily disillusioned than impressed. A few credible attempts at the beginning are sufficient to arouse curiosity without pledging one to the final object. It is better that reality should surpass the design and it turns out better than was thought. — Pro tip: Promise low, deliver high.
Stay on your game. Vary your mode of action. So as to distract attention, do not always do things the same way, especially if you have a rival. Do not always act on first impulse; people will soon recognize the uniformity and, by anticipating, frustrate your designs. It is easy to kill a bird on the wing that flies straight, not so one that twists and turns. The enemy is on the watch, great skill is required to outwit him. The gamester never plays the card the opponent expects, still less the one he wants. — I just love the word, “gamester.”
On selling. Know how to sell your wares, and to get your price.Their intrinsic worth is not enough as most run where the crowd is, running because the others run. It is a great art to know how to sell, and to intend your goods for the sophisticated only, as it whets the public appetite, for everybody thinks himself sophisticated, and if he is not, then his sense of lack will spur on his desire. Never should your business be accounted easy or ordinary, for to make things easy is to make it common; and all have an itch for the unusual.
— Everybody wants the next big thing.
Weather the storm. Know your unlucky days. For such there are, when nothing goes right, and even though the game may change, the bad luck does not. The man of judgment will not let one throw mark the day unlucky, or lucky, for the former may have been only mischance, and the latter only happy accident. But a shrewd person will not decide on the day’s luck by a single piece of good or bad fortune, for the one may be only a lucky chance and the other only a slight annoyance. — Hey, you win some, you lose some.
Beware idle chit-chat. Conversation is where the real personality shows itself. No act in life requires more attention, though it may be the commonest thing in life. You must either lose or gain by it. The pulse of the soul is in the tongue, wherefore the sage said, “Speak, that I may know thee.” This holds good for talk between friends. To be appropriate, the conversation should adapt itself to the mind and tone of the conversationalist. And do not be a critic of words, or you will be taken for a pedant; nor a always play first fiddle and you second. If you get any consideration, it is only his leavings. The moon shines bright alone among the stars: when the sun rises she becomes either invisible or imperceptible. Never join one that eclipses you, but rather one who sets you in a brighter light. — As the old adage goes, we have two ears and one mouth so we should listen twice as much as we speak.
The importance of planning. Plan today for tomorrow, and even for many days hence. The greatest foresight consists in determining beforehand the time of trouble. We must not put off thought until we are up to the chin in mire. Mature reflection can get over the most formidable difficulty. It is better to sleep on things beforehand than lie awake about them afterwards. Many act first and then think after—that is, they think less of consequences than of excuses: others think neither before nor after. The whole of life should be one course of thought how not to miss the right path. Rumination and foresight enable one to determine the line of life. — In other words, don’t wing it.
Know how to say, “no.” Since you cannot consent to everything, or to everybody, it becomes important to know how to honorably refuse. The “no” of one man is more esteemed than the “yes” of another; for a “no” that is gilded may be more satisfying than a dry “yes.” Refusal should never be flat, nor should it be absolute, for some remnant of hope must be kept alive to sweeten the bitterness of the refusal. “Yes” and “no” are quickly spoken, but they demand long consideration. — This is key, especially with so many requests for our time.
Know what people want. Discover each man’s thumbscrew. It is the way to move his will, more skill than force being required to know how to get at the heart of anyone: There is no will without its leanings, which differ as desires differ. All men worship idols, some of honor, others of greed, and the most of pleasure. The secret lies in knowing these idols that are so powerful, thus knowing the impulse that moves every man. Know a person’s mainspring of motive and you have the key to his will. — That last sentence is pitch perfect.
Guard your rep. Do nothing to make you lose respect for yourself, or to cheapen yourself in your own eyes. Let your own integrity be the standard of rectitude, and let your own dictates be stricter than the precepts of any law. Forego the unseemly, more because of this fear of yourself, than for fear of the sternness of outer authority. Learn this fear of yourself; and there will be no need for a monitor. — Preach, Baltasar.
There you have it. The Art of Worldly Wisdom is just as relevant to the motivation-minded today as it was for the nobles who first read it back in 1637.