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 It is neglected nowadays and seems out of date.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 isdeteriorating, 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.
Asked to envision Ernest Hemingway, many people picture the great American author knocking back Daiquiris at the El Floridita Bar in Havana, marlin fishing off Key West, or perhaps stalking the Serengeti for a trophy lion. It’s difficult to imagine him, well, “working.”
The truth is, Hemingway worked very hard. And he was undeniably consistent. The regulars at Sloppy Joes remembered the Mojitos and the laughs and the sunsets, but they didn’t see him get up every morning and hit the typewriter (yes the manual kind where you had to punch the keys with your fingers) and pound out a 1000 words a day. “I start in at seven in the morning,” Hemingway said of his routine. “And I always quit when I’m going good, so that I’ll be able to pick right up again the next day.” The key is he did that nearly every day, week after week, for 30 years.
Is this easy to do? No way. It’s easier to sleep in the next morning, maybe try some ‘hair of the dog,’ or put it off another day. That’s what most people would do. But most people don’t produce 7 novels, 60 short stories and nab a Nobel Prize and a Pulitzer before retiring to the Happy Hunting Grounds in the sky.
This disciplined schedule allowed Hemingway the afternoons and evenings to indulge in his favorite pursuits such as fishing (or wooing a new wife). But even then, Hemingway was always working. Once, while out on his boat, Pilar, Hemingway spied a weathered, elderly man in a small boat dwarfed by the enormity of the Gulfstream. This image became the idea for the famed novella, “The Old Man and the Sea.”
At the bar Hemingway also worked; taking in the conversations, the tales, and the mannerisms of the colorful characters he encountered and working them into his stories bright and early the next morning. And it was the thought and effort he put into these stories that got them read and made him a success.
Maybe Hemingway drank too much, or fished too much, or walked down the aisle a few too many times, but he never let his vices or personal pursuits compromise his work. He pulled off this trick by having a daily game plan and sticking to it.
Oh, and he also liked to type standing up, before the stand-up desk was a thing.
Different gumshoes take different approaches. Agatha Christie’s gentlemanly Hercule Poirot uses a Sherlock Holmes-style of methodical deduction to solve the case; and Mickey Spillaine’s hardboiled Mike Hammer has no qualms about getting in someone’s face and throwing a few elbows.
You might be inclined to try a little combination. As Raymond Chandler wrote, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” You’ve got troubles, so let’s get crackin.’
1. Define the problem. You know what it is. In any good book it’s front and center and smacks you in the face. In crime fiction it’s a dead starlet in a pool, a missing Picasso, and a revolver with the hero’s prints on it. For you it might be legal trouble, the pressure to get a new job, a crushing debt, or a potential health issue.
2. Gather the clues. Set aside some time to consider the case. Need a job? What’s the best city for your industry? Got debt? What expenses are draining you? Got a persistent pain? Research the possible causes for your ailment. That means pounding some pavement along with some computer keys.
3. Set a deadline. Putting it off is no longer an option. If you don’t set a deadline then someone else will—the bank will foreclose on your home, the lawyers will get involved in a personal dispute, or that health problem will turn into something worse.
4. Identify the antagonist. Who’s holding you back? Not that you have to be paranoid, but there are toxic people who like you to stay just where you are, wallowing in your troubles. As they say, misery loves company. They’ll tell you there isn’t much hope, and they’ll point to the economy, the health care system, or the government to make their case, but tell ’em you ain’t buyin.’ Do your best to avoid negative people, negative news, legal entanglements, and doctors with answers that don’t seem to click. Did Bogart let anyone get in his face? Neither should you.
5. Find your allies. Every town is tough. But there is someone out there willing to cut you a break. Even Batman, a detective at his core, has Commissioner Gordon on his side. Talk to people who have experienced the same trouble as you and see how they handled it. Other laid off middle aged managers have found new jobs. People with the same bum ticker as you have regained their health. Innocent defendants out there have beaten the rap. And remember the best way to get help in life: it’s all about quid pro quo—help somebody get what they want, and they’ll help you get what you want.
6. Motivate yourself. From Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade to Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, part of the appeal of the private eye archetype is that we love their lone wolf, get-it-done attitude. We like to watch the odds stacked against a protagonist and see him come back with a vengeance and win in the end. You’ve gotta cop that attitude and put it to work for you. No one can motivate you to to solve your problems except yourself.
7. Fix the ending. In every good story the hero is tested by fire and comes out changed in some way. It’s happened to you before, and you can make it happen again. But don’t count on a happy ending lasting for long. When trouble’s the game, there’s usually gonna be a sequel.
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. Mystery fans read their exploits for the thrills, puzzles, and escapism that only a well-written page-turner can provide. But when it comes down to it, we’re all the protagonists in our own mystery stories. Consider this:
1. You’re a loner. Sure, you have buddies, business contacts, and maybe some followers on Twitter, but living your life is really all up to you. You have to get to work each day, figure out your own dinner, and pay your bills. At the end of the day it’s sink or swim, pal.
2. You’ve got a problem. You’ve got something you gotta fix. And when you fix it, you get another problem. It’s why there are sequels. No matter what your line of work, somebody’s trouble is your business.
3. You need money. Some of us need more than others but lurking in the back of everyone’s head is a financial worry. You need to find a way to afford something, pay something off, or save for something. It’s why you hang out your shingle. And when you have plenty of dough you get a new problem—making sure it ain’t lost or swiped.
4. You’ve got a nemesis. It could be a co-worker, boss, or competitor. Maybe it’s an in-law, landlord, or a ruthless ex-somebody. Without naming names, there’s an antagonist in your life you need to contend with and they might want to see you out of business—sometimes in more ways than one.
5. You’ve got a vice. Giggle juice, a honey on the side, the blackjack table. You’ve got flaws, just like every other Dame and Jasper in town. Maybe they’re manageable, maybe not. Abraham Lincoln famously said he didn’t trust a person who had no vices. But whatever it is, it’s trouble if it’s hanging over you and threatens to bring down the whole racket.
6. Somebody vexes you. You’ve got someone in your life you don’t quite understand, and who doesn’t understand you. Your interactions might not have the crackling dialogue of a Bogart-Bacall flick, but the relationship challenges are the same. You both want something.
7. You don’t know what’s coming. It’s called suspense. You can make plans, work the angles, and try and guess what’s around the next corner. But facts are facts, and just like a dime novel protagonist you just don’t know how your story is going to end.
They’ve lived out their lives as fate decreed, yet the dead still harbor lessons the living may need.
In the Twilight Zone episode, “Night Call,” a woman named Elva Keene receives repeated mysterious phone calls in the middle of the night. Frightened, she implores the phone company to do something about it.
They trace the calls and upon investigating discover a broken telephone line in a cemetery after a storm. As it happens, the tombstone upon which the wire has fallen is that of…well, perhaps you should see the episode for yourself. Suffice to say someone is trying to talk to Elva from the grave.
Now that’s creepy, but you don’t need a supernatural event or a séance to receive messages from the other side.
Be glad you’re alive. We may lay wreaths and flowers there on holidays, but most of us tend to avoid cemeteries, perhaps not wanting to be reminded of our mortality. But instead of serving as a warning to one’s impending demise, let the denizens of your local necropolis serve as a positive call to action. For when it comes to those interred it’s game over, but for you—if you’re reading this—life is a game you’re still playing. The question remains how will you cast your dice? What will you do with this precious gift you still have?
Remember “The Dash.” While grave markers exist in limitless shapes, sizes, and designs, they all mention the defining dates of a person’s life. For example, consider the tombstone of one Ezekial P. Jones, 1798-1862. The dates tell us when Jones was born and died, but between them is the dash—the dash represents everything he did in life. Everything. The good and the bad, every triumph and every failure, every joy and sorrow is all there in the cryptic dash. And just think, you are living out your own dash right now.
Present, but not voting. As a kid I enjoyed reading Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and recall being struck in particular by the bizarre story of Jeremy Bentham, a 19th-century British reformist and philanthopist. In accordance with his will, Bentham’s body was preserved with a wax head and displayed in a glass cabinet at University College London.
In a freaky ritual—at select college council meetings—Bentham’s remains were brought to the board room and at roll call it was recorded that Bentham was, “Present but not voting.” Are you present and engaged in life, or do you differ little from Bentham’s dapper corpse by sitting on the sidelines?
A grave equalizer. “The graveyards are full of indispensable men,” Charles de Gaulle, French general and statesman, is quoted as saying. That means all those inflated-ego blowhards who annoy you in life will be replaced when their time is up, so don’t let them get to you. The same though, can be said of your own—if applicable—self-aggrandized importance. “Don’t take yourself so seriously,” says Bob Basso, author of This Job Should Be Fun. “After all the size of your funeral will depend on the weather.”
Your challenge. Ernest Hemingway laid down the gauntlet when he advised others to “do something original, or beat dead men at their own game.” It’s advice you might take when embarking on your own business venture. Who is in the grave that you admire? Their cards are on the table. Can you come up with a better hand?
Count your blessings. A stroll through an old cemetery reveals a variety of strange causes of death. Look at all the things they died of that you probably won’t succumb to. Typhoid fever, whooping cough, smallbox, and even “consumption.” There are those trampled by a horse, struck by a streetcar, or lost at sea. You are lucky indeed to be alive at a time where life expectancy is better than ever. The odds improve every year that you might keep the Grim Reaper at bay and make it to your 100th birthday…or beyond.
What would the dead say? Recently I was reminded of a classmate who died shortly after high school graduation. We all know of people like that, particularly those taken early. While there seems no rhyme nor reason to it, think of them when you are faced with challenges in life. What would they think of your predicament? How grateful would they be just to live out your day today? How can you live your life in their honor…a life to the fullest? As Benjamin Franklin said, “Get up sluggard, there’s time enough to sleep in the grave.”
Consider this telling epitaph…
Remember me as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, you soon will be.
Prepare for death, and think of me.