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Posts Tagged ‘how-to’

23 APRIL, 2013

How to Find Fulfilling Work

By:

On the art-science of “allowing the various petals of our identity to fully unfold.”

“If one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment,” wrote Dostoevsky, “all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.” Indeed, the quest to avoid work and make a living of doing what you love is a constant conundrum of modern life. In How to Find Fulfilling Work (public library) — the latest installment in The School of Life’s wonderful series reclaiming the traditional self-help genre as intelligent, non-self-helpy, yet immensely helpful guides to modern living, which previously gave us Philippa Perry’s How to Stay Sane and Alain de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex — philosopher Roman Krznaric (remember him?) explores the roots of this contemporary quandary and guides us to its fruitful resolution:

The desire for fulfilling work — a job that provides a deep sense of purpose, and reflects our values, passions and personality — is a modern invention. … For centuries, most inhabitants of the Western world were too busy struggling to meet their subsistence needs to worry about whether they had an exciting career that used their talents and nurtured their wellbeing. But today, the spread of material prosperity has freed our minds to expect much more from the adventure of life.

We have entered a new age of fulfillment, in which the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning.

Krznaric goes on to outline two key afflictions of the modern workplace — “a plague of job dissatisfaction” and “uncertainty about how to choose the right career” — and frames the problem:

Never have so many people felt so unfulfilled in their career roles, and been so unsure what to do about it. Most surveys in the West reveal that at least half the workforce are unhappy in their jobs. One cross-European study showed that 60 per cent of workers would choose a different career if they could start again. In the United States, job satisfaction is at its lowest level — 45 per cent — since record-keeping began over two decades ago.

Of course, Krznaric points out, there’s plenty of cynicism and skepticism to go around, with people questioning whether it’s even possible to find a job in which we thrive and feel complete. He offers an antidote to the default thinking:

There are two broad ways of thinking about these questions. The first is the ‘grin and bear it’ approach. This is the view that we should get our expectations under control and recognize that work, for the vast majority of humanity — including ourselves — is mostly drudgery and always will be. Forget the heady dream of fulfillment and remember Mark Twain’s maxim. “Work is a necessary evil to be avoided.” … The history is captured in the word itself. The Latin labor means drudgery or toil, while the French travail derives from the tripalium, an ancient Roman instrument of torture made of three sticks. … The message of the ‘grin and bear it’ school of thought is that we need to accept the inevitable and put up with whatever job we can get, as long as it meets our financial needs and leaves us enough time to pursue our ‘real life’ outside office hours. The best way to protect ourselves from all the optimistic pundits pedaling fulfillment is to develop a hardy philosophy of acceptance, even resignation, and not set our hearts on finding a meaningful career.

I am more hopeful than this, and subscribe to a different approach, which is that it is possible to find work that is life-enhancing, that broadens our horizons and makes us feel more human.

[…]

This is a book for those who are looking for a job that is big enough for their spirit, something more than a ‘day job’ whose main function is to pay the bills.

'Never have so many people felt so unfulfilled in their career roles, and been so unsure what to do about it.'

As we turn the corner of the 50th anniversary of The Feminine Mystique, Krznaric reminds us of the pivotal role the emancipation of women played in the conception of modern work culture:

If the expansion of public education was the main event in the story of career choice in the nineteenth century, in the twentieth it was the growing number of women who entered the paid workforce. In the US in 1950 around 30 per cent of women had jobs, but by the end of the century that figure had more than doubled, a pattern which was repeated throughout the West. This change partly resulted from the struggle for the vote and the legitimacy gained from doing factory work in two World Wars. Perhaps more significant was the impact of the pill. Within just fifteen years of its invention in 1955, over twenty million women were using oral contraceptives, with more than ten million using the coil. By gaining more control over their own bodies, women now had greater scope to pursue their chosen professions without the interruption of unwanted pregnancy and childbearing. However, this victory for women’s liberation has been accompanied by severe dilemmas for both women and men as they attempt to find a balance between the demands of family life and their career ambitions.

Another culprit Krznaric points to in the stymying of our ability to find a calling is the industrial model of education:

The way that education can lock us into careers, or at least substantially direct the route we travel, would not be so problematic if we were excellent judges of our future interests and characters. But we are not. When you were 16, or even in your early twenties, how much did you know about what kind of career would stimulate your mind and offer a meaningful vocation? Did you even know the range of jobs that were out there? Most of us lack the experience of life — and of ourselves — to make a wise decision at that age, even with the help of well-meaning career advisers.

Krznaric considers the five keys to making a career meaningful — earning money, achieving status, making a difference, following our passions, and using our talents — but goes on to demonstrate that they aren’t all created equal. In particular, he echoes 1970s Zen pioneer Alan Watts and modern science in arguing that money alone is a poor motivator:

Schopenhauer may have been right that the desire for money is widespread, but he was wrong on the issue of equating money with happiness. Overwhelming evidence has emerged in the last two decades that the pursuit of wealth is an unlikely path to achieving personal wellbeing — the ancient Greek ideal of eudaimonia or ‘the good life.’ The lack of any clear positive relationship between rising income and rising happiness has become one of the most powerful findings in the modern social sciences. Once our income reaches an amount that covers our basic needs, further increases add little, if anything, to our levels of life satisfaction.

The second false prophet of fulfillment, as Y-Combinator Paul Graham has poignantly cautioned and Debbie Millman has poetically articulated, is prestige. Krznaric admonishes:

We can easily find ourselves pursuing a career that society considers prestigious, but which we are not intrinsically devoted to ourselves — one that does not fulfill us on a day-to-day basis.

Krznaric pits respect, which he defines as “being appreciated for what we personally bring to a job, and being valued for our individual contribution,” as the positive counterpart to prestige and status, arguing that “in our quest for fulfilling work, we should seek a job that offers not just good status prospects, but good respect prospects.”

Rather than hoping to create a harmonious union between the pursuit of money and values, we might have better luck trying to combine values with talents. This idea comes courtesy of Aristotle, who is attributed with saying, ‘Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.’

Krznaric quotes the French writer François-René de Chateaubriand, who wrote over a century ago:

A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.

Leonardo's Vitruvian Man, arms stretched out wide, is the quintessential symbol of the Renaissance wide achiever.

And yet, Krznaric argues, a significant culprit in our vocational dissatisfaction is the fact that the Industrial Revolution ushered in a cult of specialization, leading us to believe that the best way to be successful is to become an expert in a narrow field. Like Buckminster Fuller, who famously admonished against specialization, Krznaric cautions that this cult robs us of an essential part of being human: the fluidity of character and our multiple selves:

Specialization may be all well very well if you happen to have skills particularly suited to these jobs, or if you are passionate about a niche area of work, and of course there is also the benefit of feeling pride in being considered an expert. But there is equally the danger of becoming dissatisfied by the repetition inherent in many specialist professions. … Moreover, our culture of specialization conflicts with something most of us intuitively recognize, but which career advisers are only beginning to understand: we each have multiple selves. … We have complex, multi-faceted experiences, interests, values and talents, which might mean that we could also find fulfillment as a web designer, or a community police officer, or running an organic cafe.

This is a potentially liberating idea with radical implications. It raises the possibility that we might discover career fulfillment by escaping the confines of specialization and cultivating ourselves as wide achievers … allowing the various petals of our identity to fully unfold.

Krznaric advocates for finding purpose as an active aspiration rather than a passive gift:

“Without work, all life goes rotten, but when work is soulless, life stifles and dies,” wrote Albert Camus. Finding work with a soul has become one of the great aspirations of our age. … We have to realize that a vocation is not something we find, it’s something we grow — and grow into.

It is common to think of a vocation as a career that you somehow feel you were “meant to do.” I prefer a different definition, one closer to the historical origins of the concept: a vocation is a career that not only gives you fulfillment — meaning, flow, freedom — but that also has a definitive goal or a clear purpose to strive for attached to it, which drives your life and motivates you to get up in the morning.

And yet fulfilling work doesn’t come from the path of least resistance. He cites from Viktor Frankl’s famous treatise on the meaning of life:

What man actually needs is not some tension-less state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.

Marie Curie didn't find her vocation. She grew it.

For a perfect example, Krznaric points to reconstructionist Marie Curie:

Curie was absolutely committed to her career. She lived an almost monastic lifestyle in her early years in Paris, surviving on nothing but buttered bread and tea for weeks at a time, which left her anemic and regularly fainting from hunger. She shunned her growing fame, had no interest in material comforts, preferring to live in a virtually unfurnished home: status and money mattered little to her. When a relative offered to buy her a wedding dress, she insisted that “if you are going to be kind enough to give me one, please let it be practical and dark so that I can put it on afterwards to go to the laboratory.” Before her death in 1934, aged 67, she summed up her philosophy of work: “Life is not easy for any of us,” she said. “But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.”

But while Curie’s career embodies the essential elements of meaning — she employed her intellectual talents in the direction of her passion for science, which she pursued with “Aristotelean sense of purpose” — Krznaric debunks the eureka! myth of genius and points out that Curie’s rise to vocational fulfillment was incremental, as she allowed her mind to remain open rather than closed in on her specialization, recognizing the usefulness of useless knowledge:

Marie Curie never had [a] miraculous moment of insight, when she knew that she must dedicate her working life to researching the properties of radioactive materials. What really occurred was that this goal quietly crept up on her during years of sustained scientific research. … Her obsession grew in stages, without any Tannoy announcement from the heavens that issued her a calling. That’s the way it typically happens: although people occasionally have those explosive epiphanies, more commonly a vocation crystallizes slowly, almost without us realizing it.

So there is no great mystery behind it all. If we want a job that is also a vocation, we should not passively wait around for it to appear out of thin air. Instead we should take action and endeavor to grow it like Marie curie. How? Simply by devoting ourselves to work that gives us deep fulfillment through meaning, flow and freedom. … Over time, a tangible and inspiring goal may quietly germinate, grow larger, and eventually flower into life.

A quick yet disproportionately enriching read, How to Find Fulfilling Work is excellent in its entirety. Complement it with this timelessly wonderful 1949 guide to avoiding work.

Excerpted from How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric. Copyright © 2012 by The School of Life. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher. Reprinted by arrangement with Picador.

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17 APRIL, 2013

The Art of Conversation: Timeless, Timely Do’s and Don’ts from 1866

By:

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”

Manners today are often seen as a quaint subject that belongs in Lord Chesterfield’s outlandish advice on the art of pleasing or Esquire‘s dated guide to dating. But in a culture where we regularly do online what we’d never do in person and behave offline in ways our grandparents wouldn’t have dared dream of even in their most defiant fantasies, there’s something to be said for the lost art of, if not “manners,” politeness and simple respect in communication. Though originally published in 1866, Martine’s Hand-book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness (public library; public domain; free Kindle download) by Arthur Martine contains a treasure trove of timeless — and increasingly timely — pointers on the necessary art of living up to our social-animal destiny.

Martine contextualizes his mission:

Politeness has been defined as an “artificial good-nature;” but it would be better said that good-nature is natural politeness. It inspires us with an unremitting attention, both to please others and to avoid giving them offense. Its code is a ceremonial, agreed upon and established among mankind, to give each other external testimonies of friendship or respect. Politeness and etiquette form a sort of supplement to the law, which enables society to protect itself against offenses which the law cannot touch. For instance, the law cannot punish a man for habitually staring at people in an insolent and annoying manner, but etiquette can banish such an offender from the circles of good society, and fix upon him the brand of vulgarity. Etiquette consists in certain forms, ceremonies, and rules which the principle of politeness establishes and enforces for the regulation of the manners of men and women in their intercourse with each other.

[…]

The true aim of politeness, is to make those with whom you associate as well satisfied with themselves as possible. … Politeness is a sort of social benevolence, which avoids wounding the pride, or shocking the prejudices of those around you.

But he offers an important disclaimer:

[Politeness] must be cultivated, for the promptings of nature are eminently selfish, and courtesy and good-breeding are only attainable by effort and discipline. But even courtesy has limits where dignity should govern it, for when carried to excess, particularly in manner, it borders on sycophancy, which is almost as despicable as rudeness. To overburden people with attention; to render them uncomfortable with a prodigality of proffered services; to insist upon obligations which they do not desire, is not only to render yourself disagreeable, but contemptible

Among Martine’s most timeless advice are his guidelines on the art of conversation, to which an entire section of the book is dedicated. He begins:

As the object of conversation is pleasure and improvement, those subjects only which are of universal interest can be made legitimate topics of pleasantry or discussion. And it is the gift of expressing thoughts and fancies in a quick, brilliant, and graceful manner on such topics,—of striking out new ideas, eliciting the views and opinions of others, of attaching the interest of all to the subject discussed, giving it, however trifling in itself, weight and importance in the estimation of the hearers, that constitutes the great talent for conversation. But this talent can never, we may safely aver, be displayed except in a good cause, and when conversation is carried on in a spirit of genuine charity and benevolence.

He offers a few pointers:

  1. Know when not to speak:
  2. The power of preserving silence is the very first requisite to all who wish to shine, or even please in discourse; and those who cannot preserve it, have really no business to speak. … The silence that, without any deferential air, listens with polite attention, is more flattering than compliments, and more frequently broken for the purpose of encouraging others to speak, than to display the listener’s own powers. This is the really eloquent silence. It requires great genius—more perhaps than speaking—and few are gifted with the talent…

  3. Mind the rudeness of laconic response:
  4. Never give short or sharp answers in ordinary conversation, unless you aspire to gain distinction by mere rudeness; for they have in fact no merit, and are only uncivil. “I do not know,” “I cannot tell,” are the most harmless words possible, and may yet be rendered very offensive by the tone and manner in which they are pronounced. Never reply, in answer to a question like the following, “Did Mrs. Spitewell tell you how Miss Rosebud’s marriage was getting on?” “I did not ask.” It is almost like saying, I never ask impertinent questions, though you do; we learn plenty of things in the world without having first inquired about them. If you must say, you did not ask, say, that “you forgot to ask,” “neglected it,” or “did not think of it.” We can always be ordinarily civil, even if we cannot always be absolutely wise.

  5. Don’t be a self-righteous contrarian:
  6. Leave quibbling of every kind to lawyers pleading at the bar for the life of a culprit; in society and conversation it is invariably out of place, unless when Laughter is going his merry round. At all other times it is a proof of bad breeding.

He then goes on to outline a cautionary taxonomy of “bores” and other ill-mannered conversation archetypes, diagnosing the specific downfall of each:

  1. The loud talker, who “silences a whole party by his sole power of lungs”:
  2. All subjects are alike to him; he speaks on every topic with equal fluency, is never at a loss, quotes high authority for every assertion, and allows no one else to utter a word; he silences, without the least ceremony, every attempt at interruption, however cleverly managed. … Great, and especially loud and positive talkers, have been denounced by all writers on manners as shallow and superficial persons.

  3. The excessive life-sharer, whom you no doubt know well from your Facebook timeline:
  4. [This is] the man who gives an account of his dogs, horses, lands, books, and pictures. Whatever is his, must, he thinks, interest others; and listen they must, however resolutely they may attempt to change the current of his discourse.

    Women of this class are sometimes too fond of praising their children. It is no doubt an amiable weakness; but I would still advise them to indulge as little as possible in the practice; for however dear the rosy-cheeked, curly-headed prattlers may be to them, the chances are, that others will vote the darlings to be great bores; you that have children, never speak of them in company.

  5. The clever bore “takes up every idle speech, to show his wisdom at a cheap rate”:
  6. The grave expounder of truisms belongs to this class. He cannot allow the simplest conversation to go on, without entering into proofs and details familiar to every child nine years of age; and the tenor of his discourse, however courteous in terms and manner, pays you the very indifferent compliment, of supposing that you have fallen from some other planet, in total and absolute ignorance of the most ordinary and every-day things connected with this little world of ours. All foreigners are particularly great at this style of boring.

  7. The indifferent or apathetic bore parades his inattentiveness in your face:
  8. If he refrains from the direct and absolute rudeness of yawning in your face, [he] shows, by short and drawling answers, given at fits and starts, and completely at variance with the object of the conversation, that he affects at least a total indifference to the party present, and to the subject of discourse. In society, the absent man is uncivil; he who affects to be so, is rude and vulgar. All persons who speak of their ailings, diseases, or bodily infirmities, are offensive bores. Subjects of this sort should be addressed to doctors, who are paid for listening to them, and to no one else. Bad taste is the failing of these bores.

  9. The lingering bore who overstays his welcome:
  10. [These are] the ladies and gentlemen who pay long visits, and who, meeting you at the door prepared to sally forth, keep you talking near the fire till the beauty of the day is passed; and then take their leave, “hoping they have not detained you.” Bad feeling or want of tact here predominates.

  11. The hobby-riders, who sound like a broken record:
  12. [They] constantly speak on the same eternal subject [and] bore you at all times and at all hours, whether you are in health or in sickness, in spirits or in sorrow, with the same endless topic, must not be overlooked in our list; though it is sufficient to denounce them. Their failing is occasioned by a total want of judgment.

  13. The Malaprops, with their special gift for choosing the least appropriate topics of conversation:
  14. A numerous and unhappy family [who] are constantly addressing the most unsuitable speeches to individuals or parties. To the blind they will speak of fine pictures and scenery; and will entertain a person in deep mourning with the anticipated pleasures of to-morrow’s ball. A total want of ordinary thought and observation, is the general cause of the Malaprop failing.

  15. The egotistical bore, who stifles with his vanity:
  16. It is truly revolting, indeed, to approach the very Boa-constrictor of good society; the snake who comes upon us, not in the natural form of a huge, coarse, slow reptile, but Proteus-like, in a thousand different forms; though all displaying at the first sight the boa-bore, ready to slime over every subject of discourse with the vile saliva of selfish vanity. Pah! it is repulsive even to speak of the species, numerous, too, as the sands along the shore.

Martine adds an admonition against talking too much by way of Jonathan Swift, who observed:

Nothing is more generally exploded than the folly of talking too much; yet I rarely remember to have seen five people together, where some one among them hath not been predominant in that kind, to the great constraint and disgust of all the rest. But among such as deal in multitudes of words, none are comparable to the sober, deliberate talker, who proceedeth with much thought and caution, maketh his preface, brancheth out into several digressions, findeth a hint that putteth him in mind of another story, which he promises to tell you when this is done, cometh back regularly to his subject, cannot readily call to mind some person’s name, holdeth his head, complaineth of his memory; the whole company all this while in suspense; at last says, it is no matter, and so goes on. And to crown the business, it perhaps proveth at last a story the company has heard fifty times before, or at best some insipid adventure of the relater.

He then offers his own counsel on striking the right balance:

In conversation there must be, as in love and in war, some hazarding, some rattling on; nor need twenty falls affect you, so long as you take cheerfulness and good humor for your guides; but the careful and measured conversation just described is always, though perfectly correct, extremely dull and tedious — a vast blunder from first to last.

Martine quotes La Bruyère:

The great charm of conversation consists less in the display of one’s own wit and intelligence, than in the power to draw forth the resources of others; he who leaves you after a long conversation, pleased with himself and the part he has taken in the discourse, will be your warmest admirer. Men do not care to admire you, they wish you to be pleased with them; they do not seek for instruction or even amusement from your discourse, but they do wish you to be made acquainted with their talents and powers of conversation; and the true man of genius will delicately make all who come in contact with him feel the exquisite satisfaction of knowing that they have appeared to advantage.

Of the vanity of knowledge — which makes it tempting to learn to talk about books you haven’t read — Martine observes:

No, no, let us not deceive ourselves; we never want subjects of conversation; but we often want the knowledge how to treat them; above all, how to bring them forward in a graceful and pleasing manner.

He then recapitulates the essence of the art of conversation:

Cheerfulness, unaffected cheerfulness, a sincere desire to please and be pleased, unchecked by any efforts to shine, are the qualities you must bring with you into society, if you wish to succeed in conversation. … a light and airy equanimity of temper,—that spirit which never rises to boisterousness, and never sinks to immovable dullness; that moves gracefully from “grave to gay, from serious to serene,” and by mere manner gives proof of a feeling heart and generous mind.

The chapter ends with some “general rules for conversation,” in which Martine presents a selection of do’s and don’ts. Here is a synthesis of his most salient points:

  1. Don’t correct your conversation partner or go on righteousness crusades. It is a sign of, at best, vanity or, at worst, sheer rudeness to force your opinion on another.
  2. Reproof is a medicine like mercury or opium; if it be improperly administered, with report either to the adviser or the advised, it will do harm instead of good.

    If a man is telling that which is as old as the hills, or which you believe to be false, the better way is to let him go on. Why should you refuse a man the pleasure of believing that he is telling you something which you never heard before? Besides, by refusing to believe him, or by telling him that his story is old, you not only mortify him, but the whole company is made uneasy, and, by sympathy, share his mortification.

    It is bad manners to satirize lawyers in the presence of lawyers, or doctors in the presence of one of that calling, and so of all the professions. Nor should you rail against bribery and corruption in the presence of politicians, (especially of a New York politician,) or members of Congress, as they will have good reason to suppose that you are hinting at them. It is the aim of politeness to leave the arena of social intercourse untainted with any severity of language, or bitterness of feeling.

    Whenever the lady or gentleman with whom you are discussing a point, whether of love, war, science or politics, begins to sophisticate, drop the subject instantly. Your adversary either wants the ability to maintain his opinion,– and then it would be uncivil to press it — or he wants the still more useful ability to yield the point with unaffected grace and good-humor; or what is also possible, his vanity is in some way engaged in defending views on which he may probably have acted, so that to demolish his opinions is perhaps to reprove his conduct, and no well-bred man goes into society for the purpose of sermonizing.

    To reprove with success, the following circumstances are necessary, viz.: mildness, secrecy, intimacy, and the esteem of the person you would reprove.

  3. Be selective. Novelist William Gibson has stressed the importance of a “personal micro-culture”. Susan Sontag wrote in her diary that she’s only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation. Artist Austin Kleon has astutely argued that “you are a mashup of what you let into your life.” Martine suggests the same is true of selecting your conversation company:
  4. If you have been once in company with an idle person, it is enough. You need never go again. You have heard all he knows. And he has had no opportunity of learning anything new. For idle people make no improvements.

    Don’t give your time to every superficial acquaintance: it is bestowing what is to you of inestimable worth, upon one who is not likely to be the better for it.

  5. Keep your commitments but give those who fail to keep theirs the benefit of the doubt:
  6. Be careful of your word, even in keeping the most trifling appointment. But do not blame another for a failure of that kind, till you have heard his excuse.

  7. Be mindful of your audience and don’t parade your knowledge before those less learned:
  8. All local wits, all those whose jests are understood only within the range of their own circle or coterie, are decided objectionables in general society. It is the height of ill-breeding, in fact, to converse, or jest, on subjects that are not perfectly understood by the party at large; it is a species of rude mystification, as uncivil as whispering, or as speaking in language that may not be familiar to some of the party. But you must not make a fool of yourself, even if others show themselves deficient in good manners; and must not, like inflated simpletons, fancy yourself the object of every idle jest you do not understand, or of every laugh that chance may have called forth. Ladies and gentlemen feel that they are neither laughed at nor ridiculed.

    In society, the object of conversation is of course entertainment and improvement, and it must, therefore, be adapted to the circle in which it is carried on, and must be neither too high nor too deep for the party at large, so that every one may contribute his share, just at his pleasure, and to the best of his ability.

    A gentleman will, by all means, avoid showing his learning and accomplishments in the presence of ignorant and vulgar people, who can, by no possibility, understand or appreciate them. It is a pretty sure sign of bad breeding to set people to staring and feeling uncomfortable.

    In a mixed company, never speak to your friend of a matter which the rest do not understand, unless it is something which you can explain to them, and which may be made interesting to the whole party.

    Do not endeavor to shine in all companies. Leave room for your hearers to imagine something within you beyond all you have said.

    Think like the wise; but talk like ordinary people. Never go out of the common road, but for somewhat.

    Put yourself on the same level as the person to whom you speak, and under penalty of being considered a pedantic idiot, refrain from explaining any expression or word that you may use.

  9. Omission isn’t lying, it’s politeness. (Here we might disagree with Martine.) Learn to evade.
  10. You need not tell all the truth, unless to those who have a right to know it all. But let all you tell be truth.

  11. Say “yes” whenever possible. When you say “no,” do so firmly:
  12. If a favor is asked of you, grant it, if you can. If not, refuse it in such a manner, as that one denial may be sufficient.

  13. Let your opinion change — advice particularly apt in today’s hasty culture where not having an opinion is considered an embarrassment; seek to understand rather than to be right, and don’t be a know-it-all:
  14. Fools pretend to foretell what will be the issue of things, and are laughed at for their awkward conjectures. Wise men, being aware of the uncertainty of human affairs, and having observed how small a matter often produces a great change, are modest in their conjectures.

    Reflect upon the different appearances things make to you from what they did some years ago, and don’t imagine that your opinion will never alter, because you are extremely positive at present. Let the remembrance of your past changes of sentiment make you more flexible.

    In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.

    Give your opinion modestly, but freely; hear that of others with candor; and ever endeavor to find out, and to communicate truth.

    It is an advantage to have concealed one’s opinion. For by that means you may change your judgment of things (which every wise man finds reason to do) and not be accused of fickleness.

  15. Don’t be pretentious and do away with affectation:
  16. Avoid the habit of employing French words in English conversation; it is extremely bad taste to be always using such expressions as ci-devant, soi-disant, en masse, couleur de rose, etc. Do not salute your acquaintances with bon jour, nor reply to every proposition, volontiers.

    There is an affected humility more insufferable than downright pride, as hypocrisy is more abominable than libertinism. Take care that your virtues be genuine and unsophisticated.

    If you can express yourself to be perfectly understood in ten words, never use a dozen. Go not about to prove, by a long series of reasoning, what all the world is ready to own.

    You will please so much the less, if you go into company determined to shine. Let your conversation appear to rise out of thoughts suggested by the occasion, not strained or premeditated: nature always pleases: affectation is always odious.

  17. Practice genuine humility and avoid arrogance:
  18. Nothing is more nauseous than apparent self-sufficiency. For it shows the company two things, which are extremely disagreeable: that you have a high opinion of yourself, and that you have comparatively a mean opinion of them.

    The modest man is seldom the object of envy.

    If you are really a wit, remember that in conversation its true office consists more in finding it in others, than showing off a great deal of it yourself. He who goes out of your company pleased with himself is sure to be pleased with you.

Martine’s Hand-book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness is a treat in its entirety. It’s available as a free download in multiple formats from Project Gutenberg, or as a cleaned up and formatted free Kindle book.

Public domain photographs via The Library of Congress

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03 APRIL, 2013

George Plimpton on the Art of Public Speaking and How to Overcome Stage Fright

By:

“The best speakers are those who make their words sound spontaneous even if memorized.”

The art of giving a great presentation has occupied humanity for as long as recorded history can trace, from the great oratory schools of Ancient Greece to the TED era.

In How to Use the Power of the Printed Word (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 timeless rules of writing, Bill Cosby’s 3 proven strategies for reading faster, and James Dickey’s beautiful essay on how to enjoy poetry — legendary Paris Review editor George Plimpton shares his secrets of combating the fear of public speaking.

He begins with an emphasis on doing your homework, with a grounding reminder of what research meant a generation before the age of Google, email, and Wikipedia:

The more you sweat in advance, the less you’ll have to sweat once you appear on stage. Research your topic thoroughly. Check the library for facts, quotes, books, and timely magazine and newspaper articles on your subject. Get in touch with experts. Write to them, make phone calls, get interviews to help round out your material.

In short, gather — and learn — far more than you’ll ever use. You can’t imagine how much confidence that knowledge will inspire.

He advocates for setting the tone quickly and purposefully, in line with the main objective of your speech:

An audience makes up its mind very quickly. Once the mood of an audience is set, it is difficult to change it, which is why introductions are important.

[…]

There are four main intents in the body of the well-made speech. These are (1) to entertain, which is probably hardest; (2) to instruct, which is the easiest if the speaker has done the research and knows the subject; (3) to persuade, which one does at a sales presentation, a political rally, or a town meeting; and finally, (4) to inspire, which is what the speaker emphasizes at a sales meeting, in a sermon, or at a pep rally.

Plimpton stresses the importance of sounding spontaneous and — ironically, but without irony — offers some tips on staging spontaneity:

The best speakers are those who make their words sound spontaneous even if memorized. I’ve found it’s best to learn a speech point by point, not word for word. Careful preparation and a great deal of practicing are required to make it come together smoothly and easily. Mark Twain once said, ‘It takes three weeks to prepare a good ad-lib speech.’

“No speech was ever too short,” a duo of legendary admen famously advised, and Plimpton agrees: He wrote this the year TED was founded and, like any great oracle of culture, he intuited the format-meme that TED would eventually rein in, arguing for the supremacy of the 20-minute talk over the hour-long academic-style lecture:

As anyone who listens to speeches knows, brevity is an asset. Twenty minutes are ideal. An hour is the limit an audience can listen comfortably.

In mentioning brevity, it is worth mentioning that the shortest inaugural address was George Washington’s — just 135 words. The longest was William Henry Harrison’s in 1841. he delivered a two-hour, nine-thousand -word speech into the teeth of a freezing northeast wind. He came down with a cold the following day, and a month later he died of pneumonia.

He shares a counterintuitive insight about the size of the audience:

The larger the crowd, the easier it is to speak, because the response is multiplied and increased. Most people do not believe this. They peek out from behind the curtain, and if the auditorium is filled to the rafters, they begin to moan softly in the back of their throats.

Plimpton concludes with a few related words of wisdom on stage fright:

Very few speakers escape the so-called ‘butterflies.’ There does not seem to be any cure for them, except to realize that they are beneficial rather than harmful, and never fatal. The tension usually means that the speaker, being keyed up, will do a better job. Edward R. Murrow called stage fright ‘the sweat of perfection.’ Mark Twain once comforted a fright-frozen friend about to speak: ‘Just remember they don’t expect much.’ My own feeling is that with thought, preparation and faith in your ideas, you can go out there and expect a pleasant surprise.

And what a sensation it is — to hear applause.

How to Use the Power of the Printed Word is fantastic in its entirety, featuring more wisdom from John Irving, Tony Randall, Jane Bryant Quinn, and other luminaries.

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