By Thane Peterson
A good self-help book can really give you a lift this time of year. You get the virtuous satisfaction that comes with improving yourself without going to the gym, giving up Oreos, or doing any of the other idiotic things vowed under the guise of New Year's resolutions.
My personal favorite among the new self-help books is Rules for Aging: Resist Normal Impulses, Live Longer, Attain Perfection (Harcourt, $18), by Roger Rosenblatt, a Time writer and Public Broadcasting System commentator. It's only 141 small, loosely packed pages, and it will probably take you less than an hour to read.
This is a guide to living for people of a certain age -- baby boomers who've suddenly realized that their boss is 15 years their junior, that they can't read without bifocals, and that a midriff bulge is becoming a permanent feature of their personal topography. Rosenblatt has come up with 58 rules he claims will help fellow aging boomers live longer and more happily. (On Amazon.com, people who are buying his book also often buy 7 Steps to a Pain-Free Life, a guide to dealing with back and neck pain. Need I say more?)
A fair number of Rosenblatt's lessons could be invaluable for boomers who are still trying to navigate careers in Corporate America. Here are some of the best:
No. 3: Let Bad Enough Alone If you're in a bad situation you can't do much to change, just let it ride and the trouble will probably blow over.
A cautionary tale on this point: In 1980, William Agee, then chairman of Bendix Corp., decided to give a little speech to 600 employees clarifying his relationship with 29-year-old Mary Cunningham, an employee he had promoted to vice-president after just 15 months on the job. Bad move. Rather than quash rumors, the speech fanned the flames, and the two of them were soon history at the company. They eventually married.
No. 4: Ignore Your Enemy or Kill Him The inspiration is Humphrey Bogart's line in Casablanca. The smarmy crook played by Peter Lorre says to Bogart: "You despise me, don't you?" Bogart replies: "I would if I bothered to think about you."
Rather than actually killing a workplace enemy, which might lead to incarceration, Rosenblatt favors ignoring the person even more diligently -- and for life. "The idea is not to care -- not [merely] to pretend that you don't care -- but really not to care," Rosenblatt says.
No. 16: Do Not Go Left This rule contradicts the advice basketball coaches give right-handed players: Learn to dribble and shoot with your left hand as well as your right to make yourself doubly difficult to guard.
In real life, this is a bad idea, the author argues. He cites as examples Michael Jordan giving up basketball to take up baseball and the brilliant comic actor Bill Murray floundering around in "serious" roles, as in The Razor's Edge. It's usually best to figure out what you do really well and stay focused on it, Rosenblatt says.
No. 32: If They Tell You That It's a Long Shot, It Is That's it -- No. 32 in its entirety.
No. 35: Never Say the Following (I've abridged this one): "That's the best thing you've ever done." Most people, Rosenblatt notes, will translate this compliment into a suggestion that all the other things they've done could've been a lot better. A far safer thing to say, he suggests, would be: "That's the best thing anyone has done. Ever."
"My door is always open." You'll rue this policy as soon as some creep walks into you office, asks to speak to you privately, and pulls the door shut. If you announce that your door is always shut, employees will grouse but at least you'll get your work done, Rosenblatt says.
"You look lovely today." See first example.
No. 41: Never Work for Anyone More Insecure Than You The reason, says Rosenblatt, is that, "Anyone who feels inadequate in a position of authority will inevitably a) trust the wrong people for advice; b) betray you at the drop of a name; c) mess up the whole enterprise and throw everyone into unemployment."
No. 43: No, They Don't -- and So What? This rule is mainly for over-50 employees of much younger bosses. Rosenblatt's point is that younger bosses don't automatically know about all the good work you've done over the years -- nor should they be expected to. "The fact that there is no automatic recognition of your worth is good for you -- rough on your ego, but good for your work," he contends. "It may shake you up usefully, produce better results. It may even remind you why you like doing your work in the first place."
No. 49: Never Think on Vacation If you do, you'll probably have an epiphany and decide you really should have become a novelist, sculptor, vineyard owner, or carpenter. Soon you'll be composing a letter of resignation. On vacations, he contends, it's prudent to park your mind the way cowboys used to park their guns at the gates of Dodge City.
Not everyone will agree with Rosenblatt's rules. I had big trouble with No. 5: "Boo Yourself off the Stage." Rosenblatt contends that if you realize that some piece of work you've done is lousy, it's best to criticize it yourself before anyone else can. This disarms your enemies and deprives them of the enjoyment of seeing you embarrassed.
However, it also violates Thane's First Rule of Corporate Behavior, which holds that bosses and fellow employees are lazy and usually will take you on your own self-evaluation. If you tell people at work that, say, you're bad at public speaking, that judgment will soon become the conventional wisdom about you, possibly limiting your opportunities for advancement. The reality is people rarely notice when someone does bad work, and if they do notice they usually don't say anything. Why give them reason to start talking about you?
Taking life advice from a writer -- any writer -- may not be a good idea. As Rosenblatt notes, writers tend to be self-absorbed. In Rule No. 34, "It's Not About You," he tells of calling a famous writer for help with an obituary he was writing on Israeli leader Golda Meir. "Could you tell me something especially revealing about Mrs. Meir?" Rosenblatt asked. "Oh yes!" the writer replied. "I shall never forget the day she leaned forward and told me, 'You are, without question, the best columnist in America.'"
I confess that in my career as a writer and columnist, I've tooted my own horn a few times, too -- and so may have violated Rule No. 45 ("Fast and Steady Wins the Race"). Try the book yourself. It's worth the hour.
Peterson is a contributing editor at Business Week Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht