The Art of Worldly Wisdom is a collection of strategies for making ones way in the world.
Early 16th century Florence had Niccoló Machiavelli, and 17th century Spain had the Jesuit scholar Baltasar Gracian. Gracian’s The Art of Worldly Wisdom is comprised of 300 precepts which teach us to temper the innocence of the dove with the wisdom of the serpent.
- “Europe has never produced anything finer. . . in matters of moral subtlety.” – Nietzsche
- “Absolutely unique. . . a book made for constant use. . . a companion for life. [These maxims are] especially fitted to those who wish to prosper in the great world.” – Schopenhauer
I just finished reading The Art of Worldly Wisdom and have summarized what I understood from the book as the 35 pieces of life changing wisdom–that will make you more powerful and successful–which you’ll find, below.
1. Always Keep Learning. Actively cultivate knowledge in areas that are valuable to you. You are what you know. Wise people can do anything.
2. Keep People Wanting More. People will always want something from you, and when you give it to them, they will always want more. However, it is always up to you to decide how much you give to others. In addition, it’s wise to always hold something back.
After all, in The Art of Worldly Wisdom Gracian brings up some important truths about human nature. He says, “Hope remembers and gratitude forgets.” Also, he reminds us that “He who has already drunk turns his back on the well.”
3. Strive for Excellence. Continuously strive to improve yourself, and continuously work on your craft. In terms of working on yourself, motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said that, “Your level of success will seldom exceed your level of personal development”.
When it comes to perfecting your craft, Malcom Gladwell explains in “Outliers: The Story of Success” that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become world-class. Put in the hours and strive to become one of the best in the world in your field.
4. Go Big or Go Home. People want to be thrilled; they want to see something they’ve never seen before. Fame, as Gracian points out, is the sister of giants. Don’t color inside the lines: go to extremes.
5. Be Pleasant and Courteous. People do business with people they like. How you do something is as important as what you do. Be pleasant and agreeable, and win the goodwill of others. In addition, courtesy will always be your best calling card.
6. Work Hard. You’ve probably heard the saying that “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” It doesn’t matter how talented you are: you won’t succeed if you don’t work hard.
7. Don’t Raise Other People’s Expectations. Gracian points out that when you raise people’s expectations, reality will never be able to catch up to their imagination. Instead, promise what you’re sure you can deliver, and then make sure that you live up to that promise.
In addition, although it’s common to hear that you should under-promise but over-deliver, a recent study by University of Chicago business professor Nicholas Epley shows that there’s little value in over-delivering.
Epley speculates that promises function as a mental contract: they nail down our expectations. We expect the promise to be kept, but we don’t anticipate more than is promised. Over delivering doesn’t have much of an impact, so don’t waste your efforts.
8. Make Yourself Lucky. In my post, “How to Make Yourself Lucky”, I explain that there are steps that you can take and mental attitudes that you can adopt in order to make yourself lucky. You can make yourself lucky by doing things such as the following:
- Have a positive mental attitude.
- Take the initiative instead of passively waiting for what you want to come to you.
- Meet new people.
- Put yourself out there: write articles on your subject of expertise; showcase your talent on YouTube; create an online portfolio; etc.
- Be of service to others.
- Craft a compelling story for yourself.
And, of course, be prepared, for “Readiness is the mother of luck”.
9. Be Informed. It’s important to have practical knowledge of current affairs. Of course, you don’t want to become oversaturated with information that is irrelevant to you, but you need to know what’s going on in the world and have an informed opinion on important issues.
10. To Persuade Others, Find Their Motivation. The art of persuasion involves more skill than determination. You need to put yourself in the shoes of the other and determine what it is that they want.
As Gracian points out, everyone wants something. It can be being well thought of, making money, and so on. The trick is to identify what sets people in motion, and then appeal to those desires.
11. Focus Your Efforts. You can’t know it all, you can’t do it all, and you can’t succeed at everything. However, you can be very knowledgeable in one or two areas, as well as develop your expertise in one or two fields. Go for depth instead of breadth. As Gracian points out, “Intensity leads to eminence”.
12. Know When to Say “No”. The only way you can “yes” to the most important people and activities in your life is by saying “no” to everything else. Say “no” to the following:
- Causes you’re not deeply committed to.
- Networking events that will have a negligible impact on your career or sales prospects.
- Taking on more work than you can handle.
- Doing work that other people should be doing.
Follow Gracian’s advice: “Don’t belong so much to others that you stop belonging to yourself.”
13. Identify Your Strengths. The only way to achieve prominence is to identify what you excel at—that is, identify your strengths—and then focus your efforts on improving those strengths. Master you areas of greatness, what comes naturally to you and you do well, and use your gifts to help others.
The more you can differentiate yourself from the competition, and the better you become at using your strengths to solve the problems of others, the more successful you’ll be.
14. Quit While You’re Ahead. When you’re doing well you may be tempted to think that your luck will last forever. However, as Gracian points out, “A long run of good fortune is always suspicious.” Don’t overstay your welcome, and know when to cash in your chips.
15. Do Good. Speak well of others, and do good deeds. Help create the kind of world you want to live in. To quote Gracian, “Speak what is very good, do what is very honorable.”
16. Think Before You Act. There’s a difference between being bold and being rash. Although you should have a bias for action, never act incautiously. In addition, if you doubt the wisdom of an undertaking, it’s safer not to act at all.
17. Be Diligent, But Once You Decide On a Course of Action, Act. Once you have a plan of action, work your plan. A brilliant idea that is not executed is worthless. Dale Carnegie once said, “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage.”
Instead of dwelling on the difficulties, act. If you need to, move slowly, and feel your way forward. Here’s a motto which Gracian recommends you live by: “Make haste slowly.”
18. Don’t Take Unnecessary Risks. It’s foolish to take unnecessary risks. Instead of jumping into the deep-end of the pool, wade into the shallow end taking steps slowly. Here are some practical ways to apply this precept:
- Conduct market research to determine if there’s a demand for your service before you quit your job to start your own company.
- Create a prototype of your product before investing heavily in materials and equipment.
- Invest in adequate insurance.
- Acquire the necessary knowledge before acting.
- Float your ideas by people whom you trust and whose opinion you value.
19. Never Lose Your Self-Respect. A common saying is to live as if the entire world were watching your every step. However, Gracian argues that this isn’t necessary, because you’re watching everything that you do, and that fact alone should be enough to keep you on the right path. After all, what matters most in the end is the reputation that you have with yourself.
20. Never Lose Your Composure. The only thing you can control in life is yourself. Learn to master yourself thoroughly. Impressive credentials won’t do much for you if you lack poise and if you can’t remain calm under pressure. Emotional self-control will help you get far.
Here’s a quote from Gracian:
“Control yourself, especially your sudden impulses. It takes much reflection to keep a passion from bolting like a horse; and if you’re wise on horseback, you’re wise in everything.”
21. Adapt To the Situation. Not everything requires your best effort or the same amount of resources. Gracian notes that “The good falconer uses only the birds he needs.”
In addition, everyone has a different temperament. Adapt yourself accordingly. As Gracian advises, “Whether you’re with a serious person or a jovial one, follow the current, and politely transform yourself.”
22. Always Keep Them Wondering. Niccoló Machiavelli wrote in The Prince that good news should be given a little at a time; that way you stretch out the positive impact of the good news.
For example, if you’re going to offer your employees ergonomic chairs, give them an extra day of paid vacation, and treat them to a meditation class, don’t let them know about all three things at once. Instead, do the following:
- Tell them about the chairs.
- A month later, once the novelty of the chairs starts to drop, let them know about the extra vacation day.
- Three months later, let them know they’ll be getting a free meditation class to help them de-stress, be more focused, and be more creative.
Just think of all the goodwill this approach would generate: every so often your employees get a bonus. At the same time, Gracian recommends that you follow a similar approach when it comes to revealing your talents and skills to others. He says the following:
“Don’t show off every day, or you’ll stop surprising people. There must always be some novelty left over. The person who displays a little more of it each day keeps up expectations, and no one ever discovers the limits of his talent.”
Make your skills and talents limitless by displaying them a little at a time.
23. Give It a Try. Wayne Gretzy once said that “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” A lot of people don’t achieve their goals because they don’t even try. You can’t achieve your goals, and you can’t succeed, unless you try.
24. Choose Your Friends Wisely. You are the company you keep. Here’s another quote from Machiavelli:
“There is no better indication of a man’s character than the company which he keeps; and therefor very properly a man who keeps respectable company acquires a good name, for it is impossible that there should not be some similitude of character and habits between him and his associates.”
And here’s one from Gracian:
“Put the right people beside you. The company you keep can work wonders. Customs and tastes and even intelligence are transmitted without our being aware of it.”
25. Save For a Rainy Day. Life moves in cycles. In the summer, prepare for the winter. During times of plenty, store up supplies for times of scarcity.
26. Look the Part. Although it’s true that you can’t judge a book by its cover, most people do. The world judges people not for who they are, but for who they seem to be. As Gracian indicates, “Do, but also seem”. He also says, “Have merit, but know how to present yourself.” Make sure that your exterior reflects your inner excellence.
27. Think Before You Speak. Be careful with what you say. Once you’ve said something, you can’t take it back. Look at the following: Before you speak, T.H.I.N.K.:
- T – Is it true?
- H – Is it helpful?
- I – Is it inspiring?
- N – Is it Necessary?
- K – Is it kind?
In addition, there’s no need for everyone to be aware of your affairs. Stop divulging all of your plans to anyone you come across. The less people know what you’re up to, the less likely it is that they’ll be able to dissuade you, sabotage you, or stand in your way.
28. Beware of Your Weaknesses. Everyone has weaknesses, and it’s important to identify them as such. Seek to minimize your weaknesses so that they don’t tarnish your strengths. In this way, you’ll be turning moles into beauty marks.
If you don’t identify your weaknesses, you can be sure that others will. After all, people are quick to notice faults in others. And once they’ve identified your faults, they’ll use them against you. Therefore, know how to deal with your weaknesses so that you can be on guard.
29. The Best Revenge is Massive Success. Thinking of ways to get back at those who have hurt or wronged you is a waste of time. Instead, direct all of your efforts toward setting and achieving worthy goals. After all, success is the best revenge. Gracian says it best:
“Each of your successes will be torture for those that wish you ill, and your glory will be hell to your rivals. This is the greatest of punishments: to turn success into poison.”
30. Never Compete With Someone Who Has Nothing to Lose. Don’t risk your reputation by arguing or competing with someone who has nothing to lose. People who have nothing to lose will resort to shameless ploys, mudslinging, derision, and so on.
Even if, in the end, you win the argument, you will have lost –time, respect, and so on. Always remember, “You don’t have to attend every argument to which you are invited.”
31. Don’t Be Overly Sensitive. You don’t want to be so fragile that people have to walk on eggshells around you. Don’t do the following:
- Be quick to take offense.
- Have a long list of resentments.
- Be easily annoyed.
- Insist on having your own way all the time.
You should demand respect, but don’t hold on to a silly sense of honor. As Gracian would put it, don’t be made of glass.
32. Don’t Put Others On a Pedestal. Stop telling yourself that those in a position of authority are so far above you that their life is unattainable. Don’t think so highly of others that you allow them to manipulate you and take advantage of you.
If you feel that your value is not being recognized, walk away, regardless of how important or powerful the other person may be (or may appear to be).
33. Live and Let Live. The best life is a peaceful life, and the way to live a peaceful life is to live and let live. Stop meddling in things that don’t concern you. Avoid unnecessary conflict, don’t speak about the affairs of others, and don’t worry about things that don’t matter.
34. Be Realistic. It’s a good thing to have a high opinion of yourself and of your abilities. However, be sensible and have a clear vision of reality. If your expectations are too high, when experience fails to deliver you’ll be miserable. Aim high, but not so high that you continuously miss the mark.
35. Always Have Goals. Always have something that you want to learn, do, or experience. In order to be happy, keep hope and curiosity alive.
36. Be Shrewd. A shrewd person knows that there is malice in the world and that others are often deceitful. Therefore, they’re prudent in what they do and say, and they practice discerning awareness. In addition, shrewd people know how to make the most of their resources and circumstances.
Gracian warns to be shrewd, but not cunning. That is, don’t be devious or treacherous.
Gracian demonstrates Machiavelli’s know-how, with scruples. Use his precepts to become wise, powerful, and successful. Live your best life by following Gracian’s timeless wisdom.
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