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Tag: Baltasar Gracián

Sage career advice from Baltasar Gracián

Baltasar Gracián (image via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the books I read on repeat is variously translated as The Pocket Mirror and Art of Prudence or The Art of Worldly Wisdom. I prefer the latter title, but the best translation I’ve found is the Penguin edition with the former.

It’s author, Baltasar Gracián, was a 17th-century Jesuit priest whose aphorisms give advice on being successful in the world without losing, as it were, your soul.

What I like about the 300 pieces of advice is that, four centuries later, it still feels fresh and contemporary. Although there are parts that pertain to court life, these are easily transposed onto any workplace. After all, politics, intrigue, and currying favour are fairly universal human experiences.

There are three aphorisms in particular coming almost one after another that constitute wise career advice for the ages. The first uses the metaphor of appetite to talk about ambition, the second discusses fitting your job to your temperament, and the third focuses on finding the right time to move between jobs or positions. I’ve used the title for each aphorism given in my edition as the subtitles below.

A stomach for great mouthfuls of good fortune

Maxim 102 delves into what I’ve discussed elsewhere as increasing your serendipity surface:

In the body of prudence, not the least important part is a large stomach, for great ability is made up of great parts. A stroke of good luck doesn’t hold back someone who deserves something more substantial: what satiates one person, leaves another hungry. There are many who waste a choice morsel because they don’t have the appetite for it, being neither accustomed nor born to elevated positions. Their dealings turn sour, and the heady perfume of unmerited honour makes them lose their heads. They run real risks in high places and are full of themselves because they have no place for luck. Great men should let it be seen that they still have room for even greater things and should carefully shun anything that might indicate they are narrow-hearted.

In addition to increasing (or ‘rewilding‘) our serendipity surface, this maxim also deals with capacity. We often talk about increasing organisational capacity, bu we rarely talk about increasing the capacity of individuals to deal with situations, events, or other people.

I’m not sure if Gracián self-identified as a Stoic, but he’s certainly included in the tradition by thinkers who come later. What I like about Stoicism is the balance that Donald Robertson so expertly teases out in How to Think Like a Roman Emperor between ‘indifference’ to events and our responsibility to society to use our abilities (and capacity) for good.

Understand what different jobs entail

Maxim 104 contains some of my favourite lines of Gracián’s writing. I’ve highlighted them in bold for the avoidance of doubt:

They are all different and you need great knowledge and observation here. Some require courage, others subtlety. Those that depend on integrity are easier to handle, those on artifice, harder. With the right disposition, nothing else is needed for the former; but all the care and vigilance in the world are not enough for the latter. To govern people is a demanding job, and fools and madmen more so. Twice the wit is needed to deal with someone with non. A job that demands complete dedication, has fixed hours and is repetitive is intolerable; better is one which is free from boredom and which combines variety and importance, because change is refreshing. The best are those where dependency on others is minimal. The worst, one where you are held to account, both in this world and the next.

What I find so useful about this is the healthy relationship that is encouraged between the individual and their work. Instead of fitting oneself into the confines of a job description, or the role of a cog in a machine, Gracián instead encourages us to flourish as human beings.

Gracián wouldn’t have used the term, but this reminds me of the importance of avoiding what the late Dave Graeber called ‘bullshit jobs‘. Not only are these jobs pointless, but they’re psychologically destructive. There are some jobs that are entirely pointless, Graeber contends, and others which contain pointless parts. I think Gracián would have appreciated Graeber’s typology of pointless jobs:

  • Flunkies, who serve to make their superiors feel important, e.g., receptionists, administrative assistants, door attendants, makers of websites whose sites neglect ease of use and speed for looks;
  • Goons, who act to harm or deceive others on behalf of their employer, e.g., lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, public relations specialists, community managers;
  • Duct tapers, who temporarily fix problems that could be fixed permanently, e.g., programmers repairing bloated code, airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags do not arrive;
  • Box tickers, who create the appearance that something useful is being done when it is not, e.g., survey administrators, in-house magazine journalists, corporate compliance officers, quality service managers;
  • Taskmasters, who manage—or create extra work for—those who do not need it, e.g., middle management, leadership professionals

Given the prevalence of the above in our society (Graeber suggests that it’s more than half of all jobs) it’s worth using Gracián’s encouragement to focus on virtue and variety in our careers as a north star.

Don’t hang around to be a setting sun

Maxim 110 gives decisive advice for those who are unsure as to whether to stick or twist in their current job:

The sensible person’s maxim: abandon things before they abandon you. Know how to turn an ending into a triumph. Sometimes the sun itself, whilst still shining brilliantly, goes behind a cloud so nobody can see it setting, leaving people in suspense over whether it has or not. To avoid being slighted, avoid being seen to decline. Don’t wait until everything turns their back on you, burying you alive to regret but dead to esteem. Someone sharp retires a racehorse at the right time, not waiting until everyone laughs when it falls in mid-race. Let beauty astutely shatter her mirror when the time is right, not impatiently and too late when she see her own illusions shatter in it.

I’ve used this advice a couple of times in my career so far and it’s worked out well both times. Sticking around because of inertia or ‘golden handcuffs‘ is never a good reason to stay in a position or with an organisation. Although it can be a bit scary to make the change, I’ve found another quotation by the author John Burroughs inspirational: “Leap, and the net will appear.”

Making allowances for context and cultural norms at his period in history, I find this sage career advice from Gracián. For those who haven’t read his work, I’d highly recommend reading these three in the context of the other 297 pieces of advice he dispenses in his book. If you can, get the Penguin edition, you’ll thank me for it!

Baltasar Gracián on patience

Know how to suffer fools. The wise have always been the least patient, for as knowledge increases, so does impatience. It’s difficult to satisfy someone who knows a great deal. The greatest rule in life, according to Epictetus, is to endure things, and he reduced half of wisdom to this. If every type of stupidity is to be tolerated, a great deal of patience will be needed. Sometimes we tolerate most from those on whom we must depend, which fact enables us to triumph over ourselves. From tolerance arises peace, the inestimable joy of the world. Those who find themselves unable to tolerate others should retreat into themselves – if they can actually tolerate themselves.

Baltasar Gracián, The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence, 159

I’ve often said that I “don’t suffer fools gladly”. And I don’t; I have zero patience for those that mess me about, are disingenuous, or otherwise exist more for entertainment than industry.

However, Gracián points that we all depend on other people and it’s necessary to tolerate them. Further, without developing patience, we may end up in a situation where we find it difficult to tolerate ourselves.

Marcus Aurelius writes in a similar, albeit tangential vein:

[L]ook at the characters of your own associates: even the most agreeable of then are difficult to put up with; and for the matter of that, it is difficult enough to put up with one’s own self. In all this murk and mire, then, in all this ceaseless flow of being and time, of changes imposed and changes endured, I can think of nothing that is worth prizing highly or pursuing seriously.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 5

I wouldn’t necessarily agree with his assertion that there’s “nothing worth prizing highly or pursuing seriously”, but I suppose that’s the logical conclusion of a lack of patience.

My conclusion? Patience is worth practising and cultivating.

This post is Day 55 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 

Using Twitter as a lens for some thoughts on launching products

This week, several people have asked me whether I’m ‘nervous’ about the first test of MoodleNet, a new open social media platform for educators, focussed on professional development and open content. We’ve invited 100 people (50 English testers, 50 Spanish) to have a look and give us some feedback over a three-week period starting from next Tuesday.

To answer their question: no, I’m not. That’s not because of arrogance or misplaced optimism, it’s because of something that Baltasar Gracián talks about in The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence, a book I read from every morning:

Don’t arouse excessive expectations from the start. Everything initially highly praised is commonly discredited when it subsequently fails to live up to expectation. Reality can never match our expectations, because it’s easy to imagine perfection, and very difficult to achieve it. Imagination weds desire and then conceives things far greater than they actually are… Good beginnings serve to arouse curiosity, not to guarantee the outcome. Things turn out better when the reality exceeds our initial idea and is greater than we anticipated. (Baltasar Gracián)

I think we could sum that up with ‘managing expectations’. It’s kind of the opposite of Silicon Valley hype, and useful when you’re developing a product for the long-term.

Talking of Silicon Valley, let’s have a quick look at what Twitter looked like when it launched (start at 09:05):

They were testing a value proposition, something like: “Do people want to tell the world what they’re up to in text-message sized updates?”

The answer, of course, turned out to be in the affirmative. But it took a while. I joined Twitter in February 2007, a few months after it launched. I loved it and, as I was teaching at the time, ran Twitter workshops for my colleagues. Most of them appreciated my enthusiasm, but didn’t think it would catch on.

Twitter took about five years to go mainstream. Here’s a potted history of that time period from the Buffer blog:

  • July 2006: ‘Twttr’ is available to the public
  • October 2006: Sign up for Twitter without your phone number
  • May 2007: You can block others and Twitter gets a mobile site
  • May 2007: Twitter gets an @replies column
  • August 2007: Twitter Profile Search goes live
  • September 2007: Tracking Twitter alias #Hashtags goes live
  • September 2008: Twitter gets Trending Topics
  • March 2009: Twitter introduces “Suggested Users”
  • October 2009: Twitter launches Twitter Lists
  • November 2009: Twitter unveils the new native RT function
  • March 2010: You can now add your location to your Tweets
  • April 2010: Twitter launches “Promoted Tweets”
  • September 2010: Twitter introduces the “New Twitter”
  • June 2011: Twitter launches its own link shortening service

So let’s just stand back and look at this for a moment. The functionality that we would say was pretty core to Twitter took a good while to roll out. Another interesting fact, not really highlighted in the Buffer post, is that many of these involved Twitter responding to what users were doing or had invented.

For example, people were using ‘RT’ to manually retweet posts way before November 2009. Meanwhile, hashtags were an invention of Chris Messina, and initially rejected by Twitter as too nerdy. Users who like what you’re trying to achieve will help you reach that goal.

Before Twitter became a publicly-traded company in 2013 it was much more focused on the ecosystem it was creating. One of the best things about early Twitter was that there was a huge range of clients you could use to access the service. In fact, the ‘pull-to-refresh‘ functionality that’s in almost every mobile app these days was invented by a third-party Twitter client.

Returning to MoodleNet, the reason it’s taken a year to get to this point is because of all of the preparation we’ve done, and all of the other kinds of testing we’ve done up to this point. So this is just the next step in a long journey.

Our value proposition is: “Do educators want to join communities to curate collections of resources?” The answer might be negative. In that case, we’ll go back to the drawing board. My hunch, though, borne out through tens of hours of conversation and experimentation, is that there’s something in this, and it’s worth pursuing.

All in all, I’m excited about this next step and looking forward to getting user feedback on the fantastic work my team have done.

Image: sketch of early Twitter taken from a 2018 tweet