The Art of Worldly Wisdom

"Things have their seasons, and even certain kinds of eminence go in and out of style. But wisdom has an advantage: she is eternal. If this is not her century, many others will be."

- The Art of Worldly Wisdom, page 12

Some books have changed the world’s thinking. This is one of them.

If The Art of War was written to help you win your battles and if The Prince will help you win them without even having to fight, The Art of Worldly Wisdom will help you survive and thrive between the ideologies of the two. Three hundred years ago, one of Spain’s greatest philosophers combined shrewd observation and crafty, bruised idealism to produce a book that would help guide leaders who wanted to rise to positions of power and yet behave ethically.

Monk, scholar, researcher, and thinker, Baltasar Gracian combined his keen wit with worldly insight, irony, and jaded humour to produce a timeless handbook of practical and elegantly crafted maxims that will help all leaders and influencers think, judge, act, live, and achieve more.

Widely considered to have had a craftier and nuanced understanding of human nature than Machiavelli himself, Gracian’s works are too delicious to ignore. Reading a few maxims a day and reflecting on them will help readers bridge time and space to think like a person with several years more maturity, experience, and wisdom than themselves – an endless asset if your work requires you to interact with people, gauge their intentions, and work with them to achieve success.

It’s not always easy, especially if they don’t have your best interests in mind, and it certainly makes sense to leverage all the help you can get.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Think like a king but move like a pauper

"Don't outshine your boss. Being defeated is hateful, and besting one's boss is either foolish or fatal. Superiority is always odious, especially to superiors and sovereigns."
- The Art of Worldly Wisdom, page 4

Nuanced indeed, with bosses you can help them, joke with them, work harder and better than them, but never make them feel stupid.

If anything, these days you may not lose your head for such transgressions, but perhaps your reputation will take a beating. In any case, the higher you are in the echelons of power, the more it pays to think like a power-player but behave as though you are in danger of losing everything with your next move. Think cautiously, consult Gracian and if you really can’t make the right decision, try to behave ethically.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Create and immerse yourself in networks of information

"Associate with those you can learn from. Let friendly relations be a school of erudition, and conversation, refined teaching. Make your friends your teachers and blend the usefulness of learning with the pleasure of conversation."
- The Art of Worldly Wisdom, page 6

Examine the lives of some of the most successful people in history and you’ll find that at any given time they went out of their way to cultivate meaningful relationships with individuals and personalities who were more intelligent than them in some way, and would work hard to keep them connected with each other, and with themselves to create a network of influence and knowledge that they could always seek refuge in.

Building a network like this around themselves which they could feed, expand, and enrich with new personalities meant that they could dip into it for advice, information, and solutions to the challenges they faced and for the decisions they had to make. By befriending intellectuals and by cultivating friendships with teachers, they also ensured that they were never bored, and could always learn and teach at the same time without being afraid of alienating or insulting others in turn.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Keep your storehouse of knowledge well-stocked

"Be well informed. The discreet arm themselves with a store of courtly, tasteful learning: not vulgar gossip, but a practical knowledge of current affairs. They salt their speech with witticisms, and their actions with gallantry, and know how to do so at the right moment. Advice is sometimes transmitted more successfully through a joke than through grave teaching. The wisdom passed along in conversation has meant more to some than the seven arts, no matter how liberal."
- The Art of Worldly Wisdom, page 13

Didn’t George Bernard Shaw write, “If you’re going to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh. Otherwise they’ll kill you”? Haven’t the great scholastic traditions handed down to us from the ages emphasized the value of debate and conversation in the learning process?

Here are some ways you can keep yourself in the game:

  • If you’ve built your network, engage with it. Milk it for information. Renew it and rejuvenate it with praise and favours. Contribute to it, prune it, and curate it. Continually seek new personalities to add to it. Your network is a living, breathing information library – if you can keep it that way.
  • Read more widely than those around you. Cut down on sleep if you have to.
  • Make an effort to read and apply lessons and information from other disciplines within your own.
  • Combine information and lessons from different disciplines to improvise solutions for your present challenges.
  • Aspire to read more widely than you’re actually able to.
  • Every time you read an article, pause after you’re done and try and summarize the key concepts of the article mentally with just three brief bullet points.
  • Read more than one newspaper every single day, and try to read different viewpoints to challenge yourself and shake up your thinking.
  • Clean up your Facebook and Twitter feeds so you’re only following news sources that you are interested in and can interact with. If it’s too late to do this, create new profiles that will allow you to do this.

These are all some of the ways to keep your storehouse of knowledge well-stocked, so that you will never be left clueless in any conversation.

At the same time, learn to also develop the art of conversation and of asking questions that will help you get the answer that you want quickly.

It’s reflected in the old adage that I learned when I was younger: If you see a carpet-weaver weaving a carpet in the street, don’t ask him what he’s doing. It should be obvious that he’s weaving a carpet, and now you’ve wasted some of his patience and your time. Ask him instead to show you how he weaves his carpet, and learn from him. In the process of the conversation ebbing back-and-forth, you’ll learn why he weaves carpets, what he sees in his designs, and how he wants to improve his craft. Such a conversation will be more enriching, and will likely allow you to relate his stories to your own so that you actually learn something as a result.

There’s plenty more to learn, as handbooks go – it pays to keep a copy of Baltasar Gracian’s The Art of Worldly Wisdom in your bag or briefcase, when you’re travelling or looking to kill time. Reading it is not only time well-spent, but certainly an investment that can generate endless returns over the course of your lifetime.

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Prashanth Gopalan

ABOUT Prashanth Gopalan

A freelance blogger, writer and wordsmith based out of the twin-cities of Toronto and Waterloo, Prashanth uses his background in biotechnology, economics, marketing and communications to turn (some) wheels at Goose Educational Media...
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