According to Mackay, the lesson stuck. He went on to write:
Since then, I’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that any business arrangement I’m involved in is backed up with yards of paper that describe exactly who does what and what happens if they don’t.
Understandings prevent misunderstandings.
Banisters are great teaching devices.
Like Dietrich, Peale, and Mackay, you may recall a moment from your past when the words of another person so affected your thinking that you were given a whole philosophy-to recall Dietrich’s lovely phrase-or at least an invaluable new perspective to help guide you through life. I can still recall-with great clarity, in fact-a number of inspiring things my high school guidance counselor, Mr. Critchfield Krug, said to me after I had lost my way as a teenager. Some became mantras for me, including a saying I first heard from him:
Never be satisfied with less than your best.
For many people, profound and life-altering admonitions have been found in the pages of a book written by someone who died centuries earlier. For Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, such a book was a 1647 work written by Baltasar Gracián. Gracián was a seventeenth-century Spanish priest who often ran afoul of his Jesuit superiors because of his “worldly” interests. His most popular work is now well known as The Art of Worldly Wisdom, but for more than two hundred years after its publication it was known only by its Spanish title: Oráculo manual y arte de prudencia (The Oracle, a Manual of the Art of Discretion). In the mid-1800s, Arthur Schopenauer fell in love with the book, ultimately translating it into German in 1861. A couple of years later, Friedrich Nietzsche -a young Schopenhauer fan-got hold of the German version of The Oracle. His curiosity must have been piqued when he read Schopenhauer’s glowing endorsement: “Absolutely unique . . . a book made for constant use-a companion for life.” From the moment Nietzsche began paging through the book, he was riveted. A few years later he wrote about it: “Europe has never produced anything finer or more complicated in matters of moral subtlety.”
When one reads The Art of Worldly Wisdom today, it’s easy to understand why Gracián’s 1647 book had such great appeal to these two intellectual giants. In his presentation of 300 principles about living honorably and effectively, Gracián covered almost every aspect of life, including such predictable problems as insecure superiors, foolish colleagues, and enemies with malevolent motives. Even though The Art of Worldly Wisdom is often called “a book of maxims,” it is clear that the author viewed it as more of a rulebook for living. In laying out his rules, Gracián often spoke exhortatively:
Always act as if others were watching.
Always hold in reserve recourse to something better.
Always have your mouth full of sugar to sweeten your words, so that even your ill-wishers enjoy them.
If there is too much display today there will be nothing to show tomorrow.
Always have some novelty with which to dazzle.
But it was when Gracián expressed his rules dehortatively that they packed the most punch:
Never contend with a man who has nothing to lose.
Never share your secrets with those greater than you.
Never exaggerate. Exaggeration is a species of lying.
Never do anything when you are in a temper, for you will do everything wrong.
Never risk your reputation on a single shot, for if you miss the loss is irreparable.
Never open the door to a lesser evil, for other and greater ones invariably slink in after it.
For nearly half a century, I’ve been keeping-and progressively updating-a collection of quotations that remind me of important principles to guide my life. I originally copied them on 3-by-5-inch index cards that I tacked up on walls and bulletin boards, but I eventually transferred them to a computer file that I designated Words to Live By