Lessons for the young

Epigrams for adolescents

Artillery Row

There are people who will tell you the race is only with yourself, not with others. These people have never read Charles Darwin or been a middle-manager. You must compete with yourself and with everybody else.

Trying to learn wellbeing from self-help books and meditation experts is like trying to write a novel by going to creative writing school — an expensive waste of time that will make you hate yourself and other people. Failing on your own time and in your own terms is much more useful and instructive, not to mention cost efficient.

Self-confidence is a myth perpetuated by the tall, the tanned and the neurotic.

Do not get into the habit of making rude jokes about rich people, especially the sort who have second homes — you never know when one of them is present, and you want to make sure they think well enough of you to invite you along for the summer.

If you want to get ahead, you will need to get a spine.

What starts as a joke ends up as a way of life

“Don’t get mad” is good advice. Telling people to get even is why there are so many terrible novels and boring TikTok accounts.

When you meet new people, ask them so many questions that you learn all about them and they learn nothing about you. Most people spend their early (and middle and late) years doing the opposite and are inevitably disappointed when they finally realise what other people are like. You would be wise to discover this for yourself as soon as possible — and in the process, by keeping yourself to yourself, you will save many poor souls from learning this truth from you whilst you are still an immature pain in the arse. This will remain true for longer than you think.

Cut out anyone who takes method acting seriously. They practise on you.

A ready talent for snark is to our age what being able to write a sonnet was to the Renaissance. Resist this urge. Instead, read Fran Lebowitz and Oscar Wilde and learn how to turn a passable epigram. Once you have the knack, it is a minimal effort and will teach you the importance of telling the truth as well as being witty.

If you lack the ability to write your own epigrams, collect other people’s. What matters is knowing them, not writing them. Be thy own palace, said John Donne, or the world’s thy jail. 

We live at one of the greatest periods of history. Only bitch about it as a prelude to doing something to improve the world. What starts as a joke ends up as a way of life. Aim to understand the world, not judge it.

You probably already know that your friends are all idiots. Let that be a warning to you.

You must honour thy mother and thy father — something you will only really learn once you have children of your own.

When you are eighteen people will sympathise with you so much they write newspaper articles about how much pressure you are under, the toll that sitting exams takes and the difficulty of Being Young Today — by the time you are twenty-one people will be writing about how feckless, idle and stupid the new generation of workers is. Ignore them and get on with your life. To write your own articles telling them they were young once but they have already lost their looks and will die much sooner than you, would only be to descend to their level.

If you want to be listened to, it isn’t enough to be right. You must also be liked.

Yes, your parents did tell you at age seven that when you grow up you should follow your dreams and be whatever you want to be — and yes, they are now telling you to be a lawyer, consultant, banker, dentist or engineer. It is less impressive than you think that you have spotted this little inconsistency, especially without realising that it was borne from the sheer bloody expense of bringing you up. Anyway, those are good jobs you should be proud to have. 

If you find everyone else annoying, imagine what they think of you.

Toss a coin to settle important decisions

There are millions of jobs you have never heard of. If it takes you fifteen years or more to find the one that is right for you, so be it. 

Toss a coin to settle important decisions you can’t make up your mind about.

People will tell you it is better to be feared than loved. This will be true a handful of times in your career, but bear in mind that Machiavelli was writing for Renaissance Princes, not for you, and that he was a terrible suck-up who would say anything to get promoted. And that it didn’t work. Indeed, that might be the real lesson.

Drinking, smoking and taking drugs are worthwhile experiments that many people try at least once. After you have conducted these trials, you should promptly get acquainted with some alcoholics, victims of emphysema and forty-year-old management consultants who smoke marijuana every day, to make sure it doesn’t become a habit.

Save money. The people who tell you they don’t are either lying, privately wealthy or are going to die with more credit cards than teeth.

Most compliments are hostages to fortune, especially at work. It might seem too obvious to need saying, but be careful not to take on too many hostages. It’s all too easily done, slowly corrodes your soul, and they always cost you more in the long run. The more you believe the compliments, the less likely they are to be true next time.

Things go wrong two ways: first very slowly, then very fast. 

You should aim to be confused by your acquaintances rather than impressed. 

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