The Art of Worldly Wisdom – Book Notes and Summary

The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Baltasar Gracian
A pocket oracle indeed.

One-sentence summary: In The Art of Worldly Wisdom, a Jesuit priest from the 1600s, risking exile and estrangement from the church, shares three hundred aphorisms to live by.

Rating: 7/10

Author: Baltasar Gracian

Date Completed: June 7th, 2020

Tags: Life Strategy, Philosophy, Frameworks, Stoicism, Strategy, Career, Relationships

Hot take: This one is Machiavelli meets Marcus Aurelius. Three hundred pieces of advice are of course destined to repeat and contradict themselves, but The Art of Worldly Wisdom has more real wisdom in it than most of the hallowed advice books we revere today. 

Note: Since the book is structured as a list of short statements and summaries, I’ve pulled the most interesting 10% of Gracian’s ideas in here. Happy reading!

Big Ideas

15) Surround yourself with auxiliary wits.

  • People who have more or complementary knowledge to yours can usually get you out of a tight spot when you’ve made a mistake.
  • “We have little to live and much to know, and you cannot live if you do not know.”

17) Keep changing your style of doing things.

  • If you switch up your methods, it will confuse people. Keeping a little bit of unpredictability is a good thing in life and business.
  • “The consummate player never moves the piece his opponent expects him to, and, less still, the piece he wants him to move.

19) When you start something, don’t raise other people’s expectations.

  • “What is highly praised seldom measures up to expectations. Reality never catches up to imagination.”
  • When something we imagine as amazing or beautiful fails to live up to our impossible standards, we become disappointed. Even something great, remembered as a disappointment, is tarnished in some way.

27) Better to be intensive than extensive.

  • “Perfection isn’t quantity, but quality.”
  • Nothing is worse than a book or a presentation that’s long for the sake of length.
  • Similarly, we can’t be infinitely broad as people – at some point, we must acknowledge our limitations and choose a subject into which to delve deeply.
  • “Intensity leads to eminence and even – in matters of great importance – fame.”

31) Know the fortunate in order to choose them and the unfortunate in order to flee from them.

  • Some people bring misfortune upon themselves. Don’t get embroiled in their battles and scandals because they’re a never-ending parade of trouble.
  • On the other hand, some people are savvy. They’re always trying to better their lives and tend to do so with regularity. These are the people to invest the most time in.
  • “The trick is to know what cards to get rid of. The least card in the winning hand in front of you is more important than the best card in the losing hand you just laid down. When in doubt, it is good to draw near the wise and prudent. Sooner or later, they will be fortunate.”

33) Know when to put something aside.

  • Don’t move for the sake of movement or work for the sake of working.
  • If you have a choice between efficiency and effectiveness, take the latter every time. You can optimize later, but nothing substitutes for doing the correct work.
  • “It is worse to busy yourself with the trivial than to do nothing. To be prudent, it isn’t enough not to meddle in other people’s business: you must also keep them from meddling in yours. Don’t belong so much to others that you stop belonging to yourself.”

38) Quit while you’re ahead.

“A fine retreat matters as much as a stylish attack.”

41) Never exaggerate.

  • There’s no need to boast or embellish the things you’ve done. You can just accept praise for them and humbly move on.
  • “The prudent show restraint, and would rather fall short than long.”

53) Be diligent and intelligent.

  • “The wise usually fail through hesitation. Fools stop at nothing, the wise at everything.”
  • “A lofty motto: make haste slowly.”

55) Know how to wait.

“Wise hesitation ripens success and brings secrets to maturity. The crutch of Time can do more than the steely club of Hercules.”

57) Thoughtful people are safer.

  • “Do something well, and that is quick enough. What is done immediately is undone just as fast, but what must last an eternity takes that long to do.”
  • If you take the time to think through a problem, you’re likely to develop a better solution. The more rash you are, the more quickly you’ll be reversed.
  • Good things: decisions, relationships, careers, skills, habits, etc., take time.

59) End well.

  • Which would you rather have: a celebrated entrance or a successful exit? The latter brings more respect.
  • “What matters isn’t being applauded when you arrive…but being missed when you leave. Rare are those who are still wanted.”

70) Know how to say “no.”

  • You can’t be everything to everyone, so saying no becomes an essential life skill.
  • Be courteous, kind, and firm. Don’t bluntly say no and make the person take the rejection all at once.
  • “‘No’ and ‘yes’ are short words requiring long thought.”

80) Be careful when you inform yourself about things.

  • We spend much of our lives gathering information, but most of it is secondhand or worse. That means we need to spend plenty of time learning and vetting our sources.
  • “The truth is more often seen than heard. Seldom does it reach us unalloyed, even less so when it comes from afar.”

90) The art of living long: live well.

  • “Just as virtue is its own reward, vice is its own punishment. The person who races through a life of vice comes to a doubly quick end.”
  • Take care of your body and mind if you hope to live a long time. That means figuring out the best way to eat and exercise, but also how to avoid things that carry the risk of ruin.

113) Plan for bad fortune while your fortune is good.

  • “In the summer it is wise to provide for winter, and it is easier to do so. Favors are less expensive, and friendships abound. It is good to save up for a rainy day: adversity is expensive and all is lacking.”
  • We never know what lies ahead for us. But we do know that we often value things in the future that seem worthless to us today.
  • Spend some time thinking about what those things might be. Try to figure out how to forestall future headaches with a bit of planning today.

115) Get used to the failings of your friends, family, and acquaintances.

  • It happens all the time: someone lets us down, tells us a half-truth, or does something unsavory.
  • We could recoil from this, or we could learn that while humans are generally good, there’s always unpleasantness that comes along with it.
  • We must forgive others and hope that they’ll forgive us when it’s our turn to do something terrible.

130) Do, but also seem.

  • “Things do not pass for what they are, but for what they seem. To excel and to know how to show it is to excel twice. What is invisible might as well not exist.”
  • It’s not enough to be good at your job, for example. You must figure out ways to subtly, artfully, share that with your coworkers and superiors. Otherwise, your good deeds will go un (or under) rewarded.

135) Don’t have the spirit of contradiction.

  • The first word out of my mouth is often, “no.” This isn’t helping anyone. Some objections are good and valuable but get in the habit of saying “yes and” if you want to build relationships and a reputation for excellence.
  • “Finding objections to everything can be ingenious, but the stubborn person is almost always a fool.”

149) Let someone else take the hit.

“Having someone else take the blame for failure and be the butt of gossip does not spring from a lack of ability, as malice thinks, but from superior skill. Not everything can turn out well, and you can’t please everyone. So look for a scapegoat, someone whose own ambition will make him a good target.”

150) Know how to sell your wares.

Gracian doesn’t mean peddling widgets. It could be selling your skills to an employer or your ideas to a client. He points out a few ways to do this:

  • Show that the crowd is going your way – people mimic each other’s behavior
  • Use praise from others to show something’s value.
  • Offer something to only those in the know – everyone wants to be an expert or an insider.
  • Don’t praise things for being easy; it erases their value.

156) Select your friends.

“They should be examined by discretion, tested by fortune, certified not only in willpower but also in understanding. Though success in life depends on this, people pay it little attention.”

159) Know how to suffer fools.

  • “The wise are the least tolerant, for learning has diminished their patience. Wide knowledge is hard to please.”
  • Stoic philosopher Epictetus said that the most critical rule for living is knowing how to bear all things. That includes people you disagree with or who you think you know more than.

162) Conquer envy and malevolence.

  • “There is nothing more praiseworthy than speaking well of someone who speaks badly of you; no vengeance more heroic than conquering and tormenting envy with merit and talent.”
  • Envy is no fun at all. If you go through your life envious of others, you’ll be in near-constant pain.
  • “The envious person dies not once, but as often as his rival lives in applause.”

164) Float a trial balloon.

  • To see how something is received, test it first.
  • Based on the feedback you receive, you can either scrap it or move forward. This strategy is far less costly than a full-blown launch of something nobody wants.

171) Don’t waste the favors people owe you.

  • There’s an episode of The Office in which Dwight does someone a favor, then immediately expects it to be paid back. As with most of the things he does, this is the height of foolishness.
  • “Keep important friends for great occasions. Don’t spend their good graces and use your contacts for things that matter little. Keep your powder dry until you’re really in danger.”

174) Don’t live in a hurry.

  • “If you know how to organize things, you will know how to enjoy them.”
  • We’re always rushing from one thing to the next – finishing this meal to plan the next one, skipping the champagne toast to get back to work, and on down the list.
  • Instead, stop for a moment. Savor the beauty of the moment. Try to be present.

185) Don’t risk your reputation on one roll of the dice.

  • “If it comes out badly, the harm will be irreparable.”
  • Avoid the risk of ruin. Avoid the risk of ruin. Avoid the risk of ruin.
  • The only rule of the game is never to lose so badly that you can’t play again.

186) Know when something is a defect.

  • Even if it looks like a virtue.
  • When we see a hero with a fault – a temper, an ego, a vice – we don’t realize that it wasn’t the fault that made them a hero.
  • This lack of recognition makes us emulate the ugliest qualities of the most successful people.

192) A peaceable person is a long-lived one.

  • Know what’s important, and let all the rest fall away.
  • “To live much and to take pleasure in life is to live twice: the fruit of peace.”

214) Don’t turn one act of foolishness into two.

  • If you lie and get caught in it, don’t cover your lie with another. It only serves to compound the problem.
  • “The greatest of sages can commit one mistake, but not two: he may fall into error, but he doesn’t lie down and make his home there.”

221) Don’t be hotheaded.

“Those who most try our prudence are those who do nothing well and speak ill of everything. The land of discontent is a spacious one, filled with monsters.”

224) Know how to take things.

  • Will you grab the sword by the blade, harming you in the process? Or will you grab it by the hilt, saving yourself some pain?
  • “Things look different when seen in a different light. So look at them in the light of happiness…This is why some people find contentment in everything, and others sorrow.”

225) Know your major defect.

“Every talent is balanced by a fault, and if you give in to it, it will govern you like a tyrant.”

229) Parcel your life wisely.

  • There’s a time to work and a time to rest.
  • You can learn many things, so make sure you know the right things at the right time.
  • “For a beautiful life, spend the first act in conversation with the dead: we are born to know and to know ourselves, and books turn us faithfully into people. Spend the second act with the living: behold all that is good in the world…The third at belongs entirely to you: to philosophize is the highest delight of all.”

241) Allow yourself to be joked about, but don’t joke about others.

  • “The person who is ill-humored at the party is even more of a beast than he appears to be.”
  • Knowing how to take jokes is a sign of confidence. But don’t ask people to take lots of jokes at their expense. “Before you begin, know how much someone else can take.”

246) Don’t give explanations to those who haven’t asked for them.

  • Even when someone does ask, don’t give a lengthy explanation too eagerly.
  • “To offer excuses before they are called for is to incriminate yourself, and to bleed yourself when you are healthy is to attract malady and malice.”

247) Know a little more, live a little less.

  • “The right kind of leisure is better than the wrong kind of work.”
  • Don’t work endlessly on low-value tasks. You’re spending your one life on something that could safely be ignored.

249) Don’t start living when you should be ending.

  • “Some rest at the beginning and leave their efforts and fatigue for last. Do the essential things first, and fatigue for last. Do the essential things first, and later, if there is time, those that are accessory.”
  • Don’t start with what matters least, and don’t try to succeed before you’ve expended effort. Procrastinating on the essential things will create a rush later in life.

261) Don’t persist in folly.

  • “Some people commit themselves to their errors. They act mistakenly and consider it constancy to to on that way.”
  • As Seth Godin writes, you rarely get credit for how long you stood in line for your last great idea.

263) Many pleasant things are better when they belong to someone else.

  • The adage is that the two happiest days of a boat owner’s life are the day he buys it and sells it. I’ve seen exceptions to this rule, but it’s a good reminder to access rather than own the most expensive and time-intensive things.
  • “When things belong to others, we enjoy them twice as much: without the risk of losing them, and with the pleasure of novelty.”

268) The wise do sooner what fools do later.

“Both do the same; all that differs is the when.”

282) Use absence to win respect or esteem.

“Presence diminishes fame, absence enlarges it. The absent person who was thought a lion turns into a mouse – a ridiculous offspring of the mountain – when present.”

297) Always behave as though others were watching.

  • Gracian had no idea the degree to which this advice would become necessary in a digital age where someone is nearly always watching or listening to us.
  • “A man who looks after his actions sees that others see him, or will. He knows that walls have ears, and that what is badly done is bursting to become known.”

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Related reading:

Meditations – Marcus Aurelius (Book notes coming soon!)

The 48 Laws of Power – Robert Greene (Book notes coming soon!)

Mastery – Robert Greene (Book notes coming soon!)

The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli

The Book of Five Rings – Miyamoto Musashi (Book notes coming soon!)

The Art of War – Sun Tzu (Book notes coming soon!)