In 1991, H. Jackson Brown Jr. hit the best seller lists with a humble tome called “Life’s Little Instruction Book.” It consisted of 511 pieces of advice, common sense, traditional wisdom and best practices in life, adapted from a hand-written 32 page guide he handed to his son when he went off to college. “This is what your dad knows about living a rewarding life,” Brown told his son. He had tried his hand at authorship with two earlier books of fatherly advice, but decided that his latest approach had more promise.
It sure did. Re-tooled and expanded into “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” it was a bestseller for years, much imitated, and a contribution both to Brown’s fame and financial well-being and the nation’s healthy ethics alarms. By 1997, the book had sold about seven million copies, and it was translated into 33 languages
The book is all about ethics, though not explicitly. Even the corniest of the entries are based in ethical principles. “Resist the temptation” just means to keep your ethics alarms functioning and not let them be silenced by non-ethical considerations. #34, “At meetings, resist turning around to see who has just arrived late,” is a Golden Rule application; #22, “Learn three clean jokes,”is a subtle way to remind us to not allow incivility to become a habit. “Avoid sarcastic remarks,” # 81, is no more than a caution against being a habitual jerk. #89, “Don’t let anyone ever see you tipsy” is a call for dignity and decorum. #254, “Learn to show cheerfulness, even when you don’t feel like it,” is a reminder that being a responsible member of society means not allowing your own feelings to undermine your group’s spirit. “Overtip breakfast waitresses” was #7, a call for generosity and gratitude. #144, much ridiculed at the time, is “Take someone bowling.” It just means be kind, and to reach out to someone who might be lonely.
Ethics is never considered cool, and efforts to encourage good behavior is typically mocked. Journalists and critics mostly ridiculed “Life’s Little Instruction Book” as collection of naive nostrums unrelated to the real world. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Brian O’Neill wrote, in a typical reaction, that the book was “designed to teach nothing but how to part with $5.95.”
In truth, what Brown’s book most resembled was “110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” which our first President was forced to commit to memory by his father. Those rules served George well, and had a major impact on the degree to which he was trusted by the infamously competitive and back-stabbing Founders. Pretty much all of George’s guidelines turn up in various forms in the “Instruction Book;” I have often wondered if Brown ever read them. His book also has one advantage over the “110 Rules”: it isn’t interrupted with archaic howlers like George’s #13:
Kill no vermin, or fleas, lice, ticks, etc. in the sight of others; if you see any filth or thick spittle put your foot dexterously upon it; if it be upon the clothes of your companions, put it off privately, and if it be upon your own clothes, return thanks to him who puts it off.
Brown, who grew up in Tennessee and received a BA in psychology from Emory University in 1963, was an ad man before churning out his best-seller and several profitable off-shoots. He died last month at age 81.
His advice was sincere and inspiring, and by making millions of people think about ethical values and actions, tuned many an ethics alarm. Although it wasn’t among his 511 exhortations, H. Jackson Brown’s masterpiece certainly contributed to spreading the last of Washington’s 110 rules, and the most important:
110. Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.