in: Advice, Character

• Last updated: February 11, 2022

Wry Rules for Navigating a Flawed Universe

Wry Rules for Navigating a Flawed Universe poster with hammer on a book.

When we think about the principles which govern the universe, we typically think of laws which concern the realms of science and mathematics. Yet we also intuitively feel that there are equally universal laws unrelated to physics or calculus that explain the dynamics of social interactions, work, and the ordinary vicissitudes of daily life.

Writer Paul Dickson has been compiling such principles for forty years. Inspired by Murphy’s Law (“If anything can go wrong, it will”), Dickson decided in 1976 to start a collection of “odd mock-scientific rules and laws that helped describe our flawed universe.” At first he just filed bits of revealed truth — sourced from both eminent history-making figures and average pencil-pushing joes — into a cardboard shoebox he wryly dubbed “The Murphy Center for the Codification of Human and Organizational Law.” 

With his own research and the contributions of others, the number of laws compiled at “The Murphy Center” grew. In 1979, Dickson published them in a book called The Official Rules. Thousands more such maxims were submitted to him by its readers, and incorporated into subsequent editions of the book.

A few years ago, I picked up the latest edition — The Official Rules: 5,427 Laws, Principles, and Axioms to Help You Cope with Crises, Deadlines, Bad Luck, Rude Behavior, Red Tape, and Attacks by Inanimate Objects. The book has since become a well-worn, dog-eared, and much-underlined part of my library. 

The rules contained in this hefty tome are the kind of simple sayings that reveal truths that seem obvious once they’re spelled out, but which you hadn’t previously been able to put into words. They’re the kind of quotes grandparents hang up on their refrigerators and employees peg to a bulletin board to give their office mates a gallows-humor chuckle about corporate life. 

The rules can be droll and satirical but also pack a serious insight. As you read through them, they can come off as pessimistic and cynical (many read like the writings of Machiavelli or Baltasar Gracián). But Dickson’s goal isn’t just to collect an assortment of curmudgeonly philosophies designed to inculcate a contemptuous and derisive view of life. Rather, these observations on the realities of living in a frail, frustrating world amongst flawed human beings are meant to function as coping mechanisms, helping the reader set reasonable expectations for navigating this crazy life and laugh at the setbacks inherent to inhabiting a universe headed towards entropy. 

“The central principle of the [Murphy] Center,” Dickson writes, “was and is that the more one understood the imperfectability of things, the more one can get out of life.”

Below I share a sampling of my favorite entries from The Official Rules. I highly recommend getting a copy for yourself — it makes for an incomparable bathroom book.

“If there’s no alternative, there’s no problem.”
James Burnham

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
C. Northcote Parkinson

“Don’t worry about your enemies; it’s your allies who will do you in.”
James Abourezk

“A rumor will travel fastest to the place where it will cause the most harm.”
Gustavo N. Agrait

“Don’t readily ascribe to malice what can be more easily ascribed to incompetence.”
James Akre

“Troublesome correspondence that is postponed long enough will eventually become irrelevant.”
Mark Albrecht

“Help a man who is in trouble and that man will remember you when he is in trouble again.”
Paul Alexander

“Favors granted always become defined as rights.”
Saul Alinsky

“The strength of one’s opinion on any matter in controversy is inversely proportional to the amount of knowledge that the person has on that subject.”
Patrick J. Allen

“A parent will always worry about the wrong child.”
Don Alt

“You can’t believe anyone but yourself, and don’t trust yourself too completely.”
Jim Amis

“Those whose approval you seek the most give you the least.”
Rozanne Weissman

“Misery no longer loves company. Nowadays it insists on it.”
Russell Baker

“The world is divided between victims and predators, and you have to defend yourself against both.”
Florenz Baron

“When someone is kicking your ass, at least you know that you are out in front.”
Donald Bartel

“When you’re up to your nose in sh*t, keep your mouth shut.”
Movie character Jack Beauregard, played by Henry Fonda

“1) Blessed is he who has reached the point of no return and knows it, for he shall enjoy living. 2) Blessed is he who expects no gratitude, for he shall not be disappointed.”
W.C. Bennett

“One begins to lose interest in any given task and slacks off just as one is beginning to get somewhere in accomplishing the task.”
Richard Bernstein

“There are only two kinds of people who fail: those who listen to nobody . . . and those who listen to everybody.”
Thomas Beshere, Jr.

“As a grown man you should know better than to go around advising people.”
Bertolt Brecht

“At some point in the life cycle of virtually every organization, its ability to succeed in spite of itself runs out.”
Richard H. Brien

“Never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance.”
Sam Brown

“1) People always find time to do the things they want to do. 2) People always find the money to get the things they want to get.”
Vincent Budri

“If you’ve been in the game thirty minutes and you don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.”
Warren Buffett

“Find out what you don’t do well, then don’t do it.”
Myles Callum

“A sinner can reform, but stupid is forever.”
Lt. Col. William P. Campbell

“The pessimist thinks the old days were better; the optimist thinks things will get better. Both are wrong.”
Don Caron

“Improving something is admirable, but inevitably five times zero is still zero.”
Dean Travis Clarke

“Assumption and presumption are the parents of all foul-ups.”
E. Staley Clements, Jr.

“Each problem solved introduces new unsolved problems.”
Found at the U.S. Department of Labor

“Some folks say the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but others point out that it is the first one to be replaced.”
Harold Coffin

“Businesses exert the tightest controls over the easiest thing to control, rather than the most critical.”
Kenneth B.Collins

“Just because the industry leader does it that way doesn’t mean it’s the best way of doing it.”
Ernest F. Cooke

“Morality moves down the corporate ladder, but seldom up.”
Rae Andre and Peter Ward

“When a person says ‘I’m as good as you are!’ it means that he thinks he’s better.”
Jerry Cowan

“For every simple solution there are a number of complex problems.”
Lloyd Craine

“Every advantage has a corresponding disadvantage.”
Charlie Czusak

“If you have to take it or leave it, leave it.”
Mike O’Neill

“The fury engendered by the misspelling of a name in a column is in direct ratio to the obscurity of the mentionee.”
Alan Deitz

“To beat the bureaucracy, make your problem their problem.”
Marshall L. Smith

“When you are on the bottom you can’t afford to look like you belong there.”
Mike Downey

“If they say they love you, trust their behavior. If they say they don’t love you, trust their words.”
Dr. John H. Dickey

“One of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say.”
Will Durant

“Anyone nit-picking enough to write a letter of correction to an editor doubtless deserves the error that provoked it.”
Alvin Toffler

“That which we call sin in others is experiment for us.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”
Susan Ertz

“Long-range planning works best in the short-term.”
Doug Evelyn

“Don’t ask the barber whether you need a haircut.”
Daniel S. Greenberg

“Regardless of how good we are in bed, our relationship is entirely dependent on how good we are out of bed.”
John E. Eyberg

“You may never reach a solution, but you’re never absolved from the responsibility of trying.”
Millicent Fenwick

“The more crap you put up with, the more crap you are going to get.”
K.C. Flory

“There is no exception to the rule that everybody likes to be an exception to the rule.”
Malcolm Forbes

“Nobody ever got rich under-tipping waiters and stiffing cab drivers.”
Fred Friendly

“By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be a boss and work twelve hours a day.”
Robert Frost

“The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”
John W. Gardner

“The worse the society, the more law there will be. In Hell, there will be nothing but law, and due process will be meticulously observed.”
Grant Gilmore

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no use making a fool of yourself.”
W.C. Fields

“When a kick in the ass doesn’t work, create envy.”
Rev. Frederick G. Gotwald

“You want it bad, you'll get it bad.”
Richard C. Savage

“There is an inverse relationship between front-page media coverage and getting things done.”
Bill Harris

“No one asked you to write. And no one will care if you stop. If you succeed, no one will notice. It’s a rough, heartless business.”
George Higgins

“People will take tough decisions only when not taking them is tougher.”
Walter Hoadley

“It is impossible to overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.”
Clark Holloway

“If you can’t tie good knots, tie plenty of them.”
From a Dewar’s scotch ad

“When a person with experience meets the person with money, the person with the experience will get the money. And the person with the money will get the experience.”
Leonard Lauder

“Whatever you may be sure of, be sure of this: that you are dreadfully like other people.”
James Russell Lowell

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat everything like a nail.”
Abraham Maslow

“'Be yourself!' is about the worst advice you can give some people.”
Tom Masson

“A fool in a high station is like a man on the top of a high mountain: everything appears small to him and he appears small to everybody.”
Professor Leader W. Matsch

“One of the worst things that can happen in life is to win a bet on a horse at an early age.”
Danny McGoorty

“Success is when your mother reads about you in the newspaper.”
Mike Nichols

“Someone else probably has the same ideas so a) get started, b) plan to do it better.”
Paul Obis

“Stand on any street corner in any city of the world. Close your eyes. Stick out your arms. You will touch a schmuck.”
William Marks

“After all is said and done, a hell of a lot more is said than done.”
Clark Olmstead

“The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds; the pessimist knows it.”
J. Robert Oppenheimer

“You don't win wars by dying for your country; you win wars by making the other poor bastard die for his country.”
George S. Patton

“In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

“If you’re coasting, you’re going downhill.”
L.R. Pierson

“The first person to spot and chastise a phony is either a big phony or a bigger phony than the one he’s passed judgment on.”
Randall  L. Koch

“The secret to happiness is to let the other fellow do the worrying.”
A.J. Reach

“If it feels good, do it. If it doesn’t feel good, do it anyway. It will feel good when it is over with.”
James D. Haviland

“Luck is the residue of design.”
Branch Rickey

“Before I got married, I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children and no theories.”
Lord Rochester

“You never destroy the 'establishment'; you simply replace it. If you do take over, you become the establishment.”
Bruno Rolark

“The world is full of sane people taking medicine to enable them to cope with all the insane ones who should be using medications but refuse to do so.”
Dr. Donald J. Rosato

“Never characterize the importance of a statement in advance.”
Charles G. Ross

“If you are one in a million, there are 5,000 people like you.”
Hal Rubenstein

“In America, everybody is of the opinion that he has no social superiors, since all men are equal, but he does not admit that he has no social inferiors, for, from the time of Jefferson onward, the doctrine that all men are equal only applies upwards, not downwards.”
Bertrand Russell

“Some people grow with responsibility -- others merely swell.”
Abram Sachar

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”
Carl Sagan

“Sit at the feet of masters long enough and they’ll start to smell.”
John Sauget

“Don’t ask questions you don’t want answers to.”
Capt. Schroeder

“The chief cause of problems is solutions.”
Eric Sevareid

“If you do a job too well, you’ll get stuck with it.”
Roy Slous

“Some of us should be thankful that we don’t get what we deserve.”
Ann Landers

“No matter how well you do something, someone won’t like it.”
Robert H. Thomas

“You always think the boss is a son of a bitch until you’re the boss.”
Edward Karl

“Another flaw in human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”
Kurt Vonnegut

“When small men begin to cast large shadows, it is a sure sign the sun is setting.”
From a Warner & Swasey Company ad

“Never wear a hat that has more character than you do.”
Michael Harris

“Seek simplicity and distrust it.”
Alfred North Whitehead

“As long as you retain the capacity to blush, your immortal soul is in no particular danger.”
Elliot Zais

“Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn’t have to do it himself.”
A.H. Weiler

“For every proverb that so confidently asserts its little bit of wisdom, there is usually an equal and opposite proverb that contradicts it.”
Richard Boston

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