"The Road To Character" by David Brooks

Charlottesville, Virginia

February 2, 2020

Thanks to my friend Cristi Craigmile for recommending this book to me. (Does she think I don't have character? 😂)

I am going to assume we all know who Mr. Brooks is - the NYT pundit who is a Republican (moderate) and a capitalist. I am a big fan of his Thursday column in the NYT - I may not always agree with his position, but he always makes me think.

And the same goes for this book - he made me think and think hard. It's not a book about our economy or politics - it strikes at the heart of what motivated me to go on my walkabout. Many times I thought he had gotten inside my head and was writing about me. I found the book enlightening and important. (I have a theory now that I am going to like any book that references Victor Frankl (as Brooks does)).

It is hard to summarize a book written by someone whose career has been putting his thoughts into words. Instead of trying to put his thoughts into my words, I have for the most part used excerpts from the book to cull out what I found to be the highlights.

I hope you find this summary useful.

Big Picture

The book addresses Brooks’ core issue with modern, western culture; we are too achievement oriented and as a result are out of balance and are not sufficiently developing “character.” Brooks criticizes our obsession with “the Big Self” to emphasize the merits of developing character.

To Brooks ‘character’ is two things. First, it is a disposition to do good. Moral goodness requires we escape the pattern of pleasure-seeking, and follow our callings while also identifying the core sins of ourselves so that they may be conquered.

Second, Brooks defines character as a form of unshakable commitment. This includes living loyally and in alignment with your values.

Brook’s definition of character highlights the value of developing a sensible moral vocabulary for facing the world. He presents his ‘Humility Code’ which identifies the key principles of our greatest moral virtues for those seeking insight on how to battle the self-obsessiveness of the 21st century and develop their character.

Brooks’ hope is that we can rediscover the moral tradition that existed prior to the rise of “Big Me,” relearn its vocabulary of character, and incorporate it into our own lives.

The Road to Character Summary

• “Resume” virtues are what make us good at our jobs, what we consider the skills that bring us value on the marketplace. “Eulogy” virtues are what people will say about us after we pass away. If we are seeking to be remembered fondly after our passing, then why focus so much time and attention on ourselves (resume virtues)? (No one on their death bed ever said “I wished I spent more time in the office.”)

• Brooks introduces us to “Adam I” and “Adam II.” Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature. Adam I is the external, résumé Adam. Adam I wants to build, create, produce, and discover things. He wants to have high status and win victories. Adam II is the internal Adam. Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities. Adam II wants to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong—not only to do good, but to be good. Adam II wants to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, to have a cohesive inner soul that honors creation and one’s own possibilities. While Adam I wants to conquer the world, Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world. While Adam I is creative and savors his own accomplishments, Adam II sometimes renounces worldly success and status for the sake of some sacred purpose. While Adam I asks how things work, Adam II asks why things exist, and what ultimately we are here for. While Adam I wants to venture forth, Adam II wants to return to his roots and savor the warmth of a family meal. While Adam I’s motto is “Material success,” Adam II experiences life as a moral drama. His motto is “Charity, love, and redemption.”

• Adams I and II live by different logics. Adam I—the creating, building, and discovering Adam—lives by a straightforward utilitarian logic. It’s the logic of economics. Input leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Pursue self-interest. Maximize your utility. Impress the world. Adam II lives by an inverse logic. It’s a moral logic, not an economic one. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Adam I’s success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself. To nurture your Adam I career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths. To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses.

• If you are only Adam I, you turn into a shrewd animal, a crafty, self-preserving creature who is adept at playing the game and who turns everything into a game. If that’s all you have, you spend a lot of time cultivating professional skills, but you don’t have a clear idea of the sources of meaning in life, so you don’t know where you should devote your skills, which career path will be highest and best. Years pass and the deepest parts of yourself go unexplored and unstructured. You are busy, but you have a vague anxiety that your life has not achieved its ultimate meaning and significance. You live with an unconscious boredom, not really loving, not really attached to the moral purposes that give life its worth. You lack the internal criteria to make unshakable commitments. You never develop inner constancy, the integrity that can withstand popular disapproval or a serious blow. You find yourself doing things that other people approve of, whether these things are right for you or not. You foolishly judge other people by their abilities, not by their worth. You do not have a strategy to build character, and without that, not only your inner life but also your external life will eventually fall to pieces. (You end up at 60 years old deciding you need to go to all the Paris’ on a walkabout.)

• We live in a culture that nurtures and admires Adam I and teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success. That culture gives little encouragement to Adam II, to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.

• The never-ending climb of the achievement ladder of professional success is only an external drama of our life situation. While the inner struggles, those that challenge us to do battle with our weaknesses, are at the center stage of life. “The beginning of worthwhile living is the confrontation with ourselves.”

• Without a rigorous focus on the Adam II side of our nature, it is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity.

• Moral improvement occurs most reliably when the heart is warmed, when we come into contact with people we admire and love and we consciously and unconsciously bend our lives to mimic theirs.

• None of the people Brooks profiles in the book is even close to perfect. [Note, I found the profiles interesting but not essential to understand what Brooks was trying to say.] But they practiced a mode of living that is less common now. They were acutely aware of their own weaknesses. They waged an internal struggle against their sins and emerged with some measure of self-respect. And when we think of them, it is not primarily what they accomplished that we remember—great though that may have been—it is who they were.

• Occasionally we come across certain people who seem to possess an impressive inner cohesion. They are not leading fragmented, scattershot lives. They have achieved inner integration. They are calm, settled, and rooted. They are not blown off course by storms. They don’t crumble in adversity. Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable. Their virtues are not the blooming virtues we see in smart college students; they are the ripening virtues we see in people who have lived a little and have learned from joy and pain. Sometimes we don’t even notice these people, because while they seem kind and cheerful, they are also reserved. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline. They radiate a sort of moral joy. They answer softly when challenged harshly. They are silent when unfairly abused. They are dignified when others try to humiliate them, restrained when others try to provoke them. But they get things done. They perform acts of sacrificial service with the same modest everyday spirit they would display if they were just getting the groceries. They are not thinking about what impressive work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all. They just recognize what needs doing and they do it. They make us feel funnier and smarter when we speak with them. They move through different social classes not even aware that they are doing so. After we’ve known them for a while it occurs to us that we’ve never heard them boast, we’ve never seen them self-righteous or doggedly certain. They aren’t dropping little hints of their own distinctiveness and accomplishments. They have not led lives of conflict-free tranquility, but have struggled toward maturity. They have gone some way toward solving life’s essential problem, which is that, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart.” These are the people who have built a strong inner character, who have achieved a certain depth. In these people, at the end of this struggle, the climb to success has surrendered to the struggle to deepen the soul. After a life of seeking balance, Adam I bows down before Adam II.

• We have seen a broad shift from a culture of humility to the culture of what I call the Big Me, from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe.

• Today’s culture is defined by: You are special. Trust yourself. Be true to yourself. Movies from Pixar and Disney are constantly telling children how wonderful they are. Commencement speeches are larded with the same clichés: Follow your passion. Don’t accept limits. Chart your own course. You have a responsibility to do great things because you are so great. This is the gospel of Adam I.

• The self-effacing person is soothing and gracious, while the self-promoting person is fragile and jarring. Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space—self-concerned, competitive, and distinction-hungry. Humility is infused with lovely emotions like admiration, companionship, and gratitude. There is something intellectually impressive about that sort of humility. We have, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes, an “almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” Humility is the awareness that there’s a lot you don’t know and that a lot of what you think you know is distorted or wrong.

• Today, many of us see our life through the metaphor of a journey—a journey through the external world and up the ladder of success. When we think about making a difference or leading a life with purpose, we often think of achieving something external—performing some service that will have an impact on the world, creating a successful company, or doing something for the community. Truly humble people also use that journey metaphor to describe their own lives. But they also use, alongside that, a different metaphor, which has more to do with the internal life. This is the metaphor of self-confrontation. They are more likely to assume that we are all deeply divided selves, both splendidly endowed and deeply flawed—that we each have certain talents but also certain weaknesses. And if we habitually fall for those temptations and do not struggle against the weaknesses in ourselves, then we will gradually spoil some core piece of ourselves. We will not be as good, internally, as we want to be. We will fail in some profound way. For people of this sort, the external drama up the ladder of success is important, but the inner struggle against one’s own weaknesses is the central drama of life. As the popular minister Harry Emerson Fosdick put it in his 1943 book On Being a Real Person, “The beginning of worth-while living is thus the confrontation with ourselves.” Truly humble people are engaged in a great effort to magnify what is best in themselves and defeat what is worst, to become strong in the weak places. They start with an acute awareness of the bugs in their own nature. Our basic problem is that we are self-centered.

• People who are humble about their own nature are moral realists. Moral realists are aware that we are all built from “crooked timber”—from Immanuel Kant’s famous line, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” People in this “crooked-timber” school of humanity have an acute awareness of their own flaws and believe that character is built in the struggle against their own weaknesses.

• Character is not innate or automatic. You have to build it with effort and artistry. You can’t be the good person you want to be unless you wage this campaign. You won’t even achieve enduring external success unless you build a solid moral core. If you don’t have some inner integrity, eventually your Watergate, your scandal, your betrayal, will happen. Adam I ultimately depends upon Adam II.

• Moral realists sometimes do hard things, like standing firm against evil and imposing intense self-discipline on their desires. But character is built not only through austerity and hardship. It is also built sweetly through love and pleasure. When we have deep friendships with good people, we copy and then absorb some of their best traits. When we love a person deeply, we want to serve them and earn their regard. Through devotion to some cause, we elevate our desires and organize our energies.

• The road to character, to developing our Adam II, involves moments of moral crisis, confrontation, and recovery. When the people I profiled were in a crucible moment, they suddenly had a greater ability to see their own nature. The everyday self-deceptions and illusions of self-mastery were shattered. They had to humble themselves in self-awareness if they had any hope of rising up transformed. Alice had to be small to enter Wonderland. Or, as Kierkegaard put it, “Only the one who descends into the underworld rescues the beloved.” But then the beauty began. In the valley of humility they learned to quiet the self. Only by quieting the self could they see the world clearly. Only by quieting the self could they understand other people and accept what they are offering.

• People with character may be loud or quiet, but they do tend to have a certain level of self-respect. Self-respect is not the same as self-confidence or self-esteem. Self-respect is not based on IQ or any of the mental or physical gifts that help get you into a competitive college. It is not comparative. It is not earned by being better than other people at something. It is earned by being better than you used to be, by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation. It emerges in one who is morally dependable. Self-respect is produced by inner triumphs, not external ones. It can only be earned by a person who has endured some internal temptation, who has confronted their own weaknesses and who knows, “Well, if worse comes to worst, I can endure that. I can overcome that.”

• The central fallacy of modern life is the belief that accomplishments of the Adam I realm can produce deep satisfaction. That’s false. Adam I’s desires are infinite and always leap out ahead of whatever has just been achieved. Only Adam II can experience deep satisfaction. Adam I aims for happiness, but Adam II knows that happiness is insufficient. The ultimate joys are moral joys.

• Stop seeking happiness. Happiness is a byproduct of living an intentional life, it is not something you chase after as a means to its own end. We need to engage in a lifelong conversation with ourselves constantly negotiating our weakness with moral fortitude as our leverage.

• Moral Ecology: “a set of norms, assumptions, beliefs, and habits of behavior and an institutionalized set of moral demands that emerge organically”. What seems to span over thousands of years to only a few months’ time, the moral ecology of a society is created and sets standards for identifying a morally upright person. America (in the past 60 years) has built a moral ecology that focused primarily on of self-ego (Big Me). We encourage narcissistic behavior and thereby take pride in large flamboyant personality rather than stress prudent character.

• The Humility Code consists of 15 principles that can guide us toward a moral uprightness that is counter to the moral ecology we currently live in. Its goals are to depict how to live and what to live for.

1. Live for holiness, not happiness. “Life is essentially a moral drama, not a hedonistic one.”

2. The goal of life is overcoming our personal moral struggles. To do this we need an accurate depiction of our nature; we need to accept our inherent flaws as living beings.

3. While flawed, we also have the tools for liberation. Introspection allows us to become aware of our sins, and engage in a never-ending struggle against ourselves.

4. When engaging with our sins we need humility. Humility is our greatest virtue because it accurately depicts human nature relative to the seemingly infinite universe. Alone we are the underdogs against our sins; humility reminds us of this.

5. “Pride is a central vice.” Pride blinds us of our weaknesses and tricks us into thinking we are better than who we actually are and aims to prove we are better than those around us.

6. If our physiological needs are met, our next focus must be to fight for virtue. “The struggle against sin and weakness is not to ‘win,’ because that is not possible; it is to get better at waging it”. Become willing to take part in an unwinnable battle.

7. We BUILD character. Over the course of our lives, we can become more disciplined through acts of self-control. By gradually incorporating the marks of good character in our lives, we can habitually develop consistency and dependability.

8. What arises in the short term will blind us – lust, fear, vanity, gluttony. While what last over the long term – honesty, humility, courage – assist us in developing resilience and dedication to our callings. Character allows us to pursue a task that we know will outlive our morality.

9. “No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own.” It takes a strong person to admit that our journey cannot be made alone. We need outside assistance. But no matter the source, it is our mission to wage battle against our sins and weaknesses in conjunction with others.

10. Our struggles when seeking virtue are U-shaped. “Advance-Retreat-Advance.” As we live our lives we will get knocked down; this is inevitable. But what’s important is that we step away from losing with poise. Accepting it is time for assistance. Refusing to allow pride to blind you. Prideful efforts will only extend your desperation. Instead, be thankful for the assistance.

11. “Defeating weakness often means quieting the self.” Mute the ego. Equanimity will prepare us for the up and down that are inevitable to our journey. Battling weakness requires modesty, a higher purpose, and the capacities for reverence and admiration.

12. “Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty”. With so much information available we must admit to ourselves that we cannot know it all. Further, we must accept that some things that cannot ever be known. Universal models for interpreting reality breed nonsense. We must be skeptical and humble. As we gain more experiences, we build up a collection of mental models that help us when perfect knowledge is not achievable; we call this collection “wisdom.”

13. “No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation.” We will never find our calling if we look for our passion. We must look around and ask life how we can best serve our community and then leverage our intrinsic interests towards addressing the problems of the community. Our passion finds us.

14. “The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it.” Leadership is the balance between values and goals. And a good leader recognizes the contrast between the two. Therefore, it is the leader’s job to limit the poor decisions made by the group and take advantage of the good. The leader does not aim for perfection because he understands that is not possible. Instead, his aim is to leave the group slightly better off from where it started.

15. The moral ecological shift may not lead to fame or future, but it will breed maturity. We can become better. Better is based solely on where we used to be and is not measured through comparison with others. “The mature person has moved from fragmentation to centeredness, has achieved a state in which the restlessness is over, the confusion about the meaning and purpose of life is calmed.” Maturity is the sole indicator of success against our weaknesses, not riches or fame.

I hope you found this summary enlightening. I am looking forward to reading Mister Brooks' recent book, The Second Mountain. No doubt, I will have a blog post summarizing that book. Stay tuned.

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