David Brooks The Road to Character

ISBN 13: 9780241186725

The Road to Character

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9780241186725: The Road to Character

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER · NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE ECONOMIST · "I wrote this book not sure I could follow the road to character, but I wanted at least to know what the road looks like and how other people have trodden it."--David Brooks
With the wisdom, humor, curiosity, and sharp insights that have brought millions of readers to his New York Times column and his previous bestsellers, David Brooks has consistently illuminated our daily lives in surprising and original ways. In The Social Animal, he explored the neuroscience of human connection and how we can flourish together. Now, in The Road to Character, he focuses on the deeper values that should inform our lives. Responding to what he calls the culture of the Big Me, which emphasizes external success, Brooks challenges us, and himself, to rebalance the scales between our "résumé virtues"--achieving wealth, fame, and status--and our "eulogy virtues," those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty, or faithfulness, focusing on what kind of relationships we have formed.
Looking to some of the world's greatest thinkers and inspiring leaders, Brooks explores how, through internal struggle and a sense of their own limitations, they have built a strong inner character. Labor activist Frances Perkins understood the need to suppress parts of herself so that she could be an instrument in a larger cause. Dwight Eisenhower organized his life not around impulsive self-expression but considered self-restraint. Dorothy Day, a devout Catholic convert and champion of the poor, learned as a young woman the vocabulary of simplicity and surrender. Civil rights pioneers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin learned reticence and the logic of self-discipline, the need to distrust oneself even while waging a noble crusade.
Blending psychology, politics, spirituality, and confessional, The Road to Character provides an opportunity for us to rethink our priorities, and strive to build rich inner lives marked by humility and moral depth.
"Joy," David Brooks writes, "is a byproduct experienced by people who are aiming for something else. But it comes."

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About the Author:

David Brooks is one of the nation’s leading writers and commentators. He is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times and appears regularly on PBS NewsHour and Meet the Press. He is the bestselling author of The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement; Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There; and On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1
The Shift

On Sunday evenings my local NPR station rebroadcasts old radio programs. A few years ago I was driving home and heard a program called Command Performance, which was a variety show that went out to the troops during World War II. The episode I happened to hear was broadcast the day after V--J Day, on August 15, 1945.

The episode featured some of the era’s biggest celebrities: Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, and many others. But the most striking feature of the show was its tone of self--effacement and humility. The Allies had just completed one of the noblest military victories in human history. And yet there was no chest beating. Nobody was erecting triumphal arches.
“Well, it looks like this is it,” the host, Bing Crosby, opened. “What can you say at a time like this? You can’t throw your skimmer in the air. That’s for run--of--the mill holidays. I guess all anybody can do is thank God it’s over.” The mezzo--soprano Risë Stevens came on and sang a solemn version of “Ave Maria,” and then Crosby came back on to summarize the mood: “Today, though, our deep--down feeling is one of humility.”

That sentiment was repeated throughout the broadcast. The actor Burgess Meredith read a passage written by Ernie Pyle, the war correspondent. Pyle had been killed just a few months before, but he had written an article anticipating what victory would mean: “We won this war because our men are brave and because of many other things—-because of Russia, England, and China and the passage of time and the gift of nature’s materials. We did not win it because destiny created us better than all other people. I hope that in victory we are more grateful than proud.”

The show mirrored the reaction of the nation at large. There were rapturous celebrations, certainly. Sailors in San Francisco commandeered cable cars and looted liquor stores. The streets of New York’s garment district were five inches deep in confetti.1 But the mood was divided. Joy gave way to solemnity and self--doubt.

This was in part because the war had been such an epochal event, and had produced such rivers of blood, that individuals felt small in comparison. There was also the manner in which the war in the -Pacific had ended—-with the atomic bomb. People around the world had just seen the savagery human beings are capable of. Now here was a weapon that could make that savagery apocalyptic. “The knowledge of victory was as charged with sorrow and doubt as with joy and gratitude,” James Agee wrote in an editorial that week for Time magazine.

But the modest tone of Command Performance wasn’t just a matter of mood or style. The people on that broadcast had been part of one of the most historic victories ever known. But they didn’t go around telling themselves how great they were. They didn’t print up bumper stickers commemorating their own awesomeness. Their first instinct was to remind themselves they were not morally superior to anyone else. Their collective impulse was to warn themselves against pride and self--glorification. They intuitively resisted the natural human tendency toward excessive self--love.

I arrived home before the program was over and listened to that radio show in my driveway for a time. Then I went inside and turned on a football game. A quarterback threw a short pass to a wide receiver, who was tackled almost immediately for a two--yard gain. The defensive player did what all professional athletes do these days in moments of personal accomplishment. He did a self--puffing victory dance, as the camera lingered.

It occurred to me that I had just watched more self--celebration after a two--yard gain than I had heard after the United States won World War II.

This little contrast set off a chain of thoughts in my mind. It occurred to me that this shift might symbolize a shift in culture, a shift from a culture of self--effacement that says “Nobody’s better than me, but I’m no better than anyone else” to a culture of self--promotion that says “Recognize my accomplishments, I’m pretty special.” That contrast, while nothing much in itself, was like a doorway into the different ways it is possible to live in this world.

Little Me

In the years following that Command Performance episode, I went back and studied that time and the people who were prominent then. The research reminded me first of all that none of us should ever wish to go back to the culture of the mid--twentieth century. It was a more racist, sexist, and anti--Semitic culture. Most of us would not have had the opportunities we enjoy if we had lived back then. It was also a more boring culture, with bland food and homogeneous living arrangements. It was an emotionally cold culture. Fathers, in particular, frequently were unable to express their love for their own children. Husbands were unable to see the depth in their own wives. In so many ways, life is better now than it was then.

But it did occur to me that there was perhaps a strain of humility that was more common then than now, that there was a moral ecology, stretching back centuries but less prominent now, encouraging people to be more skeptical of their desires, more aware of their own weaknesses, more intent on combatting the flaws in their own natures and turning weakness into strength. People in this tradition, I thought, are less likely to feel that every thought, feeling, and achievement should be immediately shared with the world at large.

The popular culture seemed more reticent in the era of Command Performance. There were no message T--shirts back then, no exclamation points on the typewriter keyboards, no sympathy ribbons for various diseases, no vanity license plates, no bumper stickers with personal or moral declarations. People didn’t brag about their college affiliations or their vacation spots with little stickers on the rear windows of their cars. There was stronger social sanction against (as they would have put it) blowing your own trumpet, getting above yourself, being too big for your britches.

The social code was embodied in the self--effacing style of actors like Gregory Peck or Gary Cooper, or the character Joe Friday on Dragnet. When Franklin Roosevelt’s aide Harry Hopkins lost a son in World War II, the military brass wanted to put his other sons out of harm’s way. Hopkins rejected this idea, writing, with the understatement more common in that era, that his other sons shouldn’t be given safe assignments just because their brother “had some bad luck in the Pacific.”2

Of the twenty--three men and women who served in Dwight Eisenhower’s cabinets, only one, the secretary of agriculture, published a memoir afterward, and it was so discreet as to be soporific. By the time the Reagan administration rolled around, twelve of his thirty cabinet members published memoirs, almost all of them self--advertising.3

When the elder George Bush, who was raised in that era, was running for president, he, having inculcated the values of his childhood, resisted speaking about himself. If a speechwriter put the word “I” in one of his speeches, he’d instinctively cross it out. The staff would beg him: You’re running for president. You’ve got to talk about yourself. Eventually they’d cow him into doing so. But the next day he’d get a call from his mother. “George, you’re talking about yourself again,” she’d say. And Bush would revert to form. No more I’s in the speeches. No more self--promotion.

The Big Me

Over the next few years I collected data to suggest that we have seen a broad shift from a culture of humility to the culture of what you might 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.

It wasn’t hard to find such data. For example, in 1950, the Gallup Organization asked high school seniors if they considered themselves to be a very important person. At that point, 12 percent said yes. The same question was asked in 2005, and this time it wasn’t 12 percent who considered themselves very important, it was 80 percent.

Psychologists have a thing called the narcissism test. They read people statements and ask if the statements apply to them. Statements such as “I like to be the center of attention . . . I show off if I get the chance because I am extraordinary . . . Somebody should write a -biography about me.” The median narcissism score has risen 30 percent in the last two decades. Ninety--three percent of young people score higher than the middle score just twenty years ago.4 The largest gains have been in the number of people who agree with the statements “I am an extraordinary person” and “I like to look at my body.”

Along with this apparent rise in self--esteem, there has been a tremendous increase in the desire for fame. Fame used to rank low as a life’s ambition for most people. In a 1976 survey that asked people to list their life goals, fame ranked fifteenth out of sixteen. By 2007, 51 percent of young people reported that being famous was one of their top personal goals.5 In one study, middle school girls were asked who they would most like to have dinner with. Jennifer Lopez came in first, Jesus Christ came in second, and Paris Hilton third. The girls were then asked which of the following jobs they would like to have. Nearly twice as many said they’d rather be a celebrity’s personal assistant—-for example, Justin Bieber’s—-than president of Harvard. (Though, to be fair, I’m pretty sure the president of Harvard would also rather be Justin Bieber’s personal assistant.)

As I looked around the popular culture I kept finding the same messages everywhere: 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 self--trust.

As Ellen DeGeneres put it in a 2009 commencement address, “My advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.” Celebrity chef Mario Batali advised graduates to follow “your own truth, expressed consistently by you.” Anna Quindlen urged another audience to have the courage to “honor your character, your intellect, your inclinations, and, yes, your soul by listening to its clean clear voice instead of following the muddied messages of a timid world.”
In her mega--selling book Eat, Pray, Love (I am the only man ever to finish this book), Elizabeth Gilbert wrote that God manifests himself through “my own voice from within my own self. . . . God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are.”6

I began looking at the way we raise our children and found signs of this moral shift. For example, the early Girl Scout handbooks preached an ethic of self--sacrifice and self--effacement. The chief obstacle to happiness, the handbook exhorted, comes from the overeager desire to have people think about you.

By 1980, as James Davison Hunter has pointed out, the tone was very different. You Make the Difference: The Handbook for Cadette and -Senior Girl Scouts was telling girls to pay more attention to themselves: “How can you get more in touch with you? What are you feeling? . . . Every option available to you through Senior Scouting can, in some way, help you to a better understanding of yourself. . . . Put yourself in the ‘center stage’ of your thoughts to gain perspective on your own ways of feeling, thinking and acting.”7

The shift can even be seen in the words that flow from the pulpit. Joel Osteen, one of the most popular megachurch leaders today, writes from Houston, Texas. “God didn’t create you to be average,” Osteen says in his book Become a Better You. “You were made to excel. You were made to leave a mark on this generation. . . . Start [believing] ‘I’ve been chosen, set apart, destined to live in victory.’ ”8

The Humble Path

As years went by and work on this book continued, my thoughts returned to that episode of Command Performance. I was haunted by the quality of humility I heard in those voices.
There was something aesthetically beautiful about the self--effacement the people on that program displayed. 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. “Thankfulness,” the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, said, “is a soil in which pride does not easily grow.”9

There is something intellectually impressive about that sort of humility, too. We have, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes, an “almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”10 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.

This is the way humility leads to wisdom. Montaigne once wrote, “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.

The people we think are wise have, to some degree, overcome the biases and overconfident tendencies that are infused in our nature. In its most complete meaning, intellectual humility is accurate self--awareness from a distance. It is moving over the course of one’s life from the adolescent’s close--up view of yourself, in which you fill the whole canvas, to a landscape view in which you see, from a wider perspective, your strengths and weaknesses, your connections and dependencies, and the role you play in a larger story.

Finally, there is something morally impressive about humility. Every epoch has its own preferred methods of self--cultivation, its own ways to build character and depth. The people on that Command Performance broadcast were guarding themselves against some of their least attractive tendencies, to be prideful, self--congratulatory, hubristic.

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 hav...

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Brooks, David
Published by Allen Lane (2015)
ISBN 10: 0241186722 ISBN 13: 9780241186725
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