The Road to Character

David Brooks

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These are my personal notes. I use them to remind future Brett what is important. As with all books I review, you can use my outline to determine if you should read this book. You will get something different out of the book than I did.

Brooks uses biographies of individuals who, we would say, have character. Each chapter takes a single character trait and gives a biography of a person who encompasses it. These are the character traits we strive to obtain.

Adam II

Our inner self is the one people describe when giving a Eulogy (Adam II). Our outer self is described by our Resume. (Adam I)

Wise hearts are obtained through lifetimes of diligent effort to dig deeply within and heal lifetimes of scars… it has to be discovered within the depths of one’s own heart. When a person is finally ready to go looking for it,and not before…

A wise person gives the totality of their life in the smallest details of what they do.

Chapter 1: The Shift

There is more self-celebration from a two-yard gain in football than there was when the US won World War II.

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.

We are built from ‘crooked timber’. Immanuel Kant stated, “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Have an awareness of your flaws. Character is built from the struggle against your own weakness.

Character isn’t only built through struggle.

When you have deep friendships with good people, you absorb some of their best traits. When you love a person deeply, you want to serve them and earn their regard. When you experience great art, you widen your repertoire of emotions.

Adam I can never produce deep satisfaction. He always wants more. Deep satisfaction only comes from feeding Adam II. “Adam I aims for happiness, Adam II knows that happiness is insufficient.”

Chapter 2: The Summoned Self

…the way people tend to organize their lives in our age of individual autonomy… begins with the self and ends with the self. It begins with self-investigation and ends in self-fulfillment. This is a life determined by individual choices.

Don’t do this. Instead ask, what are my circumstances calling me to do? This allows life to summon us.

This allows you to understand the world doesn’t begin and end with you. It will exist after you are gone.

Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill tasks which it constantly sets before the individual. — Viktor Frankl

A career provides financial and psychological benefits. If you don’t like your career, you change it. A vocation isn’t chosen, it’s a calling. It isn’t chosen by fulfilling needs or wants. A vocation isn’t about the pursuit of happiness. A vocation challenges you, but gives a great sense of harmony.

A person with a deep vocation is not dependent on constant positive reinforcement.

Chapter 3: Self-conquest

We all have sins we struggle with. Our modern definition of sin is something which has been so overused and exploited that we don’t know its actual meaning. Sin, according to Brooks, is a thing we internally struggle with. Sin is a tilt on something in our character that can make us great, but if twisted, can be our downfall. It is this duality of character that Brooks understands is sin.

The same ambition that drives us to build a new company also drives us to be materialistic and to exploit. The same lust that leads to children leads to adultery. The same confidence that can lead to daring and creativity can lead to self worship and arrogance.

We build character when we create habits which challenge our internal feelings. These habits build our resolve.

If you act well, eventually you will be good. Change your behavior and eventually you rewire your brain.

Moderation is based on an awareness of the inevitability of conflict. Only through moderation can we bring about change.

If you think all your personal qualities can be brought together in the simple harmony, you don’t need to hold back, you can just go whole hog your self-actualization and growth. If you think all moral values point in the same direction, or all political goals can be realized by straightforward march along one course, you don’t need to be moderate either. You can just head in the direction of truth as quickly as possible.

Moderation is based on the idea that things do not fit neatly together. Everything is a balance. To accomplish one must make a trade-off.

Chapter 4: Struggle

When most people think about the future, they dream up ways they might live happy lives. But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the crucial events that formed them, they don’t usually talk about happiness. It is usually the ordeals that seem most significant. Most people shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.

Suffering allows us to avoid the superficial in order to find the fundamental. Modern psychologists call this ‘depressive realism’ — an ability to see things the way they are.

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. They don’t come out healed; they come out different.

Instead of recoiling from the cause of their suffering, individuals double down. they embrace the suffering. They throw themselves deeply into the thing which makes them suffer. Suffering, unlike happiness, becomes a burdensome treasure. Happiness brings pleasure. Suffering cultivates character.

Chapter 5: Self-Mastery

[To him] the home was a haven in a heartless world.

Remain professional is your professional life and personal in your personal life. The two have a distinct line. To do your best work you need to be present. To have the greatest relationships you need to be present.

Mediocre solutions undertaken in time are better than perfect solutions undertaken too late. — George Marshall

Chapter 6: Dignity

If you are incorruptible it is impossible to be humiliated.

Chapter 7: Love

This is the strongest chapter in the book. The chapter has the best description of love I’ve ever read.

This agency moment can happen, for many people, surprisingly late in life. Sometimes you see lack of agency among the disadvantaged. Their lives can be so blown about my economic disruption… that they lose faith in the idea that input leads to predictable output. You can offer programs to improve their lives, but they may not take full advantage of them because they don’t have confidence that they can control their own destinies.
Among the privileged, especially the privileged young, you see people who have been raised to be approval-seeking machines. They may be active, busy, and sleepless, but inside they often feel passive and not in control. Their lives are directed by other people’s expectations, external criteria, and definitions of success that don’t actually fit them.
Agency is not automatic. It has to be given birth to, with pushing and effort. It’s not just the confidence and drive to act. It’s having engraved inner criteria to guide action. The agency moment can happen at any age, or never.

In regards to finding and knowing love:

Love is experienced as a connecting of the minds. “It’s a communication in which intellectual compatibility turns into emotional fusion.” However, in order for the experience to happen, you have to create your own wisdom. In Brooks example, Berlin and Akhmatova intellectually connected because “they had done the reading.”

They believed you have to grapple with the big ideas and the big books that teach you how to experience life in all its richness and how to make subtle moral and emotional judgments. They were spiritually and vicious. They had the common language of literature written by geniuses who understand us better than we understand ourselves.

For many cultures, love is described as an external force. We even use the term falling in love. Love reminds us we are not in control.

Cesar Pavese wrote:

You will be loved the day when you will be able to show your weakness without the person using it to assert his strength.

The mind should, as much as possible, be fixed on the art and not on the public.

Chapter 8: Ordered Love

We use the word lust to refer to sexual desire, but a broader, better meaning is selfish desire… The person in lust has a void he needs filled by others. Because he is unwilling to actually serve others and build a full reciprocal relationship, he never fills the emotional emptiness inside. Lust begins with a void and ends with a void.

We can’t rely on our own intuition for self-examination. Our own opinion of ourselves is not honest. No one who is evil thinks they’re evil. To be honest with ourselves we need to ask others their thoughts of us.

You can’t lead a good life by steering yourself, in the first place, because you do not have the capacity to do so. The mind is such a vast, unknown cosmos you can never even know yourself by yourself.

Attempting to implement the ideas in self-help books is a worthless endeavor.

The existence of more and more self-help books is proof that they rarely work.

We can’t limit our self-evaluation to a specific time.

This is more or less how many people try to rearrange their life today. They attack it like a homework assignment or a school project. They step back, they read self-help books like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. They learn the techniques for greater self-control. They even establish a relationship with God in the same way they would go after a promotion or an advanced degree — by conquest: by reading certain books, attending services regularly, practicing spiritual disciplines such as regular prayer, doing their spiritual homework.

We often lean on our past accomplishments to measure our value.

…pride is building your happiness around your accomplishments, using your work as the measure of your worth. It is believing that you can arrive at fulfillment on your own, driven by your own individual efforts.

Grace is the only thing that saves us. Grace produces an inner transformation. One day you turn around and notice that everything inside has been realigned.

Chapter 9: Self-Examination

This chapter focuses on Samuel Johnson — The author of the first English dictionary. The chapter explains how his character was formed in community.

Johnson happened to come to maturity at a time when Britain was home to a talented group of writers, painters, artist, and intellectuals…Each raise the standards of excellence form the others.
Their knowledge derived from their deep reading of texts. They tried to see the world clearly, resisting the self-deception caused by vanity and perversities in their own nature. They sought a sort of practical moral wisdom that would give them inner integrity and purpose.

Johnson lived in a world of hack writers, but Johnson did not allow himself to write badly — even though he wrote quickly and for money. Instead he pursued the ideal of absolute literary honesty…
It was said during Greek times that Demosthenes was not a great orator despite his stammer; he was a great orator because he stammered. The deficiency became an incentive to perfect the associated skill. The hero becomes strongest at his weakest point…

“Your story may not be one of virtue-conquers-vice. It may be virtue-learns-to-live-with-vice.”

Chapter 10: The Big Me

Brooks argues that a shift from one moral culture into a another creates a vacuum where humans need to over-compensate for the culture shift. He focuses on the shift in the 1950s and 1960s of a culture emphasizing pride and self-esteem. The culture shift helped fix social injustices among previously repressed groups. Social injustices against women, minorities, and the poor created a culture for these groups to believe in themselves and raise their aspirations.

The culture previous to the 1950s was one of obligation to others. Dr. Joyce Brothers, an advice columnist during the cultural shift explained to women to focus on themselves:

Put yourself first — at least some of the time. Society has brainwashed women into believing that their husbands’ and children’s needs should always be given priority over their own.

This cultural shift to a me focused one allowed women to finally “articulate and cultivate self-assertion, strength, and identity.” We moved from a culture of self-combat — where we couldn’t trust our thoughts or feelings — into a culture self-liberation and self-expression.

However, we shifted into a culture of meritocracy.

Meritocracy makes us put our best self forward, but focuses on the external self (Adam I) and not on our internal self (Adam II). Even the definition of character has changed. The word used to be about selflessness and generosity but has changed to one of traits which allow us to have success in the external world. Words like “self-control, tenacity, and grit”.

The change from the Little Me culture to the Big Me culture wasn’t bad, but it went to far. Moral struggle isn’t something emphasized anymore. We expect to be great at everything without having to work for it. Even when we work for it, are we doing it for ourselves or for the benefit of how others perceive us?

Brooks uses a lot of data to support the shift of moving away from helping others into a world of only helping ones self. Brooks uses Google ngrams — a search engine focusing on word usages in the contents of books and publications — to prove his points. Since the beginning of the 20th century here are some samples of the usage of words reflecting character:

  • Bravery — Down 66%
  • Gratitude — Down 49%
  • Humbleness — Down 52%
  • Kindness — Down 56%

Christian Smith — A researcher at Notre Dame who studies the moral lives of American college students — noted that today’s students don’t comprehend morals. In his research a student said the last moral dilemma he had was when he didn’t have enough quarters for a parking meter.

Allowing each individual to define their own worldview isn’t healthy.

If your name is Aristotle, maybe you can do that. But if it isn’t, you probably can’t.

The Humility Code

Brooks summarizes all of the ideas presented in the book with his humility code.

  1. Don’t live for happiness, live for holiness. “Life is essentially a moral drama, not a hedonistic one.”
  2. Proposition one defines the goal of life. We imagine spiritual and moral needs can be solved through material things when they can’t. To be happy we need to focus on the first proposition.
  3. Those who suffer are rewarded.
  4. Humility is the greatest virtue. Knowing the world continues without you is the best way to serve mankind.
  5. Pride is the central vice. Pride makes us prove we are better than those around us. Pride deludes us into thinking we are the authors of our own lives and others lives are supporting actors to our own.
  6. The struggle against personal sin is the central drama of life. Contending with weakness means choosing what parts of yourself to develop and those not to develop. You can’t win the war against sin. The purpose of struggle is to get better at winning battles against it.
  7. Character is built when you struggle against your own weakness. Even if you don’t harm anyone else, when you give into your weakness, your core is weakened. Your core is strengthened by acts of restraint which no one sees. You are doing it for you. When your core-self is weakened you become a slave to your passions.
  8. Sins — lust, fear, vanity, gluttony — which lead us astray are short term. Character traits — courage, honesty, humility — endure over for the long term. People with character are “anchored by permanent attaches to important things.”
  9. You can’t achieve self-mastery by yourself. To combat the forces inside yourself you need to draw on something outside yourself. Redemptive assistance comes from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars.
  10. We are all ultimately saved by grace. The struggle against weakness has a U shape, taking the form of advance-retreat-advance. At your lowest, you admit you need help. When help is requested, grace floods in and advances us further.
  11. Defeating weakness means quieting the self. When ego is silenced one sees the world clearly.
  12. Wisdom starts with modesty. The world is complex. Although we try to make it simple, we fail. We should be skeptical of trying to apply a universal rules across different contexts. “Wisdom is not knowledge. Wisdom emerges out of a collection of intellectual virtues. It is knowing how to behave when perfect knowledge is lacking.”
  13. Use your work to serve others. If you attempt to serve yourself, you will never be satisfied. “A vocation is not found by looking within and finding your passion. It is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us.”
  14. The best leader understands change happens incrementally. Long-term change is never radical and sudden.
  15. Fame and wealth may not come from winning against struggles. But maturity does. Maturity is not comparative. Maturity is earned by being better than you used to be. “The mature person can make decisions without relying on the negative and positive reactions from admirers or detractors because the mature person has steady criteria to determine what is right.”