We often lament the loss of good character in our society. There’s a sense that our leaders and even members of our community can’t be trusted to do the right thing and are only out for themselves, the collective good be damned. Why does this sense of moral anomie exist? And what can we do about it?
My guest today has written a book exploring these questions. His name is David Brooks. He’s a columnist at The New York Times and in his latest book, The Road to Character, he takes a look at what exactly we mean when we talk about character and why it seems like there’s a lack of it today. David and I begin our discussion with the “crooked timber” view of humanity that people had in previous generations and how it shaped moral development. He then takes us through the cultural changes that got rid of this perspective of human nature and how that led to a loss of a moral vocabulary that makes it hard for people today to even talk about character.
We then take a look at the lives of several eminent individuals from history and what they can teach us about character formation. From General Eisenhower’s battle to harness his uncontrollable anger, to George Marshall’s inner fight for discipline and the ability to put big picture goals ahead of personal ambition.
We end our conversation talking about the mindsets and actions we can take to live a life of character.
This is an important, interesting, and edifying episode I hope you’ll tune in for.
- How an old radio show inspired David to write The Road to Character
- How the self-esteem movement swung too far
- David’s definition of character
- Kant’s vs. Rousseau’s view of humanity, and how it impacts our modern thinking
- Why every man needs to identify his “core sin”
- Adam I vs Adam II — the two sides of our nature
- The vocabulary of morality, and why modern society has lost touch with it
- Why it’s important to be able to describe what’s going on inside you
- How Dwight Eisenhower struggled with and overcame his anger problems
- Institutional thinking — what it is, why it’s decreased, and why that’s a problem
- How to counteract the possible downsides of institutional thinking
- The importance of balancing your commitments
- What Augustine’s idea of “ordered love” can teach us about building character
- The sweetness of seeking “higher joys” — why our desires are too paltry
- How to be a man of character in a busy, self-serving modern world
- Why being a star in your 20s isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
- The most important virtue
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Command Performance radio show
- Command Performance on VJ Day (episode #87)
- What is Character? Its 3 True Qualities and How to Develop It
- Character is Power Poster
- Podcast: Forces of Character
- The Power of Habit
- 15 Maxims on Being a Reliable Man
- Podcast: The Myth of Following Your Passion
- David Foster Wallace Kenyon College commencement speech
- Joseph Soloveitchik’s 1965 essay outlining Adam I and Adam II
- Leadership Lessons from Dwight Eisenhower
- Proverbs 16:32
- It’s A Wonderful Life & Easy Rider
- The Golden Mean
- Augustine’s The Confessions
The Road to Character is the best book I’ve read so far this year. In fact, it’s up there with Resilience and Self and Soul as one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books. David Brooks does a masterful job articulating vague hunches that I think a lot of people have about the state of character today, but more importantly he provides some broad yet actionable guidelines on what we can do to recapture a sense of deep moral meaning in our lives. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy today.
Connect With David Brooks
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. We often lament the loss of good character in our society. There’s a sense that our leaders, and even members of our community, can’t be trusted to do the right thing and are only out for themselves. The collective good be damned. Why does this sense of moral [inaudible 00:00:57] exist and what can we do about it?
My guest today has written a book exploring these questions, his name is David Brooks, he’s a columnist in the New York Times, and in his latest book, the Road to Character, he takes a look at exactly what we mean when we talk about character, and why it seems like there is a lack of it today.
David and I begin our discussion with the crooked timber view of humanity that people had in previous generations, and how it shaped moral development. He then takes us through the cultural changes that got rid of this perspective of human nature, and how it led to the loss of a moral vocabulary that makes it hard for people today to even talk about character. We then take a look at the lives of several eminent individuals from history and what they can teach us about character formation from General Eisenhower’s battle to harness his uncontrollable anger, to George Marshall’s inner fight for discipline and the ability to put big picture goals ahead of personal ambition. We then end our conversation talking about the mindsets and actions we can take to live a life of character. This is an important, interesting, and edifying episode, I hope you’ll tune in. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at AOM.is/roadtocharacter.
David Brooks, welcome to the show.
David Brooks: Good to be with you.
Brett McKay: So, I’m sure many of our listeners are familiar with your column at the New York Times and your other books, but your latest book now out in paperback is the Road to Character. And it’s about the deeper values that should inform our lives to give us a life of meaning and significance. I’d like to talk about the inspiration behind the book. You start your book talking about that. You were listening to an old, a rebroadcast of an old radio show from the 1940s called Command Performance, you talked about how you were struck by the tenor of that show. What was it about the show that stuck out to you and caused you to start thinking about this idea of character formation?
David Brooks: Yeah, that show was a variety show that went out to the troops in World War Two, and they replay old radio shows on NPR on Sunday nights where I live. And I happened to hear the show that was broadcast on VJ day, the day the Americans learn that the Japanese had surrendered. And it was broadcast live just hours after the Japanese had made this announcement. And Bing Crosby, who was the host of the show, got out there and said, “I guess at a moment like this, we don’t feel too proud, we’re just humbled.” And I was struck by that tone of humility which was just continued throughout the program. Somebody Burgess Meredith, if anybody remembers the manager from the movie Rocky, he was a character actor, and he read a passage from a war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, that said, “You know, we didn’t win this war, because we’re better than anybody else, we just happen to be blessed with a lot of material abundance. We had some good allies. We should just try to stay modest, and be worthy of the peace.” And so, I was just struck it could have been a moment of really chest bumping celebration, but instead people felt humbled and modest.
Then I went into my house and I turn on the TV and I turn on the football game, and I watch a quarterback throw a pass to a wide receiver, who was tackled after a two yard gain. And the defensive back did what all athletes do in these moments, he did the little dance in celebration of himself. And it occurred to me I’d seen a bigger self-puffing victory dance after a two yard gain than I’d heard after winning World War Two. And so that suggested to me a shift in culture, a shift from a more modest culture that says, “I’m no better than anybody else, but nobody’s better than me,” to a more achievement oriented culture that says, “Look at me. Look what I’ve done.”
Brett McKay: Right. It’s that little me, big me dichotomy you talk about throughout the book.
David Brooks: Yeah, and I think between, somewhere between World War Two and the present, we went from a culture of self-faith then to a more self-celebration. And a lot of that had to happen because there were a lot of people, especially back in World War Two, who had been taught by society to think too lowly of themselves, especially minorities and women. And so, you needed to go through a self-esteem movement. But part of the argument of the book is that we’ve sort of overshot the mark, and now we’ve entered a culture where we’re too much self, too much narcissism, and not enough humility for real moral development.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, let’s talk about the title of your book, The Road to Character. Character is a loaded word; it means different things to different people. In your book, how are you defining character?
David Brooks: I’ve come to think of it as … First of all, I’m not crazy about the word, because it connotes sort of stuffiness sometimes, and pomposity, and it also, sometimes, for some people it’s like iron self-will, and that’s sort of a joylessness. But I would say I use the word because we are really have a starved vocabulary when it comes to the inner life, when it comes to moral things, and so very often if you’re going to try and figure this stuff out, you’ve got to rely on words you don’t really like because we just don’t have a lot of good words. That’s probably our civilization or at least Western culture.
So to me, character is two things. First, a settled disposition to do good that you’ve built in through habits and other things, tendencies to be honest, to be courageous; and you’re not going to be honest and courageous in all circumstances, at all times, but you sort of have that disposition in that direction, in part because of how you were born, but in part because of the habits, and the way you’ve lived your life. And then the second thing is being faithful to your commitments. We all make commitments to friends, to spouses, to a job, to a community, and I think our character is determined by how faithful we are, how we serve our community, how we stay loyal to our friends, put in time with our kids, and it’s really the active living up to your promises.
Brett McKay: So, as I mentioned earlier, throughout the book you use these dichotomies to talk about the different worldviews, this moral worldview that existed World War II, and what exists now after World War II. And one you talk about is Kant’s, the philosopher Kant, his crooked worldview of humanity. What is that view and how did that encourage formation in the way you’re talking about it?
David Brooks: The contrast is with Rousseau’s version that we are good inside, and Rousseau, he argued that we’re basically noble inside and when we get corrupted, we get corrupted by society. And so, inside ourselves is this little angel, and if we can only get in touch with ourselves, and we be true to ourselves, and be authentic to ourselves, then life would go well. And Kant, and other people in this crooked timber school of humanity, said, “No, that’s not really true. We’ve got some good inside, we’re splendidly endowed, but we’re also deeply broken; and we tend to be selfish. We see the world from our own point of view, and so being authentic and sincere to yourself is often the wrong thing, because often yourself is selfish and slightly dishonest.” And so, people with a crooked timber view of humanity, which I am, believe that one of the core things we have to do in life is to identify our core sin, what’s really wrong with us. Some people have a tendency to be afraid, some people are vain, some people are materialistic, some people are shallow, some people are people pleasers, and then sort of work on that problem.
And the book has like ten characters and none of them were born good; they were all kind of pathetic at age 20, but by 70 they were kind of amazing. And I want to know how they did it. They regarded the inner fight against their own weaknesses as pretty much the central drama of their life. On days when they did something to defeat their weakness, some of them were just hyper-emotional or insecure, some of them were desperate for love, some of them had tempers. On days when they defeated whatever their weakness was, they felt really good. On days when they didn’t, they felt horrible, and so it was a constant battle and they lived their lives as sort of moral struggle against sin, if you want to use that word.
Brett McKay: So, another dichotomy that I thought was a particularly incisive, and I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately, is this idea of Adam I and Adam II. So, we’re talking about the biblical Adam here. What’s the difference between Adam I and Adam II?
David Brooks: Yeah, this is a distinction made by a guy named Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who lived in the first half of the 20th century up in Boston, and he says we have two sides of our nature, which are in competition. The Adam I, which is what he calls the majestic side, and that’s the career side; wants to build and create things, and be successful. And then Adam II is the humble side, and that’s the side that wants to seek goodness and seek virtue to feel like you’re connected to an unconditional love, that you’ve fulfilled your spiritual nature; and he says these two sides of our nature are intention.
The way I put it in the book, just to sometimes get out of his categories, is to divide between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. Resume virtues are the things that make us good at our job, and the eulogy virtues are the things people say about us after we’re dead, like wether you’re honest, courageous, capable of love. So he says these two different sides of our nature are sometimes in conflict because they operate by different logics. The resume side operates by a straight forward logic, which is input lead to output, effort leads to reward. And the moral logic of the eulogy side of our nature is sometimes reversed. You’ve got to forget yourself to really find yourself, you’ve got to sort of surrender to get what you really need, failure can lead to a great success; whereas success can lead to arrogance and pride, which is a great failure.
And so, I think the distinction is useful because so much of life is focused on Adam I, on the resume side, and to sort of separate out how moral development happens. It’s just a useful reminder to live in that other universe part of the time, because I think most of us would regard it as the more important side of life.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah. You mentioned earlier about that we’ve lost the vocabulary of morality and that’s why it’s so hard for us to talk about these things, because we have a hunch about them. You know, there’s a part of like we understand it, but we have a hard time describing it, because we lack a vocabulary. So, what do you think this vocabulary of morality consists of, and why do you think we lost touch with that?
David Brooks: I think that for most of human history, there was a vocabulary, but it was within religion. And if you go to religious context of any religion, they still have the words, and they use them with great felicity. And there are words like sin, and redemption, and grace, and resurrection. But in our secular conversation, a lot of people just withdraw those words, they just do not like those words. Like sin, if you use that in public conversation, they think you’re talking about original sin, or the deep depravity of the soul, or they think you’re talking about sex, and you’re going to crack down on sex.
But I think it’s really hard to know what’s going on inside unless you use those words, or at least find other words for them. It’s like trying to describe colors of a painting if you only know two colors. But if you know all the 36 colors in the crayon box, you can just describe it better. And I think you lose the ability to describe what’s going on inside if you don’t have a concept like grace and sin. And I think, I’m a secular writer, and I speak in the secular sphere. And I think it’s possible to come up with secular definitions of this words.
Grace for example, sometimes if you suffer a trauma, some of your friends who you think are going to be there for you actually are not, they sort of vanish. But then other people, who you barely know, they totally show up for you. And when someone you barely know totally shows up for you, that’s unmerited love, that’s grace. So you can, if you have that concept, you can appreciate it when it happens, and you know the central role grace plays in all our lives.
Sin is another one. To me, the best way to say it is disordered love. That we all love a lot of things, and some things are higher than others, like our love of truth is higher than our love of money. And if say a friend tells you a secret and you blab it at a dinner party, then you’re putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship. And we all know that’s wrong, and that’s what a sin is. And so, if you have a sense of the times you sin, and all of us are proclivity towards sin, then I think you just got a richer understanding of what’s going on in day-to-day life.
Brett McKay: So as you mentioned, you dedicate the book towards doing these sort of Plutarchian character analysis of different individuals from all walks of life, you’ve got Dorothy Parker, you’ve got Eisenhower, Augustine, and what we can learn from them about developing character, this sort of Adam II way of life. And you mentioned what a lot of them had in common was sort of this moral struggle within themselves trying to straighten out this crooked timber of their humanity. And it took them a long time, it didn’t happen overnight.
Let’s talk about some of these individuals in specific. Dwight Eisenhower, guy who commanded D-Day, president, we see him kind of remembered as sort of this affable guy, sort of even keeled character, but you describe he had this great character struggle throughout his life. What was that, and how did he overcome that character form?
David Brooks: So, Eisenhower’s core problem was his temper, his anger, and his passion. And the story that I think illustrates it that I tell in the book is when he was nine, he wanted to go trick-or-treating and his mom wouldn’t let him, apparently she was pretty strict, and he threw a temper tantrum and punched the tree in his front yard, and he punched it so hard he rubbed all the skin off his fingers. And his mom sent him up to his room, had him cry for an hour, and then came up to heal his wounds after an hour. And as she was binding him, she told him a verse from Proverbs, which is “He who conquereth his own soul is greater than he who taketh a city.” And sixty years later when Eisenhower wrote his memoir, he said that was the most important conversation of his life, because it taught him that he had a problem, which was his temper. And if he was going to make anything of himself, he was going to have to conquer that.
And so, he really spent all his life really fighting it. And we think of him as this sort of happy go lucky, as you say, country club guy. But he was inside, especially during when he was leading the troops in World War Two and as president, he was filled with anger at night, he was up late, he was smoking, he was drinking, he had throat infections, blood pressure spikes. But he had learned a way to battle that as some of them, his devices were very shallow, he was a big hater, so he would write the names of the people he hated on pieces of paper, and just rip them up, and throw them in the garbage can. Just all his ways to purge and control his anger, so he could be a good leader, and a good father, and a good president. And he managed to do it quite successfully, but he was not a sincere person. The Eisenhower we see on the surface is very different than the Eisenhower that actually existed inside.
Brett McKay: And you also talk about how his military career it was stymied for most of his career. He wanted to, he saw himself as this great leader, he wanted to serve in that capacity but it just seemed like he was just getting shunted to different areas where he was acting as the subordinate. How did his military career and the struggles of advancing kind of refine Eisenhower?
David Brooks: Yeah, I’d say it made him sort of stifle his ambition, and serve an institution. And so, he was at West Point when World War One happened, and he sort of missed that. And then, he got [inaudible 00:19:32] off to staff jobs, so he was people’s Chief of Staff, he was Douglas MacArthur’s Chief of Staff for a long time, and MacArthur was sort of an egomaniac and it was very frustrating to be underneath him, because you were basically underneath a guy with a monstrous ego and very histrionic, and Eisenhower was not.
But he basically served, believed that I’m going to serve the military when I’m given an assignment that I don’t want, I’m not going to get mad, I’ll just say, “Well, what can I do here that’ll be of service to the military, of service to the country?” And it was in many ways until he was probably 45 or 50, it was just a very frustrating life. But he filled it with acts of service just doing the job as best that he can. And it shrunk his self, his sense of self, his sense of this is all about me. And I think when he then became allied commander and had to balance all these delicate alliances between the US, and Britain, and the French, and et cetera, he was able to take himself out.
I have a friend who has a concept called, “At stake,” and when she’s in a meeting and they’re having an argument about some policy or whatever, she wants to know who’s at stake. That is to say, if you criticize the position they’re taking, do they interpret it as a criticism of themselves? And the goal is to not be at stake, it’s just to say, “Here’s my idea. It could be wrong. If you don’t like it, it’s not about me, it’s just about the idea,” and I think Eisenhower had a facility with that. And so, when people would cross him, he had the ability to say, “Well, this is really not about me, this is just about the cause,” really make himself small, even in a big role.
Brett McKay: See that idea of thinking institutionally that Eisenhower had, and that’s a big point you make in your book, that we don’t really think institutionally as a society anymore. Why is there a decrease in thinking institutionally, and what are the downsides of that?
David Brooks: Yeah I think there’s a decrease simply because we’re a lot more individualistic. We see our life is about fulfilling our own individual mission. But you know, another person who thought institutionally in the book is George Marshall, who was also a general in World War Two. And he basically, the basic mindset is when I’m born, I’m not born into some virgin earth with no institutions, I’m born into a crowded place where people came before and they built all these institutions. And most of what I do in life is I just inhabit an institution. You could go to a certain university, or work at a certain company, you could follow a certain professions, and when you enter a certain institution, you are shaped by the institutions, by the standards of excellence, the codes of conduct. And then, when you try to live up to those codes, you’re sort of shaped by it. And then, you say, “Hey, this thing was here before I was born, it’s going to be here after I’m dead, and I’m just going to try to be a steward of it, and pass it along in better shape than I got it.” And I think that’s accurate, that’s actually how we live. We don’t totally create our own lives, we inhabit posts, and we’re called to different stations.
And so, I do think it’s a calmer, more selfless, and ultimately a happier way to live, just because you know what you’re here for, you know what’s expected of you, and you’re connected with other people to a common cause, and you’re just happier being connected to other people in that way. And the idea that we’re all just a bunch of easy riders out on a highway by ourselves, I think is a bit of a recipe for unhappiness. And there’s sort of a debate in American movies between It’s a Wonderful Life and that movie Easy Rider, and one has a definition of happiness is really being locked down in a community and sometimes can be frustrated, because there are restrictions. The other has a vision of happiness of total freedom, of no restrictions, and I think It’s a Wonderful Life is actually a more accurate version of what happiness looks like.
Brett McKay: I mean, I guess one argument people have against thinking institutionally is that it can sometimes suffocate the rights or the needs of an individual. Right? Sometimes you put the institution first it can cause harm to individuals. I’m thinking things like the sex abuse cover upset, Penn State, for example, people are thinking of the institution of the football program. So, how do you balance the needs of the individual against this idea of thinking institutionally?
David Brooks: Yeah, well I guess I would say two things. One, sometimes it can liberate you if you serve an institution like an orchestra. If you’re a musician, then you’re probably going to enhance your ability to play and increase your happiness. But I guess the other thing I’d say is we all have different commitments to different things, and one of the arts of life, and there’s no rule about this, is balancing your commitments. So, I’m very suspicious of people who are only committed to one thing. If you’re only committed to an institution and you’re not committed to a larger moral system, or you’re not committed to your friendships, then you’re going to turn into a sort of totalitarian personality, and you’re going to sacrifice everything, even common decency to that institution.
So, one of the arts of life is balancing your commitment, and it could be the commitments of the, say serving the Catholic church, but hopefully, you’ve also got a commitment to theology and good conduct. And when the Catholic church is violating your sense of what’s right and wrong, hopefully, you’re going to take right and wrong over the church, I mean the institutional church. And so, to me, if you see yourself as balancing your commitments, then it doesn’t always solve your problems, which commitment is more important at any one moment, but it at least gives you a sense that there’s sometimes going to be tension, and you’re going to have to decide which is higher.
Brett McKay: This idea about tensions, you make a point in the book about there’s a study done amongst college students. They didn’t really understand, the survey showed that they really didn’t understand what moral dilemmas were. Right? They thought it sort of saw them in these sort of black and white things as morality, but you argue in the book that, yeah, these moral dilemmas are all about tensions of competing values that might be good, but it’s trying to figure out when you put an emphasis on one over when you put the emphasis on the other.
David Brooks: Yeah, this sociologist Christian Smith asked all these students, name your last moral dilemma, and he found that the answers were typically, “Well, I pulled into a parking space but I didn’t have a quarter,” or “I really like this apartment but I couldn’t really afford it,” and he had to point out these are not moral dilemmas. They may be problems, but a moral dilemma is when two value systems clash. Say, the system that makes you want to value freedom, but the system that makes you want to value cohesion and community, and these two things often clash. Often there’s a clash between justice and mercy. We want to be nice to people, but we also want to tell them the truth when they’re doing something wrong and be a little hard, and so there’s a tension between these two things.
And so in my view, we’re constantly living within these tensions. There’s no rule; that’s the problem. If you think you can set one rule and it’s going to apply in every situation, you’re just going to become cruel and heartless. And so, the art of living is the art of sort of navigating the boat and figuring out when you’re sort of tipped over a little too far one way, and when you’re tipped over too far the other way.
Brett McKay: Right. It’s Aristotelian trying to find that mean. So, another character, speaking of Aristotle, you highlight in the book is Augustine, catholic, theologian. You mentioned this earlier, this idea of ordered love, and Augustine talks about this in his confessions. How can Augustine’s idea of ordered love help us develop our character?
David Brooks: He was more or less a successful, young Ivy Leaguer, that’s more or less what he was. He grew in a town in northern Africa. The town recognized how smart he was. They raised some money. They sent him to university in Carthage, and so he was rising successful, and he had a very successful career. But he was desperately unhappy. His heart was restless is how he put it, and he just found himself … He was like a jealous lover; he became a little hedonistic, at least by his standards; and he just was unfulfilled, and he just felt empty inside. He went in for some radical philosophical systems. He was searching around for a way to find inner peace.
She finally showed him the way, but he still didn’t want to give up the life that he was leading; he didn’t want to give up some of the worldly pleasures he loved; he didn’t want to give up sex; he didn’t want to give up money, and sort of the high professional career success he was enjoying. And then he had a scene in the garden where he said and he saw a vision of a goddess, more or less. What was interesting of the goddess was she was not some pristine other worldly figure. He describes her as sort of a goddess of fertility, and the message is that you think you want sex but I’m offering you a pleasure that’s even better than sex. You think you want money but I’m offering you wealth that’s even better than money.
And so, the emphasis is that you always move from a lower love to a higher love, and life is not about self-denial, and it’s not about being strict and puritanical, it’s about seeking higher joys and that’s sort of the sweetness of life. So, we move from lower loves to higher ones. And the central argument is our longings and our desires are too paltry, we should go for the big ones not the little ones. And if you’re shooting your life for money or for Facebook likes, you’re shooting for something small, and you should aim for something big.
Brett McKay: Right. It’s that he was trying to focus on Adam I instead of Adam II, and he –
David Brooks: Yes, and he wrote one of the first confessions in western civilization, the first really autobiographies that was really a journey into his inner life, and he spent a lot of time introspection, and he just found himself unsatisfied and sort of wandering about without really much joy until he found an organizing purpose.
Brett McKay: Well, David, I think there’s a lot of people who are listening to this, and they might be thinking, “Yeah, I like what I’m hearing. I want to develop character; I want to live this life of Adam II; I want to recapture that little me mentality that has humility and puts institutions first when it furthers a good cause, but, there’s always that but, like how am I supposed to advance my career in a hyper-competitive Adam I world, where if I don’t toot my horn and develop my personal brand on Instagram and Linkedin and all that stuff, how am I supposed to advance my career if I’m focusing on these Adam II things? I mean, it’s like, if everyone else is doing it and I don’t do it, I’m going to be a sucker. So, I mean, there is sort of like almost a moral tragedy of commons going on here, right. Like if everyone’s doing it and you don’t do it, then you’re going to miss out. So, what’s your response to that but?
David Brooks: Yeah, I guess first, the ten people in the book were very successful. Dwight Eisenhower was president of the United States. George Marshall was top general. Augustine was a big bishop. So, it’s not … I don’t think it’s always about either/or. The second thing to be said is sometimes it is. The hard part of some of these eulogy virtues is sometimes they do make you worse at your job. If getting ahead is going to involve lying or is going to involve a lot of bragging, then a lot of these virtues will end up hurting you, and that’s just a fact. And it’s also a fact even in just time management. You know, a lot of people decide they’d rather spend time on family and other relationships and less time on the job, and it does hurt their careers. But they think it makes for a more joyful life, and I do think that’s generally the right choice.
But the final thing to be said, and I have noticed this just in my own life, is that when I was in my twenties, I knew a lot of people who were hyper-ambitious and transparently ambitious. And they had good twenties; they were stars in their twenties. But a lot of them have sort of dropped out of my profession; I have no idea where they are. And they sort of burned through relationships and they were using other people, and eventually people just didn’t want to be around them. They didn’t want to hire them. And I could think of several examples of people who seemed like hyper go-getters at 25, and by 45 they had fallen, and I think that’s generally true of life that most of us want to work with people who we like and trust. And those who are users, those who are treating other as objects, I find in general in life that doesn’t really pay off.
Maybe we can all think of counterexamples of people who are really rocking and really successful, but I find in my line of work most of the people who are really successful, they can basically … You want to spend time with them, and because they’re pretty much genuine, they seem to have some sense of caring about you and caring about the people around them. So, in real life, I actually don’t see a huge conflict between being a good person and having a pretty decent career.
Brett McKay: So you end the book with this code of humility, and it’s just sort of these bullet points of ideas, actionable points on you can put these things you were talking about throughout your book. I mean, are there a few points in your code of humility that you think provide a lot of bang for their buck? Just sort of if you start thinking about it and trying to act on them that you’ll see a change, not maybe right away but eventually?
David Brooks: Yeah. Well, I think one of the arguments we could have or discussions is, what’s the most important virtue to have? And a friend of mine had this argument, he knows Toni Morrison, the novelist, and she said courage is the most important, because if you don’t have courage than you can’t act on who you are and what you want to do. But I would say humility is the most important, and humility is not thinking lowly of yourself. My favorite definition in the book of humility is radical self-awareness from a position of other centeredness. That is to say, being able to step outside yourself and see yourself both in your strengths and your weaknesses. And humility is not modesty. Abraham Lincoln was very humble, but he knew he had some special gifts, and he was not modest; he did not deny those gifts. But he also knew he had big weaknesses. And so to me, if you start with that, if you start with an honest excavation of where you’re strong and where you’re not, and basically an honest accounting of how you’re doing on any given day; if you lie at night on the pillow and think, “Well, how’d I do today at this or this?” If I’m materialistic, was I materialistic today? I do think that’s the foundation of everything else. And so, a lot of those traits have to do with just cultivating humility in oneself.
Brett McKay: I think that’s the other point, too, is be patient with yourself, because this is going to take a long time to straighten yourself out.
David Brooks: Yeah, there’s a, one of the Greek definitions of character the word they use is engraving, and it’s like engraving stone or engraving in metal. It’s something that does, you have to sort of hone the contours over time through repetition, and that’s why so much of it is about habits; is that cultivating the right habits until something becomes natural.
Brett McKay: Aristotle, again, right there. Well, David is there a place where people can go to learn more about your book, The Road to Character?
David Brooks: Only in the bookstore, or on Amazon. Yeah, I mean, if they can Google it, they’ll find reviews, I guess. But I have a webpage called Road to Character, but it’s been a little while since I’ve looked at it, honestly.
Brett McKay: Sure. Well, David Brooks, thank you so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
David Brooks: Oh, thank you. It’s been fun.
Brett McKay: My guest today was David Brooks. He’s a columnist at the New York Times, and his latest book is The Road to Character. It’s available at Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about the book, The Road to Character at TheRoadtoCharacter.com. Also, check out our show notes at AOM.is/roadtocharacter where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at ArtofManliness.com. If you enjoy this show and have gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate it if you give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It literally takes one minute and helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McCay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 7, 2017