in: People, Podcast, Social Skills

• Last updated: November 6, 2023

Podcast #938: Social Skills as the Road to Character

If you’ve wanted to develop your character, you’ve probably thought about strengthening virtues like courage, humility, and resolution. But my guest would say that practicing social skills is another way of increasing your moral strength, and the moral strength of society as a whole.

David Brooks is the author of numerous books, including his latest, How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen. Today on the show, David discusses why our culture lost an emphasis on moral formation, and why this loss has led to alienation and anomie. We then talk about the role each of us can play in repairing this fabric by developing concrete social skills, avenues to improve character that, unlike some virtues that are only called upon in a crisis, you can practice every day. David shares insights on how we can get better at giving people attention, asking good questions, and helping those who are going through a hard time. We also discuss how understanding different personality types and life stages can allow us to better understand other people.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. If you’ve ever wanted to develop your character, you’ve probably thought about strengthening virtues like courage, humility, and resolution. But my guest would say that practicing social skills is another way of increasing your moral strength and the moral strength of society as a whole. David Brooks is the author of numerous books, including his latest, “How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen”. Today on the show, David discusses why our culture lost an emphasis on moral formation, and why this loss has led to alienation and anomie. We then talk about the role each of us can play in repairing this fabric by developing concrete social skills avenues to improve character that unlike some virtues that are only called upon in a crisis, you can practice everyday.

David shares insights on how we can get better at giving people attention, asking good questions, and helping those who are going through a hard time. We also discussed how understanding different personality types and life stages can allow us to better understand other people. After the show’s over, check at our show notes at

All right. David Brooks, welcome back to the show.

David Brooks: Oh, it’s great to be back with you.

Brett McKay: I see you got a new book out, “How to Know a Person,” and in this book you take a deep dive to explore how to be the kind of person that can see and understand others deeply. What was the impetus behind this project?

David Brooks: Yeah, the impetus was basically we have a society that’s rotting at the relational foundations. And so, there are all sorts of super bad statistics out there. 54% of Americans say that no one knows them well. The number of people who say they have no close personal friends has gone up by four times in the last two decades. We’ve seen a rise of depression, rise of suicide. 45% of teenagers say they’re persistently sad and hopeless. So there’s just like this crisis of people feeling alone and feeling alienated. And this book is meant to be an Exocet missile at that problem, [chuckle] it’s meant to really introduce people to the skills they need so they can actually show up better for people. And there’s one skill that’s the core skill of all those skills, which is the ability to understand the people around you and make them feel seen, heard, and and understood. And I wanted to get a lot better at doing that for the people around me. And I hope other people wanna get better too.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So you argue in the book that there are two types of people in the world. There’s Illuminators and then there’s Diminishers. Let’s talk about the Diminishers first, ’cause the Illuminators, that’s what the book’s primarily about. What are Diminishers like, what are these kind of people like?

David Brooks: These are people who are not curious about you. I’ve noticed when I go to a party, or sometimes I’ll leave a party and I’ll think, “You know, that whole time nobody asked me a question.” And I found that about 30% of my people are question askers and the other 70% are perfectly fine, they’re just not that curious about you. And so, Diminishers just lack that curiosity. But then worse, they stereotype, they label, they ignore, they’ve got their own egos in the way, so they’re thinking about themselves and not about others or they’re so stuck in their own viewpoint, they can’t get a sense of your own viewpoint.

Brett McKay: Well, and you mentioned at the start, there’s a lot of these statistics that we’ve been seeing about how… It’s like the social fabric is framed in the West and particularly in the United States, increase in loneliness, increases in suicide, depression, et cetera. But then also, you highlight other statistics we’ve been seeing in the past, I don’t know it’s five years maybe. And you wrote about this in the book as well as in an article that you did for the Atlantic about just people behaving badly in public. What are some of the statistics you’ve seen there?

David Brooks: Yeah, well, there’s been a record rise in fights. We’ve obviously seen rising murder rates. I was at a restaurant in New York and the owner told me that he has to kick somebody out of his restaurant for entitled behavior about once a week. I was friends with a woman who’s a head nurse at a hospital and she says her main problem is keeping staff, that the patients have become so abusive. A lot of nurses want to get out of the profession. And that’s a problem caused by loneliness. When you feel that society doesn’t recognize you, it feels like an injustice. And so you tend to wanna lash out, you tend to wanna attack, you feel under threat and you become vicious.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve heard this thrown around. Sometimes I roll my eyes at it, but I think it’s true, that idea that hurt people, hurt people. It’s probably what’s going on.

David Brooks: I mean, loneliness is this weird thing ’cause you feel under threat and so you begin to get suspicious of the people around you and it cuts you off from the very thing you need most, which is some friendship and social connection. And if you look at our politics, I think you see the viciousness born out of a lot of people who feel they’ve been disrespected on a regular basis.

Brett McKay: Okay. So it’s a vicious cycle going on. People are Diminishers typically by nature ’cause we’re self-centered, we’re ego centered. But that being a Diminisher is causing other people to be Diminishers to you, and it just cycles and cycles downward.

David Brooks: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s well put. I wish I had put it that way.

Brett McKay: So in this chapter, in this article in the Atlantic that I really enjoyed, you make the case that one of the reasons there’s been an uptick in Diminisher behavior is that we no longer have a shared moral education or shared idea of moral formation in the United States. And you talk about there’s three elements to moral formation. What are those three elements?

David Brooks: Yeah, so when you get morally educated, those three things are, one, you learn ways to restrain your natural selfishness. Two, you find an ideal, some goal or some ideal that you try to orient your life around, something to give your life purpose, direction and meaning. And then third, moral formation is just teaching people the skills of how to be considered to each other in the complex circumstances of life. How to listen well to somebody, how to ask for and offer forgiveness, how to argue well without breaking a relationship, how to have a party where everybody feels included. And these are just basic social skills that you learn them the way you learn carpentry or tennis or whatever. And some days it feels like we’ve built a society where we haven’t taught people how to do the most important skills they need.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you have a great line in that article that I liked about this, sociality is a moral virtue and that it’s a skill. And you say this, you say, “We learn most virtues the way we learn crafts, through the repetition of many small habits and practices, all within a coherent moral culture, a community of common values, whose members aspire to earn one another’s respect.” And that’s very Aristotelian.

David Brooks: I guess so I’m happy to follow Aristotle. That’s high company. I might as well learn from the best.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And then, in this article you also talk about before World War II in the United States and in other western countries, people were very intentional about moral formation. What did it look like before the war?

David Brooks: Yeah. Well, if you go all the way back to America’s founders, our founders had a very realistic view of human nature. They thought people are wonderful in many ways and cooperative and generous, but they’re also basically selfish and self-centered. And they had the thought that if we’re gonna make a democracy out of these people, we’ve gotta train them better. We’ve gotta give them training on how to be a good citizen, how to be a good neighbor, how to be a good friend. And so, those morally formative institutions came from all parts of the political spectrum and all parts of the religious or non-religious spectrum. There were things like the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts in schools. Schools used to think their main job was not to prepare you for the SAT or to get into college. Their main job was to teach character.

A Headmaster at one school said, “We try to raise students who will be acceptable at a dance invaluable at a shipwreck.” They wanted to train young people to be strong in a crisis. And so, there were all these morally formative institutions of all varieties for the first 150 years of our country. And then, around 1945, ’46 a new mode of thinking came into the culture, which was, people are not basically sinful and self-centered. People are good, people are wonderful, it’s institutions in authority, that’s the problem. And so, a lot of the institutions like the Girl Scouts or the schools that used to be in the moral formation business, they got into the self-actualization business, that all you gotta do is get in touch with yourself ’cause you’re good.

And so, we stopped doing moral formation and you can see it, they have these things Google Ngrams that measure which words are used in common conversation. And usage of words like humility, honesty, courage, all the moral words, usage of those words went down like 60% over the next few decades. We just stopped talking about how do we make people morally better.

Brett McKay: What do you think caused that shift? I mean, it sounds like we went from a moral based vocabulary to a therapeutic vocabulary, or a psychological, like what caused that shift?

David Brooks: Yeah, I do think it was the basic sense that if you think human nature is good, that we’re all wonderful inside, you don’t need to form it. You just need to let it loose. And so people were encouraged to be self-indulgent. And then, the second thing that happened is we went, I would say from a more moralist to culture, as you say, to a therapeutic culture, but then we just went to a utilitarian culture. And so, schools where I teach, which used to put creating… Here’s a phrase I heard from Ted Lasso, which is a perfect description of moral formation. He was asked what was his goals for his soccer team in his comedy series. And he said, “My goal for us this year is just to make the men on this team better versions of themselves on and off the field.”

That’s what moral formation is, just institutions that wanna make the people in them better versions of themselves on and off the field. And we dropped that goal in a lot of our institutions, a lot of our schools. And now, the goal is to get people into Harvard to prepare people for professional success. And I think it’s just fundamentally wrong that… What’s the most practical thing you can major in at a college, for example? Well, it’s the humanities, ’cause the humanities teach you about other people. And if you don’t know about other people, you’ll be miserable and you’ll make them miserable. So we’re very shortsighted in thinking we should teach you how to code, but we’re not gonna teach you how to understand human nature.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I think people don’t appreciate oftentimes like, how radical of a shift that is. For thousands of years the purpose of education was to train the soul or order your desires in the appropriate way. It wasn’t just about making a buck.

David Brooks: Yeah. And now I think, I have taught courses. My students call my courses Therapy with Brooks, but they’re trying to be moral formation classes. Like one of them was about making four big commitments. Most of us make a commitment to a philosophy or faith or to a family, to a community, and to a vocation. How do you choose those commitments and how do you live up to your commitments? And the course was very popular, and these courses tend to be very popular, but they’re few and far between at our universities and some of my colleagues would say, “I can’t teach moral formation. My degree is in geology, or my degree is in political science. I have no idea what moral formation is or how you would go about it.” And we’ve become so professionalized that we’ve become demoralized and my students, by the way are… They’re wonderful kids, but they’re perfectly aware that they’re morally inarticulate. They’ve not been given the tools to talk and think about this process of how do you become a better person?

Brett McKay: And as we talked about earlier, because we don’t have this moral education in our culture, you know, this reinforcing web of social influences that help build character, this just leads to a downward cycle of disconnection and alienation because people are untrustworthy. So there’s less social trust. And so, we start retreating further into ourselves, but then when we do that, we feel lonely and unrecognized, and so, we lash out. And that just creates more of the perception that people can’t be trusted. And so people disconnect from each other even more and it just goes on and on. And you say that a big part of recovering a moral tenor in our society is learning to treat people better, to really see them and know them. So how do we start recovering that aspect of what I think you’d call, like the road to character?

David Brooks: The first step is just like the first encounter with a person. The first time you meet, we meet each other. We’re unconsciously asking ourselves certain questions. Am I a priority for this person? Am I a person to them? And the answers to those questions will be communicated in the eyes before any words come out of anybody’s mouth. It’s how do you gaze at someone? And that first burst of attention is just super powerful. And so I tell this story in the book. I was out… I was in Waco, Texas at a diner having breakfast with a woman named LaRue Dorsey, who was this 93 year old lady who used to be a teacher. And she presented herself to me as a strict disciplinarian. And I was a little intimidated by her. She said to me, “You know, I love my students enough to discipline them.”

And then, into the diner walks, a mutual friend of ours named Jimmy Darrell, who’s a pastor. He pastors the homeless. And he walks up to us and he grabs Mrs. Dorsey by the shoulders and he shakes her way harder than you should shake a 93 year old. And he says to her, “Mrs. Dorsey, Mrs. Dorsey, you’re the best, you’re the best. I love you. I love you.” And that stern disciplinarian I had been talking to turned instantly into a bright eye shining nine year old girl. And that shows the power of a gaze to turn somebody into a different version of themselves. And the most powerful point I’m trying to make here is that Jimmy is a pastor. And so, when he meets anybody, absolutely anybody, he thinks he’s met someone, made in the image of God, he thinks he’s looking into the face of God, he’s trying to see them with the eyes Jesus would use to see them, eyes with compassion and love. And you can be an atheist, a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, Buddhist, whatever, the ability to approach everybody you meet with that level of reverence and respect is an absolute precondition for knowing them well. And that’s what’s sacred to me, the sacredness of each individual human being we encounter.

Brett McKay: All right. So Jimmy, this pastor, he’s an Illuminator, right? He’s the guy that when you’re around him, you just, you feel noticed, you feel seen, and you feel better being with that person.

David Brooks: Yeah, absolutely. And I have a friend named Mac, he’s probably like 75. You go walk into a coffee shop with him, first meeting, everyone becomes friends with him. ’cause he’s so outward. Second meeting, they think he is their best friend. In the third meeting, they ask him to officiate his wedding. And like he’s just like, his attention is on you. And it’s just very powerful. I tell the story in the book of another illuminator, and he worked at Bell Labs and they were… Bell Labs was this a legendary research facility. And they noticed that some of the researchers were way more innovative and productive than others. And they were asking, “What makes some of these people so good and not better than the others? And it had nothing to do with their IQ level, their education level. It turned out the most innovative researchers were in the habit of having breakfast or lunch with this electrical engineer named Harry Nyquist.

And he would get inside their head, he’d pour his attention into them and help them think through their problems and help them make progress. And so, by getting into other people’s heads, Harry Nyquist was an Illuminator. He made them better.

Brett McKay: Have you had any Illuminators in your life that have had a big impact on you?

David Brooks: Yeah, I would say that guy Mac has had a big impact. You know, it sometimes… I would say in my own life, when I felt really seen, sometimes it hasn’t always been pleasant. I have a memory going way back to 11th grade English. And I had made some smart-alecky remark and my teacher Mrs. Dooshna barks at me in front of the whole class. “David, you’re being a smart-ass. You’re trying to get by on glibness, stop it”. [chuckle] And on the one hand, I was kind of humiliated ’cause she called me out in front of the whole class. But on the other hand, I thought, “Wow, she really knows me.” And she had named for me something which was a real problem, especially for me in high school, just being smart-ass. And it gave me something to work on. So even though it wasn’t a sweet experience, I did feel known by her.

Brett McKay: Yeah, she saw you.

David Brooks: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And I really love this idea and you weave it throughout the entire book, this idea that attention, paying attention to people is a moral act. And I think there’s… You talk about Simone Weil, she taught… That was like her big philosophical idea, “Attention is a moral act”.

David Brooks: Yeah. There were a couple of women from Jewish families in World War II who really pay, who really emphasized this the… Simone Weil said that “Attention is the ultimate act of generosity, paying attention to one another.” There was another woman, a Jewish woman in Amsterdam when the Nazis invaded. And she just… She was sort of a mess when they invaded, very self-absorbed and self-centered. But as the horror of the Holocaust became clear to everybody, she became more self-sacrificial. And her biographer said of her, she grew by looking, she would study people, the bend of their neck, the anxiety in their voice, and she refused to be calloused over by the brutality of the time she was living in. And she went to work as a volunteer in one of the transit camps. And people described her as transcendent, glowing, always on the lookout for others, always trying to be open-hearted toward others, always trying to serve others.

And they describe her as just this Saint Leaf figure. And what really strikes me about that is you can be open-hearted, even in brutal times, and when you’re just this defiant kind of humanist, especially brave, when politics are rough, when you’re stuck in a region at war and you can not lose your humanity. That’s a true accomplishment. And they did it by just noticing the people around them.

Brett McKay: Okay. Let’s talk about some things that you’ve found to help you become more of an illuminator type. So it requires paying attention to others, and that requires developing these concrete social skills that you’ve talked about. And one of the skills of an illuminator is this idea that you need to have the ability to accompany another person. What does it mean to accompany someone?

David Brooks: Yeah, well, most of life is just hanging out. We’re not having deep conversations with each other. But when you’re accompanying, I obviously get it from music, where the pianist accompanies the singer. The pianist is there paying attention to the singer, trying to make her shine. And it’s sort of an other-centered way of being. And so, sometimes when we’re accompanying each other, we’re just playing, like we’re playing basketball. And play is an amazingly powerful way to get to know another person, because people tend to be at their most natural when they’re playing basketball or playing pickleball or just playing. Like when my son, my youngest son was an infant, he would wake up at 4:00 in the morning, and I would have to wake up with him, and I would play with him for about five hours before I went off to work.

And when he was like 16 months, I remember he was playing on my chest and I remember thinking, I know him best, better than I’ve known anybody. And he probably knows me best, better than anybody has ever known me, ’cause I’ve been so open playing with him. And we had never exchanged a word at that point, ’cause he couldn’t talk. But through the looks and interactions of play, you really can get to know someone very well. And then, the other part of accompaniment is just being present, just showing up for people in hard times. And one of the stories I tell in the book is about a former student of mine who’s lost her dad to pancreatic cancer. And she had always discussed with him that he would miss her big life events.

Then shortly after college graduation, she was invited to be a bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding. And she was at the wedding, and she was watching the interaction between the proud father and his daughter as she was getting married. And of course, she was moved, but also tender because of the loss of her own dad. And during the reception, they had the father-daughter dance, and she said, “I think I’m just gonna step into the restroom, and I’m gonna have a cry.” And she comes out of the restroom, and everybody at her table and the adjacent table had gotten up, and they were just standing there outside the bathroom. And as she exited, each of them, nobody said anything. They each just gave her a hug and went back to their tables. And she said, “I didn’t need them to linger around and offer false grief. They gave me exactly what I wanted.” And so that’s a group of people who really knew what she needed. They knew her, and they saw her.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So being with someone, accompanying someone, it’s a passive-active activity. You’re along for the ride, but you’re also engaged with it at the same time. One way you can be engaged when you’re accompanying someone is listening, asking questions. And you do this, I love what you do in the books. You offer some concrete advice on questions you can ask to get to know someone better. So what are some really great questions you found to learn how to understand people better?

David Brooks: Well, I think one thing I learned was we need to be a little more ambitious in our questions. We need to ask big questions. And so, kids are phenomenal at asking questions. One of my favorite stories in the book concerns a friend of mine named Niobe Way, who was teaching eighth grade boys how to ask questions so they could become student journalists. And the first day of class, she sits in the front of the class and said, “Okay, ask me anything and I’ll answer it.” So the first question from a boy was, are you married? The answer was no. And the second question was, are you divorced? The answer was yes. Third question was, do you still love him? And immediately she has a sharp intake of breath and she says yes. And they say, well, does he know? Do your kids know? And so kids are just phenomenal at those blunt questions.

But as we get older, we get a little shy and we don’t ask. I start by asking people questions like, “Where are you from?” I want to know where their childhood was. I’ve traveled a lot in the country, so there’s a good chance I’ve been to at least near where they’re from. Or “Where’d you get your name?” That’s something that gets people talking about their family or maybe their ethnic heritage. And then as you really get to know someone, you can have playful questions. Like I once was at a group and I asked, “What’s the most fun, unimportant thing about you?” And I learned that this academic, who I find very imposing, loves trashy reality TV. That’s an unimportant thing about him, that’s kind of fun.

And then, as you really get to know someone, the good questions lift them above their daily experience and get them to think about their own life in a new way and explore it with you. So those are questions like, what crossroads are you at? Most of us are in one life transition or another in life, so what crossroads are you at? Or what’s the commitment you’ve made that you no longer believe in? Or what forgiveness are you withholding? And so, those are questions that get people to step back and have to think about their life in a new way. And they find it very rewarding to answer those questions ’cause it allows them to show themselves. And it’s tremendously fun to be the one hearing them because every life is more fantastic and amazing than you think. We only see 20% of each other, and if we get to see 50%, we’re astounded by the things that are going on down in each person.

Brett McKay: Okay. So you don’t wanna start with these big questions right away with someone, a stranger, like, you don’t discount the importance of small talk. They’re friendly noises we make to get comfortable with people. But you said you can ask those questions about your name, where you’re from, and then lead up to these big ones. Some of my favorite ones, we talked about you had dinner with a political scientist and he was 80 years old. Now, I love this question he asked. He says, “I’m 80. What should I do with the rest of my life?”

David Brooks: Yeah, it was such a big question, but we had a great conversation around it. It’s like, first, what are his interests? But second, like, how should you age? How should you approach the final years of energy before death? It was just like a set of big questions. And I will tell you, I’ve learned this as a journalist and I’ve learned it from talking to conversation experts. How often, when you ask a question, does somebody say, none of your damn business? The answer is never, almost never. People are dying to tell their story. For this book, I interviewed a guy named Dan McAdams, who works at Northwestern, and he studies how people tell their life story. And he calls people in, asks them to describe their high points of life, the low points, the turning points. And then after a few hours, he says, “Thank you,” and he hands them a check to compensate them for their time. A lot of the people push back the check and say, “I don’t wanna take money for this. This has been one of the best afternoons of my life. No one has ever asked me these questions.” And so people are just dying to be asked.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and you’re helping that person. What these questions do is you’re helping these people craft the story of their life. And they’ve never probably been asked to tell their story. And with these questions, you’re allowing them to do that.

David Brooks: Yeah, and I guess I’d say, most people don’t sit down and say, what’s the story of my life? It’s only when we’re asked that we have to come up with it. And as we’re listening to the stories, you wanna listen first, what’s the role the person puts themselves? How do they see themselves? I guess for me, I’d be the teacher. That’s the role I assign myself in life. And other people can be the healer. Other people are the reconciler. Other people are builders. And there’s usually a social role we give ourselves. And then, the other thing that’s interesting to listen for in listening to people’s story is, what’s the plot here? People pick up a size and shape of a plot from the culture around.

And so, some people may tell their life story as a rags to riches story. I started at the bottom, I’ve made it to the top. Some people as an overcoming the monster story. I had an abusive parent or I had to struggle with alcohol and I had to overcome the monster. And a lot of people, and I think I’m in this camp, tell redemption stories that I was cruising along in life, something bad happened, I came back better. That’s redemption, that’s a redemption story. And so, when you hear the plot of somebody’s stories, you learn a lot about them by what plot they assign to their lives.

Brett McKay: So this idea of paying attention to people, ask good questions is part of it, but then you have to listen and you have to listen away so the person sees that you’re actually listening. Anything that you’ve come across that has helped you become a better listener?

David Brooks: Yeah, I share a whole bunch of tips on how to be a better conversationalist. One of them is treat attention as an on-off switch, not a dimmer. Make it 100% paying attention, not 60%. Another is be a loud listener. You should be listening so actively you burn calories. And so, I have a buddy named Andy Crouch who’s, when you’re talking to him, he’s like a congregation in one of those Pentecostal churches. He’s going, “Mm-hmm, yep, yep, preach, amen, amen, amen.” I just love talking to that guy. Another is don’t fear the pause. If I say something in our conversation, at what point do you stop listening so you can think of what you’re gonna say? We miss like 40% of each other’s comments ’cause we shift to, “Well, what am I gonna say to this?” And so, if I let you talk out the whole thing you wanna say, then I pause for a couple seconds, maybe I hold up my hand to show that I’m really digesting what you just said, and then I answer. And that’s a way of really hearing what you’re saying and really honoring what you’re saying.

Brett McKay: You also talk about how you can help someone who’s going through a hard time. I think this is an area where people have friends and family members who are going through a hard time, could be job loss, a loved one died, could be depression, alcoholism. And they see these people suffering, but they don’t know what to do. They wanna help and be with that person, but they don’t know what to do, so they just don’t do anything, which is probably the worst thing you could do. And I think the reason why people don’t know is, going back to what we were talking about earlier, you’re just not taught this stuff anymore. So what can people do to help someone going through a hard time?

David Brooks: Yeah. Well, it’s two different kinds of hard times. First is depression. As I describe in the book, one of my oldest friends got hit with a real severe case of depression. And I did it wrong for the first year or two. The first, I would try to offer him ideas on what he could do to get out of depression. Like, “Why don’t you go to Vietnam and help people who are poor? That’ll be rewarding. You’ve done it before, you found it so rewarding. Why don’t you do that again?” And I learned that if you’re trying to offer somebody who’s depressed ideas about how to get out of depression, you’re really, all you’re doing is saying, you just don’t get it, cause it’s not ideas they’re lacking when they’re depressed. The second mistake I made was positive reframing, trying to remind my friend of all the good things he had in his life, his great career, his great wife, his great kids.

And that positive reframing just makes things worse too, ’cause it’s like telling the person that he’s not enjoying the things he should palpably be enjoying. And so, it makes him feel worse. And I learned in this sort of thing, all you can do is show, “I’m still here, I’m not going away, I’ll never go away. This is unconditional. I’m sticking around as your friend.” And then, you can say, “Listen, I admire you for your strength ’cause you’re still here. And you have faced a lot of pain, but you’re still here.” And I think those are some of the things you can say to someone who’s depressed. For someone who’s suffering grief, I think the best thing, you know, I have a friend who lost a daughter to an accident in Afghanistan. And then nearly lost another daughter to a bike accident in DC.

And she told me, “Sometimes people don’t know if they should mention Anna,” the daughter who died, “because that might be reminding me of a bad subject. But they should know that Anna is always on my mind. And therefore, if you mention her, you’re giving me the chance to talk about her if I want to, or to not talk about her if I don’t, but you’re giving me the chance.” And then, she said to me as she was nursing her younger daughter back to health, she said, “Do you want to know what the best thing anybody ever did for us in this period of recuperation? Somebody went to the bathroom in our house on a visit and noticed we didn’t have a shower mat in the shower. And so they went out to Target, they bought a shower mat, they put it in the shower, and they didn’t say anything. They just did it.” And she said, “That was the kind of practical help that just helped me exactly where I needed help, just on the daily practicalities of life as my daughter and I are going through this hard time.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think that’s one of the benefits going back to, this idea we had, a community of moral formation, helped you learn how to do these things. Like churches, I think it’s one of the benefits of churches is that you had these rituals you’d go through when someone passed away. So in my church, if someone dies, the members of the church, they’re gonna cook the family lots of dinners and casseroles. They don’t have to worry about that. They’re gonna put on the funeral for the person. There’s like these things you just do that people have done for generations that you just, you do over and over again, no matter what. And now, when people are going to church less, they don’t have those built-in rituals. So they don’t, they have a harder time figuring out, “Well, what should I do to help this person out?”

David Brooks: Yeah, no, I agree completely. Like in the Jewish tradition, it’s called sitting shiva. And so, if you lose a husband, the obvious form of therapy is not, well, you need to throw a party every night for the next week. But that’s sort of what it can be like in the Jewish community where the person who’s grieving has a lot to do. They gotta clean up the house. They gotta arrange the food. And they have people around them every night for a week. And it’s actually a brilliant form of therapy ’cause it surrounds you with community and it surrounds you with a lot of casseroles and stuff like that. But it gives you something to do and it gives you a way to process what you’re going through. And people now, if we don’t go to church or synagogue or mosque, we may have friends, but we’re not enmeshed in the institutions that leap up during hard times. And so, just as you say, a church or a synagogue or a mosque, that community, they know exactly what to do when there’s grief. Your loose collection of friends are gonna be a lot less reliable.

Brett McKay: Okay, so helping someone who’s going through a hard time, whether it’s depression or grief, I think the big takeaway there is just be with them, accompany them. And maybe you don’t have to say anything. Just be there with them and find ways so you can help them. That’s it. And don’t worry about saying the wrong thing. I think a lot of people, that’s another thing they freak out about. They’re gonna say the wrong thing. I think people will just appreciate that you are there with them.

David Brooks: Yeah, and I learned that there are two sorts of people in a crisis. There are firemen and builders and there are some people that show up right at the moment when you’ve lost a spouse or a kid or whatever and they’re there in the beginning and then there’s another group of people who they show up later on but they’re there for the long term process which you have to go through to rebuild your mind, rebuild the models of your mind so you can now cope with what life is like without that person, and these tend to be two different sorts of people. And the other thing that a lot of people I’ve heard say is that when you lose… When you, say you lose a kid, some of the people you think are going to show up for you who you’re really close to do not show up for you, and some of the people you never expected they travel across the country and they show up. And it goes back to that illuminator diminisher dualism that some people are just shower uppers and they may not be your best friend but when they hear about a crisis, suddenly they’re there and they’ve parked in front of your house and they’re there ready to do whatever you want them to do and that’s a good trait to be a shower upper.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that idea of the distinction between firemen and builders. I saw this firsthand, my wife and I, one of our good very good friends, he lost his wife in a tragic skiing accident several years ago, so he’s a widower, had five kids at the time they’re all under the age of 11, I think. And so right away people circled the wagons around him and helped him out but then he talked about after a while people just stopped because people have their lives to live, like he understood it but my wife and I made it a priority just to stay connected with him even though he lives in another state because, yeah, your life, you have to rebuild a life completely after that and you need other people to help you during that process.

David Brooks: Yeah, I mean you even need to rebuild your mind ’cause your mind is, we understand reality by building models of reality and so in that guy’s models his wife was right there and if he had something funny to share, she would be there and suddenly she’s not there anymore and sort of the fibers of his mind are reaching out for even though she’s not there and it takes like years for the models to get modernized so she’s there as a memory but not as a living presence.

Brett McKay: Okay. So, we talked about paying attention, and you can do that just by being with someone, asking good questions really listening. You also talk about you have this chapter on personality and understanding the science of personality, how can understanding personality help you relate better with others?

David Brooks: Well, to know other people, you have to know about human nature. Just as a geologist can look at a rock face and see more than an amateur or just as a sommelier can taste more at a wine, it really helps to have domain knowledge about human beings. And one of the things… The easiest to spot thing is the personality type and our conversation of personality types is very screwed up in this country. I sometimes ask groups of people how many of you know about Myers-Briggs and almost every hand in the room goes up, people know about Myers-Briggs, and then I say how many of you know about the big five personality traits and maybe 10% or 20% know and what’s wrong with that is that Myers-Briggs has no basis in scientific research.

You take the test multiple times, you get multiple diagnoses of who you are. It is not predictive of how anybody’s gonna do in a job or in a marriage or anywhere else. And the categories are wrong in Myers-Briggs. Like it says that some people are thinking people and some people are feeling people but in fact people who are good at thinking are also good at feeling so it gets human nature wrong but there’s masses of research in what’s known as the big five personality traits and those are extroversion which is drawn to positive emotions, conscientiousness, high impulse control, agreeableness, your ability to like other people, openness to new experience whether you’re adventurous or not and then neuroticism do you respond to negative emotions.

And if I know that you’re high in conscientiousness, I’m probably gonna expect you to be disciplined and persevering and organized. I’m gonna be expecting you’re going to be do pretty well at school and probably pretty well in a company because you really have a lot of self-control. On the other hand if my kid is high in neuroticism which is very sensitive to negative emotions like fear or anger then my kid is gonna hear my correction which I think is a gentle correction, he’s gonna hear that as shouting. And so I need to parent a kid who’s neurotic in a way that is a little gentler and so he doesn’t feel perpetually under assault. So it’s super important that I know his personality traits.

And we can do that mostly by observing each other, if we hang around each other, we know who’s extroverted or not, we know who’s agreeable or not and it just helps you see what kind of person that is. If you can attach sort of a tendency of personality to them.

Brett McKay: All right, it will help you relate better to them. You also have this chapter on life stages and this is really interesting because as I was reading this book, I was writing an article about life stages paradigms from different cultures and different times in human history. Tell us about this like how can understanding life stages or life cycles help us be able to understand and relate better to people.

David Brooks: Yeah, so we have different tasks that we go through in life and they happen at different times and our minds are reshaped so we can complete that life task. So when you’re a boy or a girl your primary life task is to show you can compete and you can be effective, and so at school there’s a lot of competitive games as people are competing to show, “Yes, I can be effective and at school,” and so you’re kind of self-absorbed as a kid and you’re just trying to show you can do things.

And then, you get to adolescence and you’re in a more interpersonal phase, you’re trying to find out who you are and that’s shaped by what other people say about you. So you become… Your main job there is to make friends and be popular among friends. And so, in that first stage of that first task of life you’re gonna be a little self-centered and self-enclosed. And then, the next task in adolescence, you’re gonna be super sensitive to social slights and so that’s just a very different mentality. So if you can see what task somebody’s in the middle of, you’ll have a good deal of idea of how their mind works. And so, for example I’m kind of caught between two life tasks, the one task which is what most middle-aged people are in the middle of, is career consolidation. How do I become a success at work? But then you hit a certain age and that becomes a little unsatisfying and you move on to the next task which is generativity, how do I give back?

And so, I’m in this weird transition moment where I hope I’m trying to give back to society but I still have the normal anxieties of anybody in career. And so, like a couple years ago I wrote a book about how to be a good member of community, how to be a generous human being, and I wrote this noble book about how you shouldn’t care about career success and yet when the book came out, I was like looking at my Amazon ranking every hour, and so I clearly had not made the transition I was still obsessed with career and I sort of think I’m in the middle of that. So if you can ask yourself or ask the other person, “What’s your main life task right now?” You’ll be able to learn a lot about how they see the world, how they structure their days, how they prioritize their desires.

Brett McKay: Yeah, one of the ideas from The Road to Character that I think about a lot that you wrote about was this idea of two Adams, so we’re talking about Adam like the first human. There’s Adam one and Adam two and this comes from the Jewish tradition that there’s these two types of Adams. And Adam one is our ambitious career-oriented self and then Adam two is when we shift to generativity like helping other people thinking of we. And I’ve seen that in my own life and I also see it in the lives of teenage boys that I mentor. I know when I interact with my these teenage boys at church and in flag football, like they’re totally, they’re getting into Adam one phase, like what they want to know is like how can they be successful, how can they get stronger, how can they get better, what can they do to attract members of the opposite sex, that’s their focus.

And so like I understand that, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the phase of life that they’re in, they’re trying to build a life for themselves and so I try to orient a lot of the things I talk about towards that. I think understanding those life stages can help you connect better and understand people better.

David Brooks: Yeah, and if some people, like if you have somebody who’s in the interpersonal phase and she marries someone who’s still in that first stage of trying to prove themselves, she’s gonna ask him to give more emotional connection than he’s capable of giving ’cause his mind just hasn’t entered the task where deep introspection or deep connection are a priority for him and so he doesn’t do it and so that’s gonna be… If you’re at these different life tasks you’re gonna have different mentalities and another transition is between the generative state which is usually when you’re in your 60s or your 70s and you’re not really driven by status as much. You just want to contribute but then there’s the next stage which is the final stage of life which Erik Erikson the psychologist said is about integrity or despair.

And that final phase is when you piece together what your life meant, can you look back on it with relatively few regrets, understanding how you affected the world, and if you can do that you’ve achieved integrity, Erikson says and “If you can’t do that you have achieved despair,” and so, I’m struck by especially among seniors, how much they wanna learn. You’d think their curiosity would be down but it’s not at all, seniors really wanna learn. I think they wanna figure out where they fit into the world and what they can leave behind to the world.

Brett McKay: So what I love about the book, you weave in these big ideas along with these concrete practical things. Let’s end with a concrete practical thing. What’s one thing that you think people can start doing today to become more of this illuminator type?

David Brooks: Yeah, I would say one of them would just be like be a little more aggressive on the next time you’re on a train or in a coffee shop, like start a conversation with somebody and we underestimate how much we’ll enjoy that. We underestimate how much people will wanna get deep and so just be a little more… I have a friend who says I practice aggressive friendship. Be the person on the train who starts the conversation and if they cut you off, fine, but the odds are they will love to have this conversation and they’ll love to make it fun. Then there are other little practical things like one of them is just when thanking a… Once writing a thank you note, the temptation is to write about yourself. Here’s how I am gonna use what you gave me but the nicer thing is to write about the other person’s intentions. “Thank you for taking the time to think about who I am and buying me this perfect gift. It makes me feel seen by you” and so that’s the sort of practical thing you can do and then I will tell parents. If your kid’s in school, the most practical thing they can do is major in the humanities and learn about people and then the most practical thing you can do is to lead with respect, lead with a sense of I wanna get to know you and you’ll find even in the little encounters or the cash register or the big encounters with family and friends, life is just a little happier.

Brett McKay: I love that. Well, David, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

David Brooks: Well, they can buy their book from Amazon or wherever they buy their books. They can also… My writing generally appears in the New York Times and in the Atlantic Magazine so if people wanna google me and they can find more writing than is humanly possible.

Brett McKay: Well, David Brooks, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

David Brooks: Oh, it’s always great to talk with you. Thank you for having me on.

Brett McKay: My guest today was David Brooks. He’s the author of the book How to Know a Person. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. Check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Spotify, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay. Reminding you to not only listen to AOM podcast but to put what you’ve heard into action.


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