The Road to Character
By David Brooks
The Road to Character is a book that has been written to help readers recalibrate their moral compasses. Author David Brooks believes we live today in a ‘big me’ society that encourages self-promotion and the pursuit of professional success, having stepped away from ‘little me’ virtues such as honesty, humility and faithfulness. He writes: We have lost the connection with the moral values that bring us true happiness.
Through detailing the lives of notable individuals who worked hard at building moral character, he sets out his plan to help the reader do the same. Those individuals include deep thinkers, writers, war heroes, civil rights activists, and advocates for the poor, and all linked by their acute awareness of their own weaknesses. He writes: They waged an internal struggle against their sins and emerged with some measure of self-respect. And when we think of them, it is not primarily what they accomplished that we remember, it is who they were. I’m hoping their examples will fire this fearful longing we all have to be better, to follow their course.
My Top 3 Takes from the Summary
We have lost the connection with the moral values that bring us true happiness… the virtues that exist at the core of our being such as kindness, honesty, bravery, and faithfulness
We live in a culture that teaches and encourages us to have a successful career but offers little in the way of building character and cultivating a happy and peaceful inner life
We all have a sense that some loves are higher or more important than other loves… We all know the love you feel for your children or parents should be higher than the love you have for money. We all know the love you have for truth should be higher than the love you have for popularity… But we often put our loves out of order
The Two Adams
The book begins with an explanation of the two opposing sides of human nature known as Adam I and Adam II. The author believes the conflicting personalities of the two Adams are within us all, referring to Adam I as ‘resume Adam’ and Adam II as ‘eulogy Adam’. He writes: The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume… The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being.
Making the point that although most people would say eulogy virtues such as kindness, honesty, bravery, and faithfulness are of most importance in life, most will continue to focus more on the resume virtues and job skills that contribute to external success. Describing Adam I as the external Adam, the author writes: Adam I wants to build, create, produce, and discover things. He wants to have high status and win victories… He wants to conquer the world.
By contrast, Adam II is described as the internal Adam: Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities. Adam II wants to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong – not only to do good, but to be good. Adam II wants to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth… While Adam I asks how things work, Adam II asks why things exist, and what ultimately we are here for. While Adam I wants to venture forth, Adam II wants to return to his roots and savor the warmth of a family meal.
The Lost Connection.
It’s the author’s belief that we live in a culture that teaches and encourages us to have a successful career, but offers little in the way of building character and cultivating a happy and peaceful inner life. He writes: We live in a culture that nurtures Adam I and neglects Adam II. If you are only Adam I, you turn into a shrewd animal, a crafty, self-preserving creature… If that’s all you have, you spend a lot of time cultivating professional skills, but you don’t have a clear idea of the sources of meaning in life, so you don’t know where you should devote your skills, which career will be highest and best. Years pass and the deepest parts of yourself go unexplored and unstructured.
You are busy, but you have a vague anxiety that your life has not achieved its ultimate meaning and significance. You live with an unconscious boredom, not really loving, not really attached to the moral purposes that give life its worth. You lack the internal criteria to make unshakeable commitments. You never develop inner constancy, the integrity that can withstand popular disapproval or a serious blow. You find yourself doing things that other people approve of, whether these things are right for you or not. You foolishly judge other people by their abilities, not by their worth. You do not have a strategy to build character, and without that, not only your inner life but also your external life will eventually fall to pieces.
The Shift from Little Me to Big Me.
The above words will resonate with many, and many readers will recognise Adam I in themselves. The author talks of his own ‘disposition towards shallowness’ and the hard work he needs to put in to avoid a life of smugness and ‘self-satisfied moral mediocrity’. He states: This book is about Adam II. It’s about how some people have cultivated strong character. It’s about one mindset that people through the centuries have adopted to put iron in their core and to cultivate a wise heart. I wrote it, to be honest, to save my soul.
Using examples from both pre and post-World War II American society, the author draws comparisons that demonstrate the shift in culture that he describes as being a shift from self-effacement to self-promotion, or ‘little me’ to ‘big me’. He talks of the humility of pre-war culture, noting that people didn’t brag about accomplishments and blowing your own trumpet was not the done thing, and then compares it to today’s tendency to instantly share every thought, feeling, and tiny accomplishment with the world at large.
To add weight to his belief, he draws attention to a 1950 Gallup poll. In that year, 12 per cent of high school seniors asked whether they considered themselves to be a very important person said yes. In 2005, the same question was asked, and the number of high school students answering yes had risen to 80 per cent. The author writes: Along with this apparent rise in self-esteem, there has been a tremendous increase in the desire for fame. Fame used to rank low as a life’s ambition for most people. In a 1976 survey that asked people to list their life goals, fame ranked fifteenth out of sixteen. By 2007, 51 per cent of young people reported that being famous was one of their top personal goals.
Building Moral Character
The story of Harry Hopkins, Franklin Roosevelt’s aide, is told. One of Harry’s sons was killed in World War II and the powers that be wanted to put his other sons into posts that would keep them out of danger. This idea was rejected by Harry who said that his sons should not be given safer assignments just because their brother “had some bad luck in the Pacific.” This sort of understatement was common at the time, but such understatements are rarely heard today.
The author writes: When the elder George Bush, who was raised in that era, was running for president, he, having inculcated the values of his childhood, resisted speaking about himself. If a speechwriter put the word “I” in one of his speeches, he’d instinctively cross it out. The staff would beg him: You’re running for president. You’ve got to talk about yourself. Eventually they would cow him into doing so. But the next day he’d get a call from his mother. “George, you’re talking about yourself again,” she’d say. And Bush would revert to form. No more I’s in the speeches. No more self-promotion.
In telling stories of individuals who have recognised their weaknesses and then worked hard at developing character to live a life of depth, he encourages the reader to consider their own flaws. He writes: The people in this book lead diverse lives. Each one of them exemplifies one of the activities that lead to character. But there is one pattern that recurs: They had to go down to go up. They had to descend into the valley of humility to climb to the heights of character… People with character may be loud or quiet, but they do tend to have a certain level of self-respect. Self-respect is not the same as self-confidence or self-esteem. Self-respect is not based on IQ or any of the mental or physical gifts that help you get into a competitive college. It is not comparative. It is not earned by being better than other people at something. It is earned by being better than you used to be, by being dependable in times of testing, straight in times of temptation. It emerges in one who is morally dependable. Self-respect is produced by inner triumphs, not external ones. It can only be earned by a person who has endured some internal temptation, who has confronted their own weaknesses and who knows, “Well, if worse comes to worst, I can endure that. I can overcome that.”
He explains that the process of building character can be triggered by traumatic, make or break moments in life, but also by everyday happenings. It’s his belief that most of us go through life constantly comparing ourselves against others and more often than not considering ourselves slightly better than other people in terms of believing ourselves to have better taste, better judgement, and just being more virtuous in general. He writes: We’re constantly seeking recognition, and painfully sensitive to any snub or insult to the status we believe we have earned for ourselves. This self-centredness leads to selfishness, the desire to use other people as means to get things for yourself. It also leads to pride, the desire to see yourself as superior to everybody else.
Another important point raised is that something in our nature seems to lead us into putting lower loves above higher ones. To explain this, he writes: We all love and desire a multitude of things: friendship, family, popularity, country, money, and so on. And we all have a sense that some loves are higher or more important than other loves… We all know the love you feel for your children or parents should be higher than the love you have for money. We all know the love you have for truth should be higher than the love you have for popularity… But we often put our loves out of order. If someone tells you something in confidence and then you blab it as good gossip at a dinner party, you are putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship. If you talk more at a meeting than you listen, you may be putting your ardor to outshine above learning and companionship.
The message the author wants the reader to receive and understand is that only by recognising these flaws in ourselves and working to correct them can we build character. Until we’re humble enough to see and accept our weaknesses, we’re unable to take steps along the road to building a stronger moral character, and thereby live a happier, more meaningful life.
As David Brooks states, this is a book about building Adam II. He makes it clear that there’s no ‘recipe book’ or ‘seven-point program’ to aid building, but he presents the stories of outstanding people to help the reader understand what it takes, and learn from their example. It’s his hope that the wisdom of the way they lived their lives will rub off and lead to a shift from ‘big me’ virtues to ‘little me’ virtues that will get readers on their own road to character. He writes: Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character… I wrote this book not sure I could follow the road to character, but I wanted at least to know what the road looks like and how other people have trodden it.
Each chapter in the book tells the story of an inspirational individual who overcame a personal weakness. These stories help the reader to recognise such weaknesses in themselves, and then consider the shifts they might make to address these flaws and to begin developing their own strength of character. The book concludes with a 15-point recap of the contents, or what the author calls the ‘condensed message of this book’ for those in a hurry.
Bio of the Author
David Brooks is an American political and cultural commentator, columnist for The New York Times, and a frequent broadcaster who has worked as a film critic, reporter, and newspaper editor.
The Road to Character by David Brooks, 2016, ISBN: 978-0-141-98036-2 is available to buy at Amazon.