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Book Summary: The Road to Character by David Brooks | Forces of Habit

The Road to Character by David Brooks

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The Essence

Brooks addresses his core issue with western modern culture; we are too achievement oriented. Using a selection of autobiographical examples, Brooks criticizes our obsession with “the Big Self” to emphasize the merits of developing character. To Brooks ‘character’ is two things. First, it is a settled disposition to do good. Moral goodness requires we escape the pattern of pleasure-seeking, and resolve to follow our callings while also identifying the core sins of ourselves so that they may be conquered. Secondly, Brooks defines character as a form of unshakable commitment. This includes living loyally and in alignment with your promises. Brook’s definition of character highlights the value of developing a sensible moral vocabulary for facing the world. His ‘Humility Code’ isolates the key principles of our greatest moral virtues for those seeking insight on how to battle the self-saturated obsessiveness of the 21st century.

The Road to Character Summary Journal Entry:

This is my book summary of The Road to Character by David Brooks. My notes are a reflection of the journal write up above. Written informally, the notes contain a mesh of quotes and my own thoughts on the book. The Journal write up also includes important messages and crucial passages from the book.

  • “We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character”
  • Resume Virtues v. Eulogy Virtues:
    Our resume virtues are what make us seem good at our jobs, what we consider the skills that bring us value on the global marketplace. Eulogy virtues are different. These represent what people will say about us after we pass away. Brooks’ questions, if we are seeking to be remembered so fondly after our passing, then why focus so much time and attention on ourselves?
  • The never ending climb of the achievement ladder of success is only an external drama of our life situation. While the inner struggles, those that challenge us to do battle with our weaknesses, are at the center stage of life. “The beginning of worth-while liking is thus the confrontation with ourselves.” -Harry Emerson Fosdick
  • Wise people surrender themselves to frustration and move forward with a composure they know will set a good example of caring and diligence. I.e. they have emotional intelligence.
  • Helping people through trauma:
    • Show up.
    • Don’t compare.
    • Do practical things.
    • Do not try to minimalize what is happening.
  • As humans, we are endless blind to our own ignorance.
  • “Benevolence is the twin of pride”
  • Self-control is a muscle. That means we need to stop thinking we can control ourselves in all situations, and start limiting our exposure to avoid any temptation in the first place. It is much easier to leverage your exposure than it is to resist something in your face.
  • You have to just recognize what needs to be done and do it. A person of character performs sacrificial service with modest composure and expects nothing in return. What a person of character does is not impressive in any form; it is simply their duty.
  • Joy is not an aim of the man of good character; it is the byproduct. We need to seek out a calling that gives us meaning and joy will come eventually.
  • “Crooked Timber”: A phrase coined by Immanuel Kant that represents the innate flaw in our humanity. Perfection is not real, nor should we pretend it is. What our imperfections do offer us, however, is a window looking into the areas that each of us can grow.
  • “Make your nervous system your ally and not your enemy.” -William James
  • The U curve: we each must descend into the valley of humility to climb to the heights of what encapsulates good character. You will get broken. And it is not about healing. Meaningful change uses the experience as a tool for transformation.
  • Suffering is a gift. It provides us with a more accurate view of reality. By identifying things that ‘harm’ us, we locate the potential limits to the current illusion we subscribe to. We can then address these illusions.
  • Stop hating people. Hate is useless because it only harms the person who harbors it.
  • Vocation: “We don’t create our lives; we are summoned by” –Frances Perkins
  • Stop seeking happiness. Happiness is a byproduct of living an intentional life, it is not something you chase after as a means to its own end. We need to engage in a lifelong conversation with ourselves constantly negotiating our weakness with moral fortitude as our leverage.
  • Moral Ecology: “a set of norms, assumptions, beliefs, and habits of behavior and an institutionalized set of moral demands that emerge organically”. What seems to span over thousands of years to only a few months’ time, the moral ecology of a society is created and The moral ecology of a given society sets standards for identifying a morally upright person. America has built a moral ecology that focused primarily on of self-ego (Big Me). We encourage narcissistic behavior and thereby take pride in large flamboyant personality rather than stress prudent character.
  • The Humility Code consists of 15 principles that guide us towards moral uprightness. It is a counter to the moral ecology that currently rules the 21st century and aims to depict how to live and what to live for.
  1. Live for holiness, not happiness. “Life is essentially a moral drama, not a hedonistic one.”
  2. The goal of life is overcoming our personal moral struggles. To do this we need an accurate depiction of our nature; we need to accept our inherent flaws as living beings.
  3. While flawed, we also have the tools for liberation. Introspection allows us to become aware of our sins, and engage in a never-ending struggle against ourselves.
  4. When engaging with our sins we need humility. Humility is our greatest virtue because it accurately depicts human nature relative to the seemingly infinite universe. Alone we are the underdogs against our sins; humility reminds us of this.
  5. “Pride is a central vice.” Pride blinds us of our weaknesses and tricks us into thinking we are better than who we actually are and aims to prove we are better than those around us.
  6. If our physiological needs are met, our next focus must be to fight for virtue. “The struggle against sin and weakness is not to ‘win,’ because that is not possible; it is to get better at waging it”. Become willing to take part in an unwinnable battle.
  7. We build character. Over the course of our lives, we can become more disciplined through acts of self-control. By gradually incorporating the marks of good character in our lives, we can habitually develop consistency and dependability.
  8. What arises in the short term will blind us–lust, fear, vanity, gluttony. While what last over the long term–honesty, humility, courage– assist us in developing resilience and dedication to our callings. Character allows us to pursue a task that we know will outlive our morality.
  9. “No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own.” It takes a strong person to admit that our journey cannot be made alone. We need outside assistance. But no matter the source, it is our mission to wage battle against our sins and weaknesses in conjunction with others.
  10. Our struggles when seeking virtue are U-shaped. “Advance-Retreat-Advance.” As we live our lives we will get knocked down; this is inevitable. But what’s important is that we step away from losing with poise. Accepting it is time for assistance. Refusing to allow pride to blind you. Prideful efforts will only extend your desperation. Instead, be thankful for the assistance.
  11. “Defeating weakness often means quieting the self.” Mute the ego. Equanimity will prepare us for the up and down that are inevitable to our journey. Battling weakness requires modesty, a higher purpose, and the capacities for reverence and admiration.
  12. “Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty”. With so much information available we must admit to ourselves that we cannot know it all. Further, we must accept that some things that cannot ever be known. Universal models for interpreting reality breed nonsense. We must be skeptical and humble. As we gain more experiences, we build up a collection of mental models that help us when perfect knowledge is not achievable; we call this collection wisdom.
  13. “No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation.” We will never find our calling if we look for our passion. We must look around and ask life how we can best serve our community and then leverage our intrinsic interests towards addressing the problems of the community.
  14. “The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it.” Leadership is the balance between values and goals. And a good leader recognizes the contrast between the two due to our selfish nature. Therefore, it is the leader’s job to limit the poor decisions made by the group and take advantage of the good. The leader does not aim for perfection because he understands that is not possible. Instead, his aim is to leave the group slightly better off from where it started.
  15. The moral ecological shift outlined may not lead to fame or future but it will breed maturity. We can become better. Better is based solely on where we used to be and is not measured through comparison with others. “The mature person has moved from fragmentation to centeredness, has achieved a state in which the restlessness is over, the confusion about the meaning and purpose of life is calmed.” Maturity is the sole indicator of success against our weaknesses, not riches or fame.

Check out David's TED talk on some of the key principles from the book.

Reading Recommendations

If you liked what you saw. Here are 3 titles that I recommend based on what discussed in The Road to Character.

  1. Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl
  2. Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World by Tim Ferriss
  3. The Social Animal by David Brooks

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