The Road to Character

"I am born with a natural disposition toward shallowness. I now work as a pundit and columnist. I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am...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."

- The Road to Character, page xiv

This is not your typical self-help book, mostly because it contends that the self desperately needs help. Starting on page one of The Road to Character, David Brooks begins a book-length exploration of the differences between “the resume virtues” and “the eulogy virtues.”

Resume virtues celebrate personal achievements. They’re the ticket to a great job and fantastic paycheck. Eulogy virtues, on the other hand, go deeper to the core of what makes us human. Like many of us, Brooks admits to spending the greater part of his life attending to his resume virtues.

And that’s what motivated him to write a book about the eulogy virtues. In it, he provides numerous biographical sketches of historical figures who have cultivated strong character by putting greater emphasis on self-examination than on self-celebration, people “who have not led lives of conflict-free tranquility, but have struggled toward maturity.”

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Figure out what life wants from you, not what you want from life

"Your ability to discern your vocation depends on the condition of your eyes and ears, whether they are sensitive enough to understand the assignment your context is giving you."
- The Road to Character, page 24

Brooks opens his chapter titled, “The Summoned Self,” by sharing the story of Frances Perkins, U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945. Her life pivoted in 1911 when she witnessed the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, where numerous low-income workers died needlessly.

From that moment, she understood that her upper-class education and selfish aspirations would not give her life a much-needed sense of purpose. She immediately started ordering her days around what life wanted from her, rather than what she wanted to get out of life.

Flannery O’Conner once wrote, “Somewhere is better than anywhere.” It’s all too easy for us to be constantly looking elsewhere for meaning while completely ignoring the place where we actually find ourselves. Where is your somewhere? Where is mine? In what one-of-a-kind circumstances do we find ourselves right now? And what does life want from us in these somewheres? It’s a refreshingly unorthodox way of looking at (and perhaps reordering) today’s to-do list.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Embrace the advance-retreat-advance shape of your life

"He [St. Augustine] started with the belief that he could control his own life. He had to renounce that, to sink down into a posture of openness and surrender. Then, after that retreat, he was open enough to receive grace, to feel gratitude and rise upward. This is life with an advance-retreat-advance shape."
- The Road to Character, page 212

Figuring out what life wants from us isn’t easy, largely because we instinctively feel as though we can control every external situation—and that our internal drives are somehow beyond reproach or self-examination.

In his chapter titled, “Ordered Love,” Brooks profiles the life of Augustine of Hippo, the early Christian theologian and philosopher. In his early years, Augustine structured his life around self-fulfillment and a fourth century version of career advancement. Brooks draws a parallel between Augustine’s life during this time and the way many of today’s youth are “plagued by a frantic fear of missing out.”

Augustine then sought to reform himself, but soon discovered that his own strength and convictions were unequal to the task. Only when he adopted the posture of openness and surrender mentioned in the quote above could he identify his true vocation and advance down the road to character. Again, the remarkable thing about Brooks’ self-help book is its unwillingness to assume the self can help itself (or advance itself) on its own.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Cultivate humility

"In the struggle against your own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue. Humility is having an accurate assessment of your own nature and your own place in the cosmos. Humility is awareness that you are an underdog in the struggle against your own weakness."
- The Road to Character, pages 263-264

In a hilarious skit by the comedy duo, Key and Peele, Jordan Peele parodies the way some athletes carry on during post-game interviews. Peele’s character brags loudly about how he exemplifies the limitless power of human potential: “If you believe in yourself like I believe in myself, you can do anything. The world is yours. There are no limits. You can swim across the Atlantic. You can jump real high and touch the moon.”  He ramps up the rhetoric until he’s actually encouraging everyone to fly like he believes he can.

David Brooks has something to say about this all-too-pervasive mindset. In his final chapter, Brooks shares what he calls a “Humility Code.” Of the fifteen propositions in this code, the fourth (partly quoted above) hammers home our need to cultivate a sense of humility. Arrogance is one of the largest blockades on the road to character, to discovering what life wants from us.

Brooks contends that we are all stumblers who “scuff through life, a little off balance here and there, sometimes lurching.” That’s the bad news. The good news is that “when we acknowledge that we screw up, and feel the gravity of our limitations, we find ourselves challenged and stretched with a serious foe to overcome and transcend.”

We will never swim across the Atlantic or jump high enough to touch the moon. But we can figure out how to make a difference in whatever context we find ourselves.

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Bill Stadick

ABOUT Bill Stadick

I studied poetry and English literature in college then debt-stumbled into advertising, a job where words actually mattered. A few decades into it now, I recently left a communications firm in Wisconsin to start Page 17, Inc...
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