The Road to Character

by David Brooks

New York Times columnist David Brooks frames character as eulogy virtues as opposed to résumé virtues. “Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.”

The author uses the term Adam I to describe the career-oriented side of our nature. “It’s the logic of economics. Input leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Pursue self-interest.” Conversely, “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… It’s a moral logic, not an economic one.”

“The central fallacy of modern life is the belief that accomplishments of the Adam I realm can produce deep satisfaction. That’s false. Adam I’s desires are infinite and always leap out ahead of whatever has just been achieved. Only Adam II can experience deep satisfaction.”

Brooks describes a number of trends:

  • “Psychologists have a thing called the narcissism test… The median narcissism score has risen 30 percent in the last two decades. Ninety-three percent of young people score higher than the middle score just twenty years ago.”
  • “Children are now praised to an unprecedented degree… In 1966, only about 19 percent of high school graduates graduated with an A or A- average. By 2013, 53 percent of students graduated with that average, according to UCLA surveys of incoming college freshmen. Young people are surrounded by so much praise that they develop sky-high aspirations for themselves. According to an Ernst & Young survey, 65 percent of college students expect to become millionaires.”
  • “In the early 1960s, significant majorities said that people can generally be trusted. But in the 1990s the distrusters had a 20-percentage-point margin over the trusters, and those margins have increased in the years since.”
  • “People have become less empathetic… A University of Michigan study found that today’s college students score 40 percent lower than their predecessors in the 1970s in their ability to understand what another person is feeling. The biggest drop came in the years after 2000.”

“The mental space that was once occupied by moral struggle has gradually become occupied by the struggle to achieve. Morality has been displaced by utility. Adam II has been displaced by Adam I.”

“Wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation… To nurture your Adam I career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths. To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses.”

Brooks writes about the difference between self-esteem and self-respect. “Self-respect is not based on IQ or any of the mental or physical gifts that help get you 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.”

“If you have lived through the last sixty or seventy years, you are the product of a more competitive meritocracy. You have, like me, spent your life trying to make something of yourself, trying to have an impact, trying to be reasonably successful in this world. That’s meant a lot of competition and a lot of emphasis on individual achievement—doing reasonably well in school, getting into the right college, landing the right job, moving toward the success and status… The meritocracy wants you to assert and advertise yourself. It wants you to display and exaggerate your achievements… It encourages narrowing. It encourages you to become a shrewd animal.”

What? The term meritocracy does not seem to fit what’s being described here. Exaggerating achievements and the above-mentioned grade inflation seem antithetical to meritocracy. Perhaps rat race would be more applicable.

“This competitive pressure meant that we all have to spend more time, energy, and attention on the external Adam I climb toward success and we have less time, energy, and attention to devote to the internal world of Adam II.”

The premise of the book is explained in the first and last chapters. Sandwiched in between are eight biographies, including Frances Perkins (Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of labor) and Dwight Eisenhower. The biographies seem to float on their own, without a cohesive flow tying them to the thesis. Brooks pretty much admits this: “So far the propositions that define the crooked-timber tradition have been scattered across the many chapters that make up this book. I thought it might be useful to draw them together and recapitulate them here in one list.” Here are some snippets from the 15-point Humility Code:

  • (#4) “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. Humility is an awareness that your individual talents alone are inadequate to the tasks that have been assigned to you. Humility reminds you that you are not the center of the universe, but you serve a larger order.”
  • (#7) “Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation. Character is a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness. You become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, friendship, and refined enjoyment. If you make disciplined, caring choices, you are slowly engraving certain tendencies into your mind… If you do behave with habitual self-discipline, you will become constant and dependable.”
  • (#8) “The things we call character endure over the long term—courage, honesty, humility.”
  • (#11) “Defeating weakness often means quieting the self. Only by quieting the self, by muting the sound of your own ego, can you see the world clearly.”
  • (#12) “The humble person understands that experience is a better teacher than pure reason. He understands that wisdom is not knowledge. Wisdom emerges out of a collection of intellectual virtues. It is knowing how to behave when perfect knowledge is lacking.”

“The good news of this book is that it is okay to be flawed, since everyone is… We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling—in recognizing the stumbling and trying to become more graceful as the years go by.”

I looked forward to reading this book, but I was left unsatisfied. I observe a general decay of integrity and personal responsibility in American society. Gaming the system and outright cheating are commonplace. Case in point: both L.L. Bean and REI scaled back their unlimited guarantees due to rampant abuses of the honor system—Justin Peters even wrote an article in Slate bragging about his repeated abuses of L.L.Bean’s long-standing policy. Other examples are widespread service animal fraud and handicapped parking permit fraud. I don’t feel the book addressed the topic adequately.

I do think the author’s distinction between eulogy virtues and résumé virtues is useful, but I do not think they are entirely separate.  Career and financial “success” built upon a foundation of moral turpitude risks crashing down like a house of cards. There are many high profile reminders: Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Enron, Worldcom, Adelphia, etc.

One final thought. Brooks’ eulogy virtues and résumé virtues are clever labels for recycled ideas. Steven R. Covey (1932-2012) wrote about primary greatness and secondary greatness. “Primary greatness is who you really are—your character, your integrity, your deepest motives and desires. Secondary greatness is popularity, title, position, fame, fortune, and honors… Going for secondary greatness without primary greatness doesn’t work. People don’t build successful lives on the unstable sands of what is outwardly or temporarily popular, but they do build successful lives on the bedrock of principles that do not change.” In my view, Covey’s book Primary Greatness is more coherent than Brooks’ The Road to Character.

Brooks, David. The Road to Character. New York: Random House, 2015. Buy from

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