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The Road to Character

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE ECONOMIST • “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.”—David Brooks

With the wisdom, humor, curiosity, and sharp insights that have brought millions of readers to his New York Times column and his previous bestsellers, David Brooks has consistently illuminated our daily lives in surprising and original ways. In The Social Animal, he explored the neuroscience of human connection and how we can flourish together. Now, in The Road to Character, he focuses on the deeper values that should inform our lives. Responding to what he calls the culture of the Big Me, which emphasizes external success, Brooks challenges us, and himself, to rebalance the scales between our “résumé virtues”—achieving wealth, fame, and status—and our “eulogy virtues,” those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty, or faithfulness, focusing on what kind of relationships we have formed.

Looking to some of the world’s greatest thinkers and inspiring leaders, Brooks explores how, through internal struggle and a sense of their own limitations, they have built a strong inner character. Labor activist Frances Perkins understood the need to suppress parts of herself so that she could be an instrument in a larger cause. Dwight Eisenhower organized his life not around impulsive self-expression but considered self-restraint. Dorothy Day, a devout Catholic convert and champion of the poor, learned as a young woman the vocabulary of simplicity and surrender. Civil rights pioneers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin learned reticence and the logic of self-discipline, the need to distrust oneself even while waging a noble crusade.

Blending psychology, politics, spirituality, and confessional, The Road to Character provides an opportunity for us to rethink our priorities, and strive to build rich inner lives marked by humility and moral depth.

“Joy,” David Brooks writes, “is a byproduct experienced by people who are aiming for something else. But it comes.”

Praise for The Road to Character

“A hyper-readable, lucid, often richly detailed human story.”The New York Times Book Review

“David Brooks—the New York Times columnist and PBS commentator whose measured calm gives punditry a good name—offers the building blocks of a meaningful life.”Washingtonian

“This profound and eloquent book is written with moral urgency and philosophical elegance.”—Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree and The Noonday Demon

“The voice of the book is calm, fair and humane. The highlight of the material is the quality of the author’s moral and spiritual judgments.”—The Washington Post

“A powerful, haunting book that works its way beneath your skin.”—The Guardian (U.K.)

“This learned and engaging book brims with pleasures.”Newsday

“Original and eye-opening . . . At his best, Brooks is a normative version of Malcolm Gladwell, culling from a wide array of scientists and thinkers to weave an idea bigger than the sum of its parts.”USA Today

“There is something affecting in the diligence with which Brooks seeks a cure for his self-diagnosed shallowness by plumbing the depths of others.”—Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker

  • Rank: #5976 in Books
  • Brand: Random House
  • Published on: 2015-04-14
  • Released on: 2015-04-14
  • Original language: English
  • Number of items: 1
  • Dimensions: 9.50" h x 1.10" w x 6.50" l, 1.25 pounds
  • Binding: Hardcover
  • 320 pages


  • Random House

364 of 397 people found the following review helpful.
Interesting but not compelling
By Freudian Slips
I have opted for a "3" rating, which may be a little harsh for this well-written book, but that's because I found myself vacillating between enjoying parts of this book while disliking others. The book opens well with an interesting comparison of resume virtues vs eulogy virtues. Resume virtues are the accomplishments and skills we put on our resumes; eulogy virtues are the characteristics that are at the core of your being. Brooks then describes this contrast as Adam I vs Adam II and goes on to cite various examples of how our society has been taken over by resume virtues and Adam I beliefs and actions. He compares a football player's over-enthusiastic response to a touchdown with the more humble reactions to the US victory in WWII.

I enjoyed this opening discussion as well as several of the examples of individuals who had found their "vocation" (rather than "career") often through a circumstance in their life which propelled them toward it. Many times, their calling found them. I liked the emphasis on humility and the importance of being a good person not just doing good deeds. I also enjoyed reading about the Triangle Factory Fire and other incidents which pointed certain individuals toward their ultimate destinies. I truly admire the values he promotes and was pleasantly reminded of my father's generation which lived many of those values through WWII and other historic events.

But as I continued to read the book, I started to get a sense of "back in the good old days" nostalgia that implies (or blatantly states) that somehow suffering is the key to nobility and a good person. Stories are told of individuals who survived deaths of close family or children, endured hazing or torture, and it all started to sound a little preachy, no matter how eloquently it was stated. I am not someone who holds much for the "good old days"-- they weren't so good for women, minorities, the poor, etc. And Brooks acknowledges that early on, but he seems to forget that, and after awhile I grew tired of reading the book. For every person who survives a hazing/torture event and thrives, there are others who are crushed and destroyed, and I'm not sure that's because they lack character. It's inspiring to read about those who triumph in dire circumstances, but I'm left with trying to figure out what that means-- should life be harder, the rules be harsher so we will have greater character? There's a tone of "life was harder then" and forged stronger people, and I'm not sure I agree.

Bottom line-- it's an interesting and well-written book and I truly recommend the first portion of it But after that, I felt like I had gotten the point. It just wasn't as compelling to read after the first few chapters.

38 of 41 people found the following review helpful.
A Most Challenging Book to Review: Being Envied or Admired in Today’s Selfie Culture?
By Thomas M. Loarie
Writing an adequate review for best-selling author David Brook’s “The Road to Character” has been challenging. I typically work with five pages of detailed notes when reviewing a book but found myself with twenty-one pages for this review.

Brooks has written a gem of a book, one that raises the bar for future discussions of “character”. It takes time to absorb and savor. Brooks says publicly that he wrote this book to save his own soul.

“The Road to Character” is about the cultural shift from the “little me” to the “BIG ME,” from a culture that encourages people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encourages people to see themselves as the center of the universe. This cultural shift encourages us to think about having a great career but leaves nothing for us to develop an inner life and character. For Brooks, we have lost our way to “being good” and “doing good.”

Brooks frames the discussion by contrasting “resume virtues” - those skills that one brings to the job market that contribute to external success – with “eulogy virtues” – those that are at the core of our being like courage, honesty, loyalty, and the quality of our relationships that contribute to real joy. These are embodied in two competing parts, Adam I and Adam II, of our nature that are a constant source of contradiction and tension.

Adam I is the external Adam. He wants to build, create, produce and discover things. He is characterized by actively seeking recognition, satisfying his desires, being impervious to the moral stakes involved. He has little regard for humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character. He wants to have high status, win victories, and conquer the world.

Adam II is the internal Adam. He wants to embody certain moral qualities. He wants to love intimately, to sacrifice self in the service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, and to have a cohesive inner soul that honors creation in one’s own possibilities. Adam II is charity, love, and redemption.

Adam I is at work in today’s “BIG ME” culture. “Big Me” messages are everywhere; you are special; trust yourself; and be true to yourself. This ‘Gospel of Self’ begins with childhood when awards and rewards are given for just being, not doing. “We are all wonderful, follow your passion, don’t accept limits and chart your own course.”

This has led to an ethos based on a “ravenous hunger in a small space of self-concern, competition, and a hunger for distinction at any cost,” an ethos where envy has replaced admiration. This self-centeredness leads to several unfortunate directions: selfishness, the use of other people as a means to an end, seeing oneself as superior to everyone else, and living with a capacity to ignore and rationalize one’s imperfections and inflate one’s virtues.

The “BIG ME” culture distorts the purpose of our journey and the meaning of life. “Parts of themselves go unexplored and unstructured. They have a vague anxiety that their life has not achieved its ultimate meaning and significance. They live with unconscious boredom, not really loving, and unattached to the moral purpose that gives life it’s worth. They lack the internal criteria to make unshakable commitments. They never develop inner constancy, the integrity that can withstand popular disapproval or a serious blow. They foolishly judge others by their abilities and not by their worth. This external life will eventually fall to pieces.”

In this increasingly “BIG ME” culture, Brooks became haunted by the voices of the past and the quality of humility and character they exhibited. People in the past guarded themselves against some of their least attractive tendencies to be prideful, self-congratulatory, and hubristic. “You would not even notice these people. They were reserved. They did not need to prove anything in the world.” They embodied humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft discipline. “They radiated a sort of moral joy. They answered softly when challenged harshly. They were silent when unfairly abused, dignified when others tried to humiliate them, and restrained when others tried to provoke them…

But they got things done. They were not thinking about what impressive work they were doing. They were not thinking about themselves at all. They just seemed delighted by the flawed people around them. They made you feel funnier and smarter when you spoke with them. They moved through all social classes with ease. They did not boast. They did not lead lives of conflict-free tranquility but struggled towards maturity. These people built a strong inner character, people who achieved a certain depth. They surrendered to the struggle to deepen their soul.”

Brooks highlights the lives of prominent and influential people - Francis Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, George C. Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, George Eliot, St. Augustine, Samuel Johnson, Michel de Montaigne – to articulate the diverse roads taken by a diverse set of people, white and black, male and female, religious and secular, literary and non-literary. Not one of them was even close to perfect. They were acutely aware of their own weaknesses and they waged an internal struggle against their sins to emerge with some measure of self-respect..

“The Road to Character” is a “road less traveled.” It involves moments of moral crisis, confrontation, and recovery. To go up, one first has to go down (The “U Curve”); one must descend into the valley of humility to climb to the heights of character. Only then will one have the ability to see their own nature, their everyday self-deceptions, and shatter all Illusions of self-mastery.

Humility is central to the journey. Humility leads to wisdom, a moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and finding a way to manage ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation. It offers freedom…freedom from the need to prove your superiority. Alice had to be small to enter Wonderland. “Only the one who descends into the underworld rescues the beloved.”

The paradox for Adam I is that he cannot achieve enduring external success unless he builds a solid moral core as sought by Adam II. Without inner integrity, your Watergate, your scandal, your betrayal, will eventually happen. Adam I versus Adam II, Adam I ultimately depends on Adam II.

Brooks wrote this book to learn who has traveled this road to character, and what it looks like. He found you cannot be the good person you want to be unless you wage this campaign against self. I highly recommend this book as one of the most profound books published this year.

End note: Brook’s sections on love and suffering are excellent.

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful.
The Road to Character - a Must Read
By Gerald S.
To be brief about this, The Road to Character should be required reading and, perhaps more importantly, discussion throughout the 50 States. He begins by asking the interesting question of whether the individual wants to be remembered as his/her "Resume" or "Eulogy". Do we lead our lives fueled by a desire to establish a resume of success or to be remembered by others in a eulogy. He presents this approach by referring to Adam 1 (Resume of significance) and Adam 2 (Eulogy of a life well spent). Mr. Brooks understands that we human beings are complicated animals and that we are all fallible and subject to the lesser instincts of life. But he also understands that we have the ability to understand ourselves - to look inward and recognize those weaknesses - to become part of a greater good than the self. He chooses as multiple topics of conversation, a number of significant individuals in our history and he analyzes how these very different people dealt with themselves. We all, everyone of us, need to understand that heroism comes in many forms and one need not be - cannot be - without flaw. The trick is to understand oneself and view our roles as parts of the jigsaw of life where we can all play a part. "Character" means knowing ourselves and remaining loyal to our nobler aspirations despite those flaws.

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