The Road to Character by David Brooks

Summary

  1. This book is about attitude. How people through the centuries have cultivated character. In the process of failing and getting to know our weaknesses we begin the groundwork for building character
Key Takeaways
  1. Resume v eulogy virtues. Adam 1 vs Adam 2. External vs internal success. Society rewards resume virtues over eulogy virtues
  2. Must aim for a calm, inner cohesion. Not dismayed or blown off track by external calamities. Tend to be reserved but exude a moral glow. Humble, quiet but strong in the face of adversity, get things done, every moment is sacred, make others feel special, can adapt to any social setting or situation, never boast, never absolutely certain, nobody is better than me but I’m not better than anybody else
  3. Today’s culture is better in so many ways but self promotion is bigger than ever before. People today feel they are much more important than in the past
  4. Wisdom is being able to manage what you don’t know and acknowledging your great ignorance
  5. The inner struggle against one’s own weaknesses is vital for growth and character 
  6. Humble people are very aware of their moral and other imperfections. They consciously try to improve their weaknesses
  7. Surround yourself with those you want to emulate. You’ll instinctively absorb their positive traits
  8. Aim to have victories over yourself, over your weaknesses and inner moral struggle
  9. People with character have self-respect which comes from being better than they used to be, from standing straight in times of adversity 
  10. Figure out what you want your highest purpose in life to be and then take actionable steps to reach it. Ask what life needs from you more than what you need from life
  11. People who have found their vocation do it because it is intrinsically rewarding, not because of praise or external rewards
  12. Francis Perkins
    1. Surmounted her own weaknesses and incredible struggles in the political world but rose above it all and achieved much.
    2. Considered the woman behind the New Deal and a very successful liberal activist Ida Stover Eisenhower (Dwight’s mother) was a tough but wise and loving woman
    3. The idea of Sin is necessary as life is a moral affair
    4. Temptations and bad habits are much easier to avoid altogether than to try to moderate
    5. Daily, small self restraints and good habits make huge differences over time. Consistency in mood and character
    6. It is how you do your job which matters, not what your job is
  13. Dwight D. Eisenhower
    1. Had a great rage but his capacity for self denial was great too. He smoked 4 packs a day for years until he “gave himself an order” and stopped cold turkey.
    2. He learned to conquer his anger (writing names on paper and tearing it up)
    3. Went to West Point but never was in WWI. Even at age 51, nobody expected much from Ike
    4. Ike had many flaws but he was successful because he was able to restrict his emotions (a second self) and was very moderate – was able to take many viewpoints and act accordingly
  14. Dorothy Day
    1. Great at recognizing her own weaknesses and trying to improve them. Day was a radical and passionate woman but when her calling to the church became clear, she became more conservative
    2. She started the Catholic Worker – a newspaper and pacifist movement to help the poor.
    3. Day often sought out suffering as a road to depth and redemption. She thought suffering would allow her to transcend the superficial and reach the fundamental
    4. A sensitive person does not compare struggles or issues. Each person’s situation is completely new and different Also, they do not minimize the problem, they are real
  15. George Cabot Marshall
    1. Had incredible self mastery
    2. Great men are made not born
    3. Separate immediate emotion and action
    4. Many very successful people are not smarter than most but often they had someone in life tell them they wouldn’t do something and made it a life goal to prove them wrong
    5. Marshall was also a late bloomer in the army even though he was at the top of his class at Virginia military institute.
    6. Marshall established himself as a man of utmost integrity and whatever he said was because he truly believed it – no politics
    7. Marshall was incredible at organizing and logistics and although he never got a massive combat leadership role, he was one of the most respected generals in history. The Marshall Plan was of course his doing
  16. Asa Philip Randolph
    1. Leader of the civil rights movement and socialist party
    2. His state was determined solely by his internal situation, nothing external bothered him
  17. Bayard Rustin
    1. An African American civil rights, socialist and nonviolent leader. His homosexuality estranged him eventually but his influence in furthering black rights is undeniable – worked with and influenced MLK
  18. Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot)
    1. A very brave woman who could not do anything against her conscious or what she believed to be true. She turned away from Christianity to the disgust of her family. She became one of the Victorian Era’s finest novelists – known for her psychological insight and realism
    2. Love humbles us as we quickly realize how much our emotions are out of our control. Love in one area often opens you up to love in many more. The more you love, the more you can love
  19. Augustin
    1. Did a deeper dive on his psyche than perhaps anyone else and concluded that people screw themselves up and chase the wrong desires
    2. Was fascinated with memory and concluded that man is infinite. The path inward leads upward
    3. The powers of self deception are so profound that it is nearly impossible to be completely honest with yourself
    4. Where there is humility there is might 
    5. You become what you love
    6. Love impels action
  20. Samuel Johnson
    1. Was a sickly boy but fought through that and certain disabilities like blindness in one eye
    2. He was extremely bright but slovenly, lazy and had several ticks
    3. He used his many vices as incentive to become a moralist. He knew he would never get rid of his vices, but he could control them
    4. Every flaw comes with its own compensation 
  21. Montaigne
    1. Was more ironic and self accepting of his flaws than Johnson
  22. Johnny Unitas
    1. Down to earth, unromantic football player to Joe Namath who was the bigger than life playboy
    2. The shift from big me culture to little me culture has turned people away from following their passions, focusing almost solely on their careers and have become approval seeking machines
    3. Kids are showered with compliments today more than ever before but it is conditional. This type of parenting corrodes kids confidence and self esteem
  23. Road to character:
    1. Humans should become more moral over time
    2. Understand that we are flawed creatures
    3. People are flawed but amazingly endowed and heroic
    4. Humility is the greatest virtue
    5. Pride is the central vice
    6. No external struggle is as hard or important as our inner struggle to overcome our deficiencies. Point is not to win but to improve every day
    7. Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation. Must develop an integrated and coherent character
    8. The things which lead us astray are short term (lust, gluttony). People with character can see the big picture and stick with a goal for a long time
    9. No person can achieve mastery on ones own
    10. We are all ultimately saved by grace
    11. Defeating weakness often means quieting the self
    12. The humble person knows and respects history. Experience is better than knowledge
    13. A good life is not possible unless it revolves around a vocation
    14. The best leaders use human nature to their advantage
    15. Battling against inner weakness may not lead to worldly success, but it will lead to maturity
What I got out of it
  1. Really excellent book. Did a great job of laying down the road to character but then also giving real life examples. None of these people were perfect, or remotely close to it but they faced their weaknesses and inner struggles and came out much stronger, with much more character, than they otherwise would have