The Road to Character by David Brooks

Parker Klein ✌️
Published in
12 min readMay 4

Introduction: Adam II

Utilitarian logic

Economics. Input leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Pursue self-interest. Maximize utility. Impress the world.

Moral logic

You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.

Example is the best teacher.

They just recognize what needs doing and they do it.

Chapter 1: The Shift

The chief obstacle to happiness comes from the overeager desire to have people think about you.

The self-effacing person is soothing and gracious, while the self-promoting person is fragile and jarring.

Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time.

“Thankfulness is a soil in which pride goes not easily grow.” — Michael Ramsey

Humility is the awareness that there’s a lot you don’t know and that a lot of what you think you know is distorted and wrong.

Only by quieting yourself can you see the world clearly. Can you understand other people and accept what they are offering?

Self-respect is produced by inner triumphs, not external ones.

Chapter 2: The Summoned Self

What is the purpose of my life?

What do I want from life?

What are the things that I truly value, that are not done just to please or impress the people around me?

What does life want from me?

What are my circumstances calling me to do?

Your job is to figure certain things out: what does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed?

If you serve the work — if you perform each task to its utmost perfection — then you will experience the deep satisfaction of craftsmanship and you will end up serving the community more richly than you could have consciously planned.

Those who pursue struggle end up being happier than those who pursue pleasure.

Nothing in human judgment is final. One May courageously take the step that seems right today because it can be modified tomorrow if it does not work well.

A person with a deep vocation is not dependent on constant positive reinforcement.

A person who embraces a calling doesn’t take a direct route to self-fulfillment.

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

Chapter 3: Self-Conquest

“He that conquereth his own soul is greater than he who taketh a city”

We have a side to our nature that is sinful — selfish, deceiving, and self-deceiving — but we have another side to our nature that is in Gods image, that seeks transcendence and virtue.

The most essential parts of life are matters of individual responsibility and moral choice: whether to be brave or cowardly, honest or deceitful, compassionate or callous, faithful or disloyal.

Sin is communal, while error is individual.

The danger of sin is that it feeds on itself. Corruption breeds corruption. Sun is the punishment of sin.

People become solid, stable, and worthy of self-respect because they have defeated or at least struggled with their own demons.

Since self-control is a muscle that tires easily, it is much better to avoid temptation in the first place rather than try to resist it once it arises.

The beginning of a new habit a major event in your life. Then never suffer an exception until the habit is firmly rooted in your life.

If you act well, eventually you will be good. Change your behavior and eventually, you require your brain.

Always take your job serious, never yourself.

Every leader should have enough humility to accept, publicly, the responsibility for the mistakes of the subordinates he has himself selected and, likewise, to give them credit, publicly, for their triumphs.

Chapter 4: Struggle

One of the hardest things in the world is to organize ourselves and discipline ourselves.

Start your work from where you live, with the small concrete needs right around you. Help ease tension in your workplace. Help feed the person right in front of you.

When suffering is not connected to some larger purpose beyond itself, suffering shrinks or annihilates people. When it is not understood as a piece of a larger process, it leads to doubt, nihilism, and despair.

Don’t compare. Sensitive people understand that each persons ordeal is unique and should not be compared to anyone else’s.

They don’t try to minimize what is going on. They don’t attempt to reassure with false, saccharine sentiments. They don’t say that the pain is all for the best. They don’t search for silver linings. They don’t bustle about trying to solve something that cannot be solved.

The sensitive person grants the sufferer the dignity of her own process. She lets the sufferer define the meaning of what’s going on. She just sits simply through the nights of pain and darkness, being practical, human, simple, and direct.

Chapter 5: Self Mastery

“Moral education is impossible without the habitual vision of greatness” — Alfred North Whitehead

“One is apt to think of moral failure as due to weakness of character: more often it is undue to an inadequate ideal. We detect in others, and occasionally in ourselves, the want of courage, of industry, of persistence, which leads to defeat. But we do not notice the more subtle and disastrous weakness, that our standards are wrong, that we have never learned what is good.” — Richard Winn Livingstone

Proper behavior is not just knowing what is right; it is having the motivation to do what is right, an emotion that propels you to do good things.

Change happens from the outside in. The act precedes the virtue.

Emotion should be distrusted more often than trusted.

The higher you go in lift, the fewer people there are to offer honest feedback or restrain your unpleasant traits. So it is best to learn those habits of self-restraint, including emotional self-restraint, at an early age.

“The person whose mind is quiet through consistency and self-control, who finds contentment in himself, who neither breaks down in adversity nor crumbles in fright, nor burns with any thirsty need nor dissolves into wild and futile excitement, that person is the wise one we are seeking, and that person is happy.” — Cicero

Marshall was unfailing considerate, but his formality made it hard for him to develop friendships. He strongly disapproved of gossip, he frowned at off-color stories, and he never enjoyed the garrulous relationships with men that Ike specialized in.

Marshall was one of those controlled and disciplined people who find both indecent Ive and reward deep within themselves, who require neither urging nor applause from many men.

Chapter 6: Dignity

“The only way to reduce ugliness in the world is to reduce it in yourself.” — Rustin

Chapter 7: Love

Achieve a state of Grace not through surrender but through her own moral choices, by living a virtuous and rigorous life.

People who see themselves as the center of their solar system, often get enraptured by their own terrible but also delicious suffering. People who see themselves as a piece of a larger universe and a longer story rarely do.

When people behave on the basis of uncompromising individual desire, they might set off a selfish contagion in those around them.

Love humbled us. It reminds us that we are not even in control of ourselves.

Love is a surrender. You expose your deepest vulnerabilities and give up your illusions of self-mastery.

Adam 1 wants to live according to a utilitarian calculus — to maximize pleasant experiences, to guard against pain and vulnerability, to maintain control. Adam 1 wants you to go through life as self-contained until, coolly weighing risks and rewards and looking out for your own interests.

“What greater thing is there for two human souls than to feel they are joined for life — to strengthen each other in all labor, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of last parting.”

Fix your mind on the art, not on the public.

The best moral reform is tied to the here and now, directed by honest feelings for this or that individual rather than for humanity as a whole. There is power in the particular and suspicion of the general.

Chapter 8: Ordered Love

If you turn into a goodie seeker, greedy for every experience and exclusively focused on self, you turn into a shrewd tactician, making a series of cautious semi-commitments without really surrendering to some larger purpose. You lose the ability to say a hundred joes for the sake of one overwhelming and fulfilling yes.

If you organize your life around your own wants, other people become objects for the satisfaction of your own desires.

You are the prime driver of your life. The world is malleable enough to be shaped by you. To lead a better life you just have to work harder, or use more willpower, or make better decisions.

The way to inner joy is not through agency and action, it’s through surrender and receptivity to God. Suppress your our will, your ambition, and our desire to achieve victory on your own. The point is to acknowledge that God is the chief driver here and that he already has a plan for you.

Accept that you are accepted.

Chapter 9: Self-examination

When the external constraints are loosened, when a person can do what he wants, when there are a thousand choices and distractions, then life can lose coherence and direction if there isn’t a strong internal structure.

“It’s always a writers duty to make the world better.”

“The first step to greatness is to be honest.”

A man of genius is but seldom ruined but by himself.

Man’s chief merit consists in resisting the impulses of his nature.

Everyone has some deep trouble in their lives. Almost no one truly enjoys their own achievements, since their desires are always leaping forward and torturing them with visions of goods unpossessed.

“Greatness of the soul is not so much pressing upward and forward as knowing how to set oneself in order and circumscribe oneself.” — Montaigne

If you have realistically low expectations, you’ll end up pleased in most circumstances.

Chapter 10: The Big Me

There are bugs in our souls that lead us toward selfishness and pride, that tempt us to put lower lover over higher loves.

We are divide within ourselves, and many of the most urgent motions of our minds are unconscious and only dimly recognized by ourselves.

Sin is not found in your individual self; it is found in the external structures of society — in racism, inequality, and oppression.

Communications have become faster and busier. It is harder to attend to the soft, still voices that come from the depths.

Each society creates its own moral ecology. A moral ecology is a set of norms, assumptions, beliefs, and habits of behavior and an institutionalized set of moral demands that emerge organically.

The humility code:

A coherent image of what to live for and how to live.

1. We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness

All human beings seek to lead lives not just of pleasure, but of purpose, righteousness, and virtue.

“People have a responsibility to become more moral over time” — John Stuart Mill

2. The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature, and the core of that understanding is that we are flawed creatures

We have an innate tendency toward selfishness and overconfidence.

We have a tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe, as if everything revolves around us.

We resolve to do one thing but end up doing the opposite.

We know what is deep and important in life, but we still pursue the things that are shallow and vain.

We know less than we think we do.

We give in to short-term desires even when we know we shouldn’t.

We imagine that spiritual and moral needs can be solved through status and material things.

3. Although we are flawed creatures, we are also splendidly endowed

We do son, but we also have the capacity to recognize sin, to feel ashamed of sin, and to overcome sin.

We are both weak and strong, bound and free, blind and far-seeing.

4. In the struggle against our own weakness, humility is the greatest virtue

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 reminders you that you are not the center of the universe, but you serve a larger order.

5. Pride is the central vice

Pride blinds us to the reality of our divided nature.

Pride blinds us to our own weaknesses and misleads us into thinking we are better than we are.

Pride makes us more certain and closed-minded than we should be.

6. Once the necessities for survival are satisfied, the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life

No external conflict is as consequential or as dramatic as the inner campaign against our own deficiencies.

7. Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation

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.

You are making it more likely that you will desire the right things and execute the right actions.

If you make selfish, cruel, or disorganized choices, then you are slowly turning this core thing inside yourself into something that is degraded, inconstant, or fragmented.

You can do harm to this core thing with nothing more than ignoble thoughts, even if you are not harming anyone else.

You can elevate this core thing with an act of restraint nobody sees.

If you don’t develop a coherent character in this way, life will fall to pieces sooner or later. You will become a slave to your passions. But if you do behave with habitual self-discipline, you will become constant and dependable.

8. The things that lead us astray are short-term — lust, fear, vanity, gluttony

The things we call character endure over the long term — courage, honesty, humility.

People with character are capable of a long obedience in the same direction, of staying attached to people and causes and callings consistently through thick and thin.

People with character anchored by permanent attachments to important things.

9. No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own

Individual will, reason, compassion, and character are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self-deception.

Everybody needs receptive assistance from outside — from God, family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, and exemplars.

10. We are all ultimately saved by grace

You just have to accept the fact that you are accepted.

Gratitude fills the soul and with it the desire to serve and give back.

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.

Only by quieting the self can you be open to the external sources of strengths you will need.

12. Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty

We are generally not capable of understanding the complex web of causes that drive events.

We are not even capable of grasping the unconscious depths of our own minds.

The humble person understands that experience is a better teacher than pure reason.

13. No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation

If you serve work that is intrinsically compelling and focus on being excellent at that, you will wind up serving yourself and the community obliquely.

14. The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it

As long as the foundations of an institution are sound, he prefers change that is constant, gradual, and incremental to change that is radical and sudden.

I’m politics and business the lows are lower than the highs are high. The downside risk caused by bad decisions is larger than the upside benefits that accrue from good ones.

15. The person who successfully struggled against weakness and sin may not become rich and famous, but that person will become mature

Maturity is earned not by being better than other people at something, but by being better than you used to be.

It is earned by being dependable in times of testing, and straight in times of temptation.

The nature person has moved from fragmentation to centeredness, has achieved a state in which the restlessness is over, and the confusion about the meaning and purpose of life is calmed.

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.

Each weakness becomes a chance to wage a campaign that organizes and gives meaning to life and makes you a better person.

People do get better at living, at least if they are willing to humble themselves and learn.

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Parker Klein ✌️

Codin' 👨‍💻 + oatin' 🥣. Formerly @Google @Qualcomm @PizzaNova. Building the best place to write *things* down: Twos (