Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes


David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times and I stumbled upon the title of this book while quickly skimming the books sections of Bill Gate’s blog. I strongly recommend taking a look there if you haven’t done it already as you will find a bunch of books that may sparkle your interest.

After reading the title of the book you may be fooled to think this is a basic self-improvement book with key takeaways about one’s character and ego that you can start using right away. Such book is How to win friends and influence people by Dale Carnegie but that’s not the case for David Brooks book. Avid readers of entrepreneurial books will be in fragrant contradiction with some parts of the book as Brooks strongly disagrees with the narcissistic society based on “The Big Me”. For example Seth Godin’s Book Tribes is antagonistically written in regards to The Road to Character.

At it’s roots The Road to Character is a melange of stories about old-fashioned heroes that finally looked beyond themselves and managed to find their purpose in life through vocation or by putting themselves in the service of an institution such as the case of George Marshall.

From the example of George Marshall, we find out that “power exaggerates the dispositions—making a rude person ruder and a controlling person more controlling. The higher you go in life, 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.”

Some interesting fact about Marshall is that he did not start particularly brilliant or talented. When he was young his brother Stuart constantly tried to persuade their bother not to permit Marshall to attend the Virginia Military Institute because he was afraid he would disgrace their family name. Hearing this really took a troll on George Marshall but not the way you might expect. He instantly felt an urgency to succeed and had a positive psychological effect on him. This seems to be a common thing among other ordinary people who somehow manage to achiev extraordinary success. A recent study has revealed that the average Grade Point Average (GPA) for self-made millionaires is somewhere in the low B range. The most possible reason of their outcome was that at some point in their lives someone told them they were unable to achieve anything or they were laughed at and they set out to prove them wrong.

I can personally tell you some successful figures that can relate to this scenario. First of them swimming Olympic multi-champion Michael Phelps. He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at age 9 and everybody was sure it was impossible for him to excel at anything due to his condition. In his biography, he recalls that he felt ashamed in front of his class when the school nurse came in to remind him to take his Ritalin. How ever Michael was able to channel all his energy into swimming and thus became the youngest male record holder in modern sports when he was just 15. You can read more about his story on Psychology Today.

Another interesting story revolves around Larry page, the co-founder of Google. He once told his teacher at the famous Standford University that he was going to download the whole internet on to his computer. He was laughed at and everybody told him he was crazy. Well, just like George Marshall he set off to prove everybody they were wrong. He started a “little company” called Google that does just that and I think his teachers might have changed their minds.

The other characters that you will find in this book are Frances Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower, Dorothy Day, A. Philip Randolph, Mary Anne Elliot, Augustine & Samuel Johnson. Miss Perkins was a labor activist that devoted her life to a greater cause. Phillip Randolph, a civil rights activist, proves incorruptibility, self-reticence and it was impossible to humiliate him. Dorothy Day started as a non-religious person but soon after the birth of her daughter, she converted to Catholicism and surrendered her life to God and helping the poor. Samuel Johnson took up writing very late and his life but when he did he took up his craft for a greater cause. It was through intellectual effort that he built himself to greatness. He was involved in writing the ‘Dictionary of the English Language‘ -one of the most famous dictionaries in history.

According to Brooks, Dwight Eisenhower hewed to the following life philosophy:

“We start out with raw material, some good, some bad, and this nature has to be pruned, girdled, formed, repressed, molded, and often restrained, rather than paraded in public. A personality is a product of cultivation. The true self is what you have built from your nature, not just what your nature started out with.”

I think Brooks tried to make the readers of the book identify themselves with at least one of the characters in this book but to be honest, I couldn’t form a connection with any of his examples. Moreover, I am not so confident like Brooks that somehow suffering is the key to nobility and a good person.

However this book is an excellent reading in order to suppress any narcissistic instincts one may have. You will agree with me on this one after reading the following anonymous little poem from the book that Dwight Eisenhower carried around with him:

Sometime when you’re feeling important; Sometime when your ego ‘s in bloom; Sometime when you take it for granted, You’re the best qualified in the room: Sometime when you feel that your going, Would leave an unfillable hole, Just follow these simple instructions, And see how they humble your soul.

Take a bucket and fill it with water, Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining, Is a measure of how much you’ll be missed. You can splash all you wish when you enter, You may stir up the water galore, But stop, and you’ll find that in no time, It looks quite the same as before.

The moral of this quaint example, Is to do just the best that you can,
Be proud of yourself but remember, There’s no indispensable man.

The whole concept of the book is based on the fact that our nature as a human being has two opposing sides: Adam I that implies “résumé virtues”—achieving wealth, fame, and status” and Adam II that consists of our “eulogy virtues” such as kindness, bravery, faithfulness or honesty. Adam I is always in full contradiction with Adam II.

Brooks tells us that “most people don’t commit big sins out of the blue. They start by walking though a series of doors. You achieve glory by achieving great external things, but you achieve character by struggling against your internal sins because :

The same ambition that drives us to build a new company also drives us to be materialistic and to exploit. The same lust that leads to children leads to adultery. The same confidence that can lead to daring and creativity can lead to self-worship and arrogance.

Another thing that I agree with David Brooks is that “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.”

Indeed self-control or will-power no matter how you name it is a muscle that tires but is renewable. You can also read about this in the book called The ONE Thing by Gary Keller. Will-power is like the battery of your smartphone. The more you use it the more it drains. If you are on a diet and resist eating junk food throughout the day in the evening you will be more likely prone to dive into some desert as you have used most of your will-power for that specific day. The key to overcoming this issue is to take all your important decisions in the first part of your day.

The most interesting part of the book in my opinion is the story about the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin and the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. The two of them fell in love that night but this love was not sexual. They sat down at nine o’clock in the evening and talked for 12 intense hours without a break. There was no physical/sexual contact between them. It must have been one of the purest encounters between two humans on record. Feel free to read the entire story in David Brook’s column for the New York Times.

I enjoyed the end of the book where Brooks talks about the cultural shift to the “Big Me” that was highly influenced by the economic and technological changes. The “Big Me” (Adam I) was inflated and the humbler Adam II was diminished by the fact that communications have become faster and busier. People are usually most aware of their depths when they are on moments of separation and silence, when they are on retreats. These moments have become less and less frequent as we always reach for the smartphone. Brooks second argument for this cultural shift is that each individual is able to create his own solar system where he is the sun due to the work of apps, programs and pages available. It’s becoming impossible for groups and families to sit together in a room and properly interact with each other. Third, social media creates a hypper-competitive struggle for attention the race for “likes”. People seek social approval and fear exclusion while they always compare themselves to other people’s highlights and they eventually end up feeling inferior.