The Road to Character

“People turn into little brand managers, using Facebook, Twitter, text messages, and Instagram to create a falsely upbeat, slightly over exuberant, external self that can be famous first in a small sphere and then, with luck, in a large one.” (The Road to Character by David Brooks, page 251.)

The Road to CharacterThis book triggered at least two nights of insomnia. The introduction provided more than a few slaps to the face, mostly regarding my uneasy relationship with Facebook. I like Facebook. And I hate it. I care too much about likes. I have an “overeager desire to have people think about me.”

The author speaks of the “resume virtues,” which our current society is very good at developing, versus the “eulogy virtues,” which. . . not so much. The eulogy virtues are those mentioned at your funeral and they’re probably not efficiency, productivity, and wealth.

He claims that before about 1950, we humans thought of ourselves as Little Me, part of a larger group that was smarter than we could be on our own. In recent decades, and thanks in large part to the self-esteem movement, we’ve exaggerated the Big Me: the one that just needs to “be myself” and follow its dreams to succeed. “This mindset is based on the romantic idea that each of us has a Golden Figure in the core of our self. There is an innately good True Self, which can be trusted, consulted, and gotten in touch with. Your personal feelings are the best guide for what is right and wrong.” (Page 249)

I lost interest in most of the character sketches that make up the middle bulk of the book. You’ll see from the page numbers below that there was a large gap in my reading. But the beginning and the end of the book shook me up and have consumed my thoughts for a few weeks now.

Some highlights:

“The noise of fast and shallow communications makes it harder to hear the quieter sounds that emanate from the depths.” (Page xiii)

“You are busy, but you find you have a vague anxiety that your life has not achieved its ultimate meaning and significance.” (Page xiii)

“It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. . . You approve of yourself so long as you are not obviously hurting anyone else.” (Page xiv)

“Sometimes you don’t even notice these people [those with “impressive inner cohesion”], because while they seem kind and cheerful, they are also reserved. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world.” (Page xvi)

“They make you feel funnier and smarter when you speak with them.” (Page xvii)

Facebook thumbs up or downParaphrasing a Girl Scout handbook from the good old days: “The chief obstacle to happiness. . . comes from the overeager desire to have people think about you.” (Page 8)

“Humility is freedom. . .” (Page 8)

“You won’t even achieve enduring external success unless you build a solid moral core.” (Page 12)

Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

“All of us are given gifts, aptitudes, capacities, talents, and traits that we did not strictly earn.” We need to “justify our gifts”. (Page 24)

Albert Schweitzer: “Anybody who proposes to do good must not expect people to roll any stones out of his way.” (Page 25)

“A vocation is not about the pursuit of happiness, if by ‘happiness’ you mean being in a good mood, having pleasant experiences, or avoiding struggle and pain.” (Page 25)

“Those who pursue struggle end up being happier than those who pursue pleasure.” (Page 29)

“Communications have become faster and busier. It is harder to attend to the soft, still voices that come from the depths.” (Page 250)

“Social media allow a more self-referential information environment. People have more tools and occasions to construct a culture, a mental environment tailored specifically for themselves. . . Each individual can be the sun at the center of his or her own media solar system.” (Page 250)

“Our natural bent is to seek social approval and fear exclusion. Social networking technology allows us to spend our time engaged in a hyper-competitive struggle for attention, for victories in the currency of ‘likes.’ People are given more occasions to be self-promoters, to embrace the characteristics of celebrity, to manage their own image. . . People turn into little brand managers, using Facebook, Twitter, text messages, and Instagram to create a falsely upbeat, slightly over exuberant, external self that can be famous first in a small sphere and then, with luck, in a large one.”

“Moral realists saw the self as a wilderness to be tamed. . . People living in a high-pressure meritocracy are more likely to see the self as a resource base to be cultivated.” (Page 252)

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One response to “The Road to Character”

  1. […] The Road to Character by David Brooks (4 stars) I loved the introduction and conclusion. Lost interest in the middle. But definitely read the start and finish. Shook me up a bit. Full review here. […]

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