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Why character, not career success, is key to a life of consequence

April 14, 2015 at 6:20 PM EST
What do Dwight Eisenhower, George Eliot and Dorothy Day all have in common? Besides achieving career success, all overcame a personality weakness -- such as a bad temper or big ego -- that led to internal transformation. Judy Woodruff sits down with David Brooks to discuss his new book, “The Road to Character,” and rethinking our personal priorities.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: our newest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf.

In “The Road to Character,” our own David Brooks urges us all to rethink our priorities.

I talked with him late last week at Busboys and Poets, a restaurant and bookstore chain in and around Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, thank you for talking to us about this.

DAVID BROOKS, Author, “The Road to Character”: Good to see you in a strange setting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the people who see you every week on the NewsHour analyzing the news or read you in The New York Times may not realize that you have a lot of interest in things that go beyond politics and policy.

And they may be asking, is this the same David Brooks I see on television who wrote this book?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I wasn’t born with a tie or with Mark Shields stapled to my left hip. I have another life.

And that’s sort of the balance of what this book is about. The idea is based on the idea that we have two separate sets of virtues, which I call the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. And the resume virtues are the ones we bring to the marketplace. Are we good at being journalists or teachers or accountants?

And the eulogy virtues are the things they say about you after you’re dead. And they’re deeper? Were you honest, were you caring, were you courageous, were you capable of deep love?

And we live in a culture and I have lived a life that’s spent a lot more time thinking about the resume virtues than the eulogy ones, but we all know the eulogy ones are more important. And so this book is about people who developed those deeper virtues and how they did it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why has that struck a chord with you? Why did you want to spend time thinking about that and writing about it?

DAVID BROOKS: Sometimes, you go — you achieve a few things in life. I have achieved more career success than I ever experienced or that I ever thought. And I just realized, it doesn’t make you happy. It’s an elemental truth. It’s so true.

Secondly, occasionally, you would meet somebody — I remember I was up in Frederick, Maryland. And I ran into some ladies who tutor immigrants on how to read English. And it takes years for them to do this. And I walk in a room with about 30 or 40 or them. And I was immediately struck by wave of inner light. They radiated an inner light of graciousness, of hope, of good cheer.

They were patient. They weren’t bragging about what wonderful work they were doing. They weren’t thinking about themselves at all. And I looked — I remember looking at that inner light that they had, and I think I have achieved things in life, but I don’t have that. I would love to have that.

And the book doesn’t get you there, but I wanted to study people who had that and figure out how they did it, so I could at least some day try to get closer to that inner spiritual goodness that they have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and, in fact, you do. You pick out at least half-a-dozen extraordinary people, people who live lives of consequence, from, what, Saint Augustine to Samuel Johnson, Jane Addams, George Eliot, General Marshall.

DAVID BROOKS: Dorothy Day and Frances Perkins and Bayard Rustin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why did these people make the cut? What was it that sets them apart?

DAVID BROOKS: There were two things they did really well.

First, they started out as sort of a mess. They were all sort of disorganized. They all had a sin, a core sin. For George Eliot, she was so emotionally needy. For Bayard Rustin, the great civil rights leader, he had an ego. For Dwight Eisenhower, it was a temper. For Dorothy Day, just fragmentation.

And — but they all overcame it. They identified their core sin, what was weakest in themselves, and they did spiritual exercises and activities that made — turned their made weakness into a strength. And by middle age, they had achieved remarkable depth, remarkable goodness, and really a tranquility.

And so I wanted to see people who transformed themselves inside. Of course, they achieved great things outside, but it was more important than what they did, but who they were is so inspiring. But it’s nice to have that sort of community of friends and inspiration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If you could boil it down to one thing, in a very simplistic way, is it, we all need to be — to think less about ourselves, to be more self-effacing?

DAVID BROOKS: Humility is what they all had. And some people think humility is thinking lowly of yourself. Some people think it’s not thinking about yourself.

But, to me, the best definition of humility is radical self-awareness from a distance, seeing themselves from a distance and saying, what’s my problem? And so, for Eisenhower, he had this furious passion and an anger and a hatred, but he constructed — he knew he could not lead from a point of anger and hatred.

So he constructed a persona that was gentle, that was convivial and sort of a country club guy. And, in some ways, he did it by very shallow and superficial means. He hated people, so he would write their names on pieces of paper and rip them up and throw them in the garbage can.

In other ways, it was a deeper level of self-discipline. And so, in my view, success is earned externally by being better than other people. But character, that sort of unfakeable goodness, is earned by being better than you used to be. And it’s about self-confrontation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also say, I think, toward the end of the book, the prescription is something like we all have to stand against the prevailing winds of whatever the culture is telling us to do.

That’s hard.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

We live in a culture of a big me. We’re encouraged — we raise our kids to think how great they are, where we have to market ourselves to get through life. We’re in social media, where we broadcast highlight — highlight reels of our own lives on Facebook.

And, you know, especially me, I’m a pundit. I’m, like, paid to be a narcissistic blowhard and be in front of the camera. But the key to this kind of world and this kind of life is stepping outside that. And so one of the conclusions I came to was that it’s your ability to make connections. The people who really have character make deep, unshakable connections to something outside themselves.

They’re capable of a web of unconditional love and they’re committed to tasks that can’t be completed in a lifetime. Frances Perkins, one of my great heroes in the book, was committed to the cause of worker safety. And she was sort of committed to it for a little while. But then she witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and saw hundreds of people die.

And that was her call within a call. And after that crucible moment, her self quieted, her personal ambition went by the wayside. She just became an instrument for a cause. And she was a remarkable, remarkable person.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You said at the very beginning of the book you wrote this to save your own soul. Did you succeed in doing that? Are you — did you save your soul?

DAVID BROOKS: No, reading a book and writing a book don’t get you there, but I think it gives you map.

And I hope, in the years ahead, I can follow that map and become gradually a better person. I think, in the last five years, hanging around and being inspired by these people, I have changed a little. Hopefully, I have gotten a little better. I’m — one of the things I — now people confide in me. They didn’t used to confide in me, but hopefully I’m able to show a little more vulnerability.

And I have read so much now about what suffering does to you, what love does to you. And I have put it in the book, that, hopefully, I have something to say to these people. So, I feel I have made a little progress. But, believe me, I’m capable of great bad behavior. I wouldn’t want to hold myself up.

But I do think trying to live each day as a bunch of moral occasions, did I live up to what I would hope, and, if I didn’t, what can I do tomorrow to be a little better, I do think we can improve. We get better at life as we get older.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, we’re glad to be able to talk to you about it, “The Road to Character.”

DAVID BROOKS: Thanks so much, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

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