Monday, September 21, 2015

The Road to Character by David Brooks

George Marshal
Frances Perkins
Achievement is highly exalted in our fast paced, brash culture.  Winners are celebrated.  The wealthy, successful, physically fit, and beautiful are often the role models that occupy our longings and strivings in this modern age.   David Brooks, New York Times writer and author, in his most recent book, The Road to Character, to offer a different path for success.

His premise is based on two aspects of our nature.  He characterizes them as Adam I and Adam II, or the resume virtues (Adam I) versus the eulogy virtues (Adam II).  Though we might be pressed to acknowledge that the eulogy virtues are more important, we often spend much more of our life focused on the resume virtues.  His book is an antidote to that problem.

Mr. Brooks tells this story through the lives of several prominent artists, politicians, and public figures.  I appreciated getting to know some characters for whom I wasn't very familiar such as Frances Perkins and George Marshal, and coming to know better some that I did know like Samuel Johnson and Augustine.  He tells the story of their life's achievements through the struggles that they overcame and the character that they developed by facing their struggles and conquering them through honest reflection, struggle, acceptance, and ultimately humility.

Mr. Brooks notes that schools are focused on the virtues that strengthen Adam I, also known as the resume virtues and this is definitely true.  In recent  years, schools have been developing grit and a growth mindset, yet almost always in the context of creating better students, life long learners who are ready for college and career success.  We rarely articulate the goal of developing the deep character of servant leadership, honest self reflection, grace, love, and humility.  The challenge of Mr. Brook's book for schools is this:

How do we develop the character traits that transcend the work of college and career to develop children who are better family members, great friends, and good neighbors?

In contrast to Marcus Buckingham's work, Now Discover Your Strengths and Tom Rath's StrengthFinders, Brooks' book might be better titled, "Now Explore Your Weaknesses".  In so doing you will gain something more valuable than knowledge, you will gain wisdom, the wisdom that is hard earned through admitting failure and imperfection and struggling through the other side to deep character.  This indeed is a road less traveled that individuals and schools should consider when they develop their goals for character development.

David Brooks' book makes me wonder, what would happen if our schools and society pumped out students and adults who were Adam II exemplars?  Mr. Brooks answers that for us.

Sometimes you don't even notice these people, 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: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline.

They radiate a sort of moral joy.  They answer softly when challenged harshly. They are silent when unfairly abused. They are dignified when others try to humiliate them, restrained when others try to provoke them.  But they get things done. They perform acts of sacrificial service with the same modest every day spirit they would display if they were just getting the groceries. They are not thinking about what impressive work they are doing.  They are not thinking about themselves at all. They just seem delighted by the flawed people around them. They just recognize what needs doing and they do it.

They make you feel funnier and smarter when you speak with them.  They move through different social classes not even aware, it seems, that they are doing so.  After you've known them for a while it occurs to you that you've never heard them boast, you've never seen them self-righteous or doggedly certain. They aren't dropping little hings of their own distinctiveness and accomplishments.

As I read that list, I realize I fall very short of that ideal and have met precious few people who embody that ethos, however I'm encouraged to pursue depth of character in myself and eager to weave this focus into our school's character education program as well.  David Brook's book will give you pause to think about what you value and the best road to follow to accomplish your objectives.