Book Review: The Road to Character

Happy New Year 2019! 

I highly recommend starting 2019 by reading The Road to Character by David Brooks. The book is premised on two descriptions of Adam in the book of Genesis. Brooks calls one description “Adam I”, whose characteristics are described as having “resume values”, while “Adam II” is characterized more by his character or “eulogy values”.

Brooks observed that the general culture in the United States is shifting from one of humility to one where individuals see themselves as the most important in the Universe.

RoadtoCharacterAs I wrote last week, the way we treat each other is eroding. Much of it has to do with how our culture has transitioned to be less observant of practices that remind us how to behave toward each other (etiquette) and more focused on what I want, when I want it, and how I want it. While customization and recognizing individual needs are important, perhaps we have gone too far so that now it is hard for us to understand wants and needs outside of our own.

So when I read Brooks’ book, it spoke to me as I have observed a similar cultural transition and am concerned about it. I had become familiar with Brooks’ thoughts on the role of rituals through Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ writings.

The way Brooks’ tells the story of the Road to Character is not in the “self help” format. The “Road to Character” is not a 12-step program and it’s not a clear path. Instead, Brooks tells fundamental lessons about character through a series of stories about prominent historical figures including politicians, policy makers, authors, civil rights advocates and football players. The stories are all captivating and illustrative of 10 core tenants of character. Brooks wraps up the book with 15 parts of what he calls the “Humility Code”, which resonated deeply with me.

A repeated theme, which was a comfort to me in my own pursuit of developing a strong character, was struggle. Personally, I often struggle with decisions, practices and questions that show my character. In my own reflection on these moments, I am extremely self-critical. Why am I struggling? Why isn’t this obvious to me? The leaders and change makers that I look up to and read about seem to have an innate inner-compass. Where is mine? I have one but why is it failing me here?

The book taught me, if nothing else, to embrace this struggle. The same people who I look up to had to go through situations and events that built their character. The people Brooks describes fell down frequently in their pursuit of a character to serve others. They made lots of mis-steps, had their own vices, and often made the same mistakes repeatedly. In every case, it wasn’t easy for the subject of the chapter to develop character. They had to struggle, they had to learn, they had to make mistakes.

As Brooks writes in the introduction to the book, “It was a cultural and intellectual tradition, the “crooked timber” tradition, that emphasized our own brokenness. It was a tradition that demanded humility in the face of our own limitations. But it was also a tradition that held that each of us has the power to confront our own weaknesses, tackle our own sins, and that in the course of this confrontation with ourselves we build character” (Brooks, 2015).

We cannot forget this lesson. Life is a journey and experiences shapes us. But, we have a clear choice: Do we want to take our experiences and dwell in the past or can we use the past as important lessons for us to develop our characters.

In 2019, one of my goals is to be better at embracing, “the struggle”. The experiences I get in 2019, both positive and negative, I will learn from and use it to develop my character in a way that will help me serve others.

KEY TAKEAWAY: Developing a positive character of service is a struggle. Embrace that struggle to view experiences, both positive and negative, as paving stones on your road to character. Happy New Year!

The Road to Character is available for purchase on Amazon for $18 (does not include Prime discount)