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)

How Rituals Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

I was honored with the opportunity to offer a devotional at Adventist HealthCare’s November 5th Mission in Motion conference for its organizational leaders. Here are my remarks:

Good afternoon, colleagues and friends. My name is Jonathan Sachs and I serve as the Associate Vice President for Patient Experience at Adventist HealthCare.

Thank you for the opportunity to share a word of devotion with you before we bless our food and enjoy a meal together.

I would like you to join me for a moment and give thought to a question that has been on my mind: What are we doing here?

We are all busy, we’re all itching to take peeks at our email, patient care at our entity’s continue on, yet we are here at this conference, away from our teams, and sitting a lot. Why?

I’m here to tell you that I figured it out, and the answer is not that our being here is a mandatory condition of employment.

The answer is far more important and deeper than that.

We are here because we are committed to our mission of extending g-d’s care through the ministry of physical, mental, and spiritual healing.

Moralist David Brooks defines commitment as, “falling in love with something and then building a structure of behavior around it for the moment when love falters”.

What we are doing today is a part of the, “structure of behavior” for how we keep love alive with our patients and with each other. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (no relation), “Rituals are the framework that keeps love alive”.

I am Jewish and Judaism is well-known for its many rituals including keeping the dietary laws of kashrut, not using electricity on the sabbath, and men wearing a skullcap (called a kippah) to remind us that g-d is always with us and above us. We do this because, without it, without this structure of behavior, we would lose our commitment to living in faith and doing good deeds when we need g-d the most.

If you have ever been to a Jewish service, you may see the men wearing a prayer shawl with fringes on it. We call the fringes “tzitzit” [pictured] and the reason for their being comes from Numbers 37 in the Torah, which says, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments through the generations…and you shall look upon them and remember all the commandments of the Lord and fulfill them, and you will not follow after your heart and after your eyes by which you go astray – so that you may remember and fulfill all My commandments and be holy to your g-d.”


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We wear the tzitzit because g-d acknowledges our humanity. G-d wants us to “keep the main thing [of doing the good deeds he commands us], the main thing” but knows that we are human and so we are likely to forget or lose track of the main thing in the midst of our busy-ness. For that reason, G-d himself commands Moses to build rituals for us that remind us to stay on track. As leaders, it is up to us to do the same for our team members.

Our teams can lose their way because the world keeps us busy and what we need to do to survive on a daily basis is hard, consuming, and urgent. But often the most important things are those that are non-urgent: Did I say, “I love you” to my spouse and children today? Did I thank a team member for extending g-d’s care in a new way? Did I keep the main thing, the main thing?

Organizational rituals, like today’s conference, like “our main thing”, and like our leadership system are tools for us to use as leaders to keep our commitment to our patients and to build structures of behavior to make sure we never forget what is most important and why we are here.

I always circle the Mission in Motion conference on my calendar because it is a ritual where I get to learn from our speakers and reconnect with you. It renews my commitment to the spirit of our mission and I always look forward to it.

As we go about today, I hope you will join me in thinking of new ways to build rituals in to our daily work so that we stay connected to what is most important more often than just twice a year at this conference. Think about sharing stories or asking questions of your team to keep why we are here at the tops of their minds. By doing so, we will lead team members with purpose, not just with urgency.

Invent new rituals to keep the commitment to our mission alive. Our team and our patients are counting on us.

Let us pray:

Blessed are you lord g-d, king of the universe, for bringing us to this mission in motion conference. Let today be a ritual that creates daily rituals throughout our healthcare system that allow us as human beings to never forget how to achieve our mission of extending your care.

G-d, Please bless our patients as they heal and bless our caregivers as their healers. We are here to support their work, give them guidance, and to nourish their commitment by helping them see the big picture.

As we continue to lunch today, please bless our food.

Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam, she-hakol ni-hyea bidvaro

Blessed are you, lord our g-d, King of the Universe, by whose word all things came to be. And let us say, Amen.