The Road to Character

The Road to Character by David Brooks
320 pages
Genre: Self-help, biography
Random House, 2015 (Audiobook read by Arthur Morey)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: I probably won’t revisit this one.

Reviewed by Pete

What makes someone a good person? Being a hero? Following passions? These might be qualifications in the eyes of most, but not in the eyes of David Brooks.

Brooks opens this part-biography, part self-help book by defining two character types: Adam One and Adam Two. Adam One is the modern image of success: career-driven, merit-earning, calculating, and ambitious. Adam Two is humble and self-aware and pursues a vocation instead of a career—searching for a calling or a way to serve others. All of Brooks’ subjects are Adam Twos, and all of them exhibit extreme humility.

The book is a collection of several short biographies, each a chapter or two long. There are many different roads to character, Brooks tells us, but almost all have a turning point—a moment of clarity in which a major shift is made, often away from worldly pleasures and toward public service. Flaws and weaknesses must be recognized and overcome to have a pure character.

For the most part, his subjects had their turning point toward the beginning of adulthood, and it often meant giving up on the lives they had before and dedicating themselves to serving others. Dorothy Day became a social activist, Frances Perkins pursued a government career and was the Secretary of Labor under FDR for the duration of his presidency, and George Marshall led a long military career and served as Secretary of State, also under FDR.

Brooks is highly critical of the “Big Me” generation of today, arguing that children and young adults are showered with encouragement, praise, and specialness. It’s hard to argue that social media and selfies are doing much good for our culture. But where does passionate creativity fit into Brooks’ road to character? The most creative of his subjects, Samuel Johnson, made his legacy by writing A Dictionary of the English Language, several essays and criticisms, and works for friends and colleagues.

Being from the “Big Me” generation, Brooks’ advice is harsh and unexciting, but ultimately strikes home. Most of my role models have encouraged me to believe in myself and follow my passion—Brooks tells us to study ourselves for flaws and find a way to serve those around us. This message stands out against the “you are special” mantra of today, and it isn’t much fun, but it is valuable and sobering.  

There was one point Brooks made that felt a bit off to me. Toward the end of the book, he criticizes self-help books, arguing that the sheer number of them indicates that they don’t work. This is a strange point to make—is he suggesting that this is the last self-help book anyone would need, or does he think he hasn’t written a self-help book?

I enjoyed the book’s biography-montage format and found Brooks to be a strong storyteller, but his advice was not easy to swallow. That’s not to say I don’t agree with most of what he has to say, but his road to character is not easy, and he never promises that it will be.

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