Good Bedtime Reads – The Road to Character

The Road to Character

Book Author: David Brooks
Publisher: Random House 

Viji Kurup, MD
Professor, Department of Anesthesiology
Yale School of Medicine
New Haven, CT

One of the constants in my life is listening to NPR while driving. I like the variety of the programs they have, and I feel I can use my time on the road for education as well as entertainment. I often listen to David Brooks on “All things considered” and enjoyed his book “The Social Animal” which I have reviewed earlier on this series in the SEA Newsletter of Spring 2014. So, when I saw his book “The Road to Character” it immediately caught my attention and I think it has lessons that all of us can learn to have more meaningful lives.

David brings his unique style of combining wisdom and humor in analyzing the lives of some inspiring people such as Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, Eisenhower and Samuel Johnson, and traces their journey to identify characteristics and traits that lead to development of inner character. He makes a distinction between human virtues and divides them into “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues”. In the traditional definition of success, virtues that contribute to external success, ones you put on your resume are classified as “resume virtues” while eulogy virtues are the subtler characteristics such as humility, self-restraint and honesty that are brought up in your Eulogy. These, David argues are necessary for building character. In today’s self-centric world, this book came as a breath of fresh air, delving deep into what goes into creating a good life. What makes people give themselves up to a cause bigger than themselves. He digs deep to find out what makes the moral fiber of the person who is self-effacing and does not feel the need to prove anything to the world. The ones who radiate a moral joy. The ones who have a silent inner strength. “You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.”

Through the discussion of the lives of this diverse group of people he examines how imperfect people travelled that road which leads to development of character. The journey involves moral crisis. One has to endure the depths of despair and suffering to learn the value of humility and ascend into self-realization. The book should be required reading in schools and colleges. Many of the lessons seem to be an answer to the moral crisis facing our ‘selfie’ generation. As leaders and educators, reading this book will serve us well in moving from our traditional definitions of success towards the goal of a “Life well lived”. 

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