The Road to Character

David Brooks is a well-known author, speaker and commentator who is probably best known for his op-ed columns in the New York Times.  A couple months ago I had the privilege of hearing him speak at a small gathering in Washington, DC.  In his quiet, understated manner, Brooks captured the room as he talked about his new book The Road to Character.  After returning from Washington, I couldn’t wait to read the book, and when I did, it did not disappoint.  In my opinion, The Road to Character hits at one of the most important issues facing us today, both as individuals and as a society.

In the book, Brooks argues that, as a culture and as individuals, we’ve lost our way when it comes to truly understanding and developing character.  He begins by drawing a distinction between “resume” virtues and “eulogy” virtues.  “Resume” virtues generally lead to achieving external success (money, status, recognition, etc.), whereas “eulogy” virtues reflect how we would like to be remembered when we die.  Eulogy virtues are what many of us would think of as the classic, or historic, virtues, including honesty, faithfulness, hard work, kindness, bravery, self-discipline and the ability to build relationships.  In the midst of a culture that drives us to focus on “me and my success,” Brooks challenges us to refocus on the classic eulogy virtues that make for a fulfilling and worthwhile life.  Brooks suggests that through building and developing these virtues we can achieve a rich inner life characterized by moral depth.

Brooks maps out the road to character by profiling the lives of eight people, and how each of them developed one of the “eulogy” virtues.  I’d like to focus on two of these individuals, Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall, both military leaders in WWII.  First Eisenhower.  Brooks titles his chapter on Eisenhower “Self-Conquest.”  The last sentence in the chapter best captures Brooks’ take on Eisenhower.  According to Brooks, he led “a life not organized around self-expression, but around self-restraint.”  Today’s culture prizes individuality, self-expression, authenticity, and doing what seems best to us in the moment.  Eisenhower saw things differently.  Brooks describes Ike’s philosophy of life as follows:  “We start out with raw material, some good, some bad, and this nature has to be pruned, girdled, formed, repressed, molded, and often restrained, rather than paraded in public.  A personality is a product of cultivation.  The true self is what you have built from your nature, not just what your nature started out with.”  Eisenhower was restrained.  He created a restrained, disciplined “second self” that didn’t just say and do what he thought in the moment.  He subscribed to the school of thought that “freedom is the opportunity for self-discipline.”  As Brooks put it, Eisenhower was “fueled by passion but policed by self-control.”  Eisenhower’s aim was to be “blessed with a spirited soul [but] also [with] the proper character to tame it.”  A far cry from the hyper-individualistic, “free expression” culture celebrated today.

George Marshall was also a World War II general, but was not in the public eye nearly as much as Eisenhower.  Marshall was not a particularly good student, and was a late bloomer in his military career.  The first couple decades of his military career were solid but undistinguished.  Today many people distrust large institutions and organizations, but Marshall willingly conformed his life to the needs of his organization (the Army).  Marshall practiced self-denial and self-control daily.  The choice of a leader for the Allies invasion of France in WWII captured the essence of Marshall the man.  As the time of the invasion drew near, no overall commander for the operation had been selected.  Marshall secretly craved the assignment but refused to ask for it.  President Roosevelt asked Marshall for his advice, and would have given Marshall the command position if he had asked for it.  However, Marshall refused to self-promote, refused to lobby for the job, and Roosevelt ultimately decided he needed Marshall nearby him in Washington. Roosevelt gave the European command to Eisenhower.  Marshall was inwardly crushed, but no one would know it from observing him.  He did his duty as always, with self-control, integrity and excellence.  Marshall ultimately received his day in the sun when President Truman appointed him Secretary of State, and was subsequently responsible for enacting the Marshall Plan.  But for Marshall, self-mastery and loyalty were always what it was about, not fame and recognition.

Who you are matters more than what you do.  And who you are will ultimately determine what you’re able to accomplish that has lasting value.  Take the time to read The Road to Character.  It will be time well spent.  You’ll love the profiles Brooks paints in fleshing out what it means to have strong character.

One reply

  1. Bob Gavin says:

    Thank you for recommending this book. Mr Brooks’ writing aside, I have since young adulthood deeply believed President Eisenhower to have been one of our finest (and yet so unsung) presidents in the history of our nation – and after having served as the inspirational military leader he was during WWII. To contemplate his achievements and character is in itself a study in humility, which, for President Eisenhower and General Marshall, were overarching qualities and examples possibly each of us can follow.

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