The Road To Character: Review and Summary Notes

The Road To Character

The Road To Character by David Brooks

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The Road To Character


This book is about how to achieve “eulogy values” instead of “resume values”.

You should read it only if you are a workaholic who likes HBR. Otherwise I would rather recommend So Good They Can’t Ignore You for career advice and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck for life advice.

Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs? By this way of thinking, life can be organized like a business plan. First you take an inventory of your gifts and passions. Then you set goals and come up with some metrics to organize your progress toward those goals. [But instead], you don’t ask, What do I want from life? You ask a different set of questions: What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do?

I wrote in 2018:

“What do you want to do with your life?” is a useless question because it is inherently selfish. The question presumes that your wants matter—it implies that what you want is more important than what other people want you to do.

Of course, you shouldn’t just do what other people want you to do either, because then you’d replace the narcissist with a supplicant.

Here is a better question that I ask: “What does the world need that you can uniquely offer?”

I like this question because it asks us to humble ourselves to listen to our neighbours, while simultaneously challenging us to hone our unique talents for maximal effectiveness in service of others.

If you’ve had trouble figuring out the answer to “What do you want to do with your life?”, it’s not you—it’s because the question has no fulfilling answer. Whenever a want is fulfilled, another bigger want grows to replace it. This is how people become alcoholics, shopaholics, and workaholics. Any time you get enough drugs, enough iPhones, and enough achievements, you are punished with the want of more drugs, newer iPhones, and more promotions.

To be fulfilled, there is only one option: the service of others. Those who donate $20 to others are happier than those who spend $20 on themselves. Those who live in a warzone but help others are happier than those who live in peacetime but keep to themselves.

In addition, you should pick an arena where your skills are uniquely needed more than others’ skills. This matters not only because of the economics of comparative advantage: those who use their strengths every day are less stressed than those who don’t.

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