Many of you know David Brooks, the reasonably conservative, Republican-ish, op-ed columnist of The New York Times. The first and only time I ever attended a TED conference, Brooks was there, speaking to promote his latest book at the time. I found him arrogant and chauvinistic, confirming my expectations of him.

There’s more than enough to read on any given day in the New York Times, and that’s doubly so on Sundays. But several weeks ago, the title of Brooks’ article, “The Moral Bucket List” on the front page of the News in Review caught my attention. It turns out this article may just be the best advice you’ll ever get. I’ll share some of the highlights, but it’s well worth reading the whole thing.

Brooks begins by saying that, “About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.”

He then admits, “I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character,” so he set out to understand what sets those people apart from the rest of us. Brooks came to the conclusion, “that wonderful people are made, not born … built slowly from specific moral and spiritual accomplishments.” He was able to articulate six distinct characteristics that defined the character of these special people. I couldn’t agree more with his conclusion. These characteristics include:

1.    Humility. These individuals are “profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever. They have traced how that core sin leads to the behavior that makes them feel ashamed. They have achieved a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.”

2.    Interdependence. “We master certain skills and experience adventures and certain challenges on our way to individual success. But people on the road to character understand that no person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason and compassion are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride and self-deception. We all need redemptive assistance from outside.”

3.    Character. “Character is defined by how deeply rooted you are. Have you developed deep connections that hold you up in times of challenge and push you toward the good? In the realm of the intellect, a person of character has achieved a settled philosophy about fundamental things. In the realm of emotion, she is embedded in a web of unconditional loves. In the realm of action, she is committed to tasks that can’t be completed in a single lifetime.”

4.    Life as a calling. “We all go into professions for many reasons: money, status, security. But some people have experiences that turn a career into a calling. These experiences quiet the self. All that matters is living up to the standard of excellence inherent in their craft.”

5.    Fearlessness. “In most lives there’s a moment when people strip away all the branding and status symbols, all the prestige that goes with having gone to a certain school or been born into a certain family. They leap out beyond the utilitarian logic and crash through the barriers of their fears.”

Brooks concludes by saying, “The people on this road see the moments of suffering as pieces of a larger narrative. They are not really living for happiness, as it is conventionally defined. They see life as a moral drama and feel fulfilled only when they are enmeshed in a struggle on behalf of some ideal.

“This is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness. Recognizing her limitations, the stumbler at least has a serious foe to overcome and transcend. The stumbler has an outstretched arm, ready to receive and offer assistance.

“Her friends are there for deep conversation, comfort and advice. External ambitions are never satisfied because there’s always something more to achieve. But the stumblers occasionally experience moments of joy. There’s joy in freely chosen obedience to organizations, ideas and people. There’s joy in mutual stumbling. There’s an aesthetic joy we feel when we see morally good action, when we run across someone who is quiet and humble and good, when we see that however old we are, there’s lots to do ahead.

“The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be. Unexpectedly, there are transcendent moments of deep tranquility. For most of their lives their inner and outer ambitions are strong and in balance. But eventually, at moments of rare joy, career ambitions pause, the ego rests, the stumbler looks out at a picnic or dinner or a valley and is overwhelmed by a feeling of limitless gratitude, and an acceptance of the fact that life has treated her much better than she deserves.”

Thanks David Brooks.


David Brooks is a New York Times Op-Ed columnist and the author, most recently, of “The Road to Character,” from which his essay was adapted.

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