Two by David Brooks

Sometimes I love what David Brooks has to say, and sometimes it leaves me cold. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don’t. This variability gives me confidence that he is not pandering to any particular audience but rather following his own muse.

I loved his concept of “bourgeouis bohemians” and the incisive observations he made about them—some of which cut close to the bone back then, just coming out of a high-salaried corporate environment. His dalliances with neuroscience weren’t to my taste, but I always appreciated (and admired) the fact that he was engaged in a long-term intellectual project, something that most folks in his business—punditry—tend to give up in the face of weekly opinionating.

His essay The Thought Leader is a classic example of his early style, even though it was only written a year or so ago. It is a very cutting look at the temptations of punditry and the kind of person a pundit can become.

Not armed with fascinating ideas but with the desire to have some, he launches off into the great struggle for attention. At first his prose is upbeat and smarmy, with a peppy faux sincerity associated with professional cheerleading.

Within a few years, though, his mood has shifted from smarm to snark. There is no writer so obscure as a 26-year-old writer. So he is suddenly consumed by ambition anxiety — the desperate need to prove that he is superior in sensibility to people who are superior to him in status. Soon he will be writing blog posts marked by coruscating contempt for extremely anodyne people: “Kelly Clarkson: Satan or Merely His Spawn?”

Of course the writer in this unjustly obscure phase will develop the rabid art of being condescending from below. Of course he will confuse his verbal dexterity for moral superiority.

All that keeps this from being unbearably scathing is the knowledge that Brooks knows whereof he speaks, by dint of experience. The temptations and pitfalls are dangers he has faced personally, and I think he would agree that he hasn’t always triumphed over them.

In case that caveat isn’t enough for you to forgive Brooks for the piece, please balance it with today’s The Moral Bucket List. It is taken from his new book The Road to Character, which I will be reading when it is released Tuesday. These paragraphs should be enough to persuade you that Brooks is a thoughtful guy. [Emphasis added]

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.

But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.

So a few years ago I set out to discover how those deeply good people got that way. I didn’t know if I could follow their road to character (I’m a pundit, more or less paid to appear smarter and better than I really am). But I at least wanted to know what the road looked like.

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