AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The day after Japan surrendered in August, 1945, and the end the Second World War ended, a radio program called "Command Performance" aired. Singer Bing Crosby was the host.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "COMMAND PERFORMANCE")
BING CROSBY: Well, it looks like this is it. What can you say at a time like this? You can't throw your skimmer in the air. That's for run-of-the-mill holidays. I guess all that anybody can do is thank God it's over.
CORNISH: When New York Times columnist David Brooks heard a rebroadcast of this program, it got him thinking about how Americans, at one time, could mark triumph without boasting.
DAVID BROOKS: And I was really struck at this supreme moment of American triumph, that they weren't beating their chests. They weren't super proud of themselves. They were deeply humble. And I found that so beautiful and so moving. And I thought there's really something to admire in that public culture.
CORNISH: A culture that, he says, is lost today. In his latest book, "The Road To Character," David Brooks goes on a personal journey, trying to apply the lessons of history to himself. He said he's been measuring his success in life by career, which turns out to be ultimately unfulfilling.
BROOKS: You know, I achieved way more career success than I'd ever imagined. And I rediscovered the elemental truth. It doesn't make you happy. And then I would come across people once a month who just - they just glowed. I remember I was up in Frederick, Md., visiting some people who tutor immigrants. They teach them English and how to read. And I walk into room of 30 people, mostly women, probably 50 to 80 years old, and they just radiated a generosity of spirit. They radiated a patience. And most of all, they radiated gratitude for life. And I remember thinking, you know, I've achieved career success in life, but I haven't achieved that. What they have is that inner-light that I do not have. And I've only got one life. I'd like to at least figure out how to get there.
And so I really wrote the book to save my soul, if you want to put it grandly - to figure out, how can I be more like that? And writing a book doesn't get you there, but at least gives you a roadmap.
CORNISH: You're really hard on yourself in the opening pages. It makes me feel like maybe your Google Alerts are on...
CORNISH: ...And you are listening to your critics. But here's your description of your job - that you're (reading) more or less paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volume my opinions to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am. I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality.
BROOKS: I don't think that's hard on myself. I think that's just honest about myself. We're both in a weird job where we're in front of a microphone, and that presents character challenges where we can think we're right all the time or we get a lot of attention. But I do think the turning point in a life toward maturity is looking inside yourself and saying, what's the weakness that I have that leads to behavior that I'm not proud of? And I'd say, for me, it's evolved. It used to be I just lived life on the surface, thinking about politics only or thinking about sort of superficial success only. I think I'm a little better at that, but I still have the core sin of wanting everybody to love me and avoiding conflict.
And so I have to look at that every day and figure out, how can I be a little better on that? And in the book, I have so many characters who have different core sins. For Bayard Rustin, a great civil rights leader, it was ego early in life - ego. For Dorothy Day, she was fragmented. Her life was all over the place, just scattered. For George Eliot, the novelist, desperate neediness for intimacy. For Dwight Eisenhower, it was his passion. He was an angry, angry man. And so each of the characters in the book confronts some core sin, and they figure out a way to beat it. And by the end of their lives, they've become strong in their weakest places, and they're meant to serve as models for the rest of us.
CORNISH: They make some sort of shift, I guess?
BROOKS: Yeah, all the characters in the book. And it's like an assembly of friends. They're, like, in my life now. And I greet them. I try to live up to their standards, and I try to follow their examples.
CORNISH: Pundit and columnist - wrong business for character building?
BROOKS: Every job has its challenges. Every job presents a character challenge. Sometimes, you know, we're branding ourselves all the time. If you're trying to get jobs, you're boasting about how great you are. Or if you're on social media, you're, you know, presenting the world with a highlight reel of your life that you put on Facebook. And so we live in a culture I call in the book the culture of the big me, where we're really praised and rewarded for celebrating ourselves all the time.
My favorite statistic about this is that in 1950 the Gallup organization asked high school seniors, are you a very important person? And in 1950, 12 percent said yes. They asked again in 2005, and it was 80 percent who said they were a very important person. So we live in a culture that encourages us to be big about ourselves. And I think the starting point of trying to build inner-goodness is to be a little smaller about yourself.
CORNISH: So what about people who hear this and think, actually, it seems like people in politics are constantly telling us their morals - right? - constantly finger-wagging and telling us about morality, in fact, that it's become so tied to that in terms of the language and public view of that concept.
BROOKS: Well, two things. First, if you're finger-wagging, you're probably not doing it well because it starts with looking inside yourself, seeing your own weakness and then joining with others to combat your weaknesses together. You can't do it alone. Second, we do it in a very superficial, symbolic way. So we'll talk about issues that are important. We'll talk about issues of war and peace. We'll talk about issues like abortion and gay marriage. And those are moral issues, but you can talk about those issues and not really cultivate the virtues that really matter. You can do it without humility. You can do it without honesty. You can do it without courage. And so character is a way of living. It's not a series of positions you take.
CORNISH: Now, you write that you lacked a concrete moral vocabulary. What did you mean by vocabulary?
BROOKS: I think a lot of us have - and there have been - certainly been studies on that. There are certain words that have been passed down through the generations that we've sort of left behind. And some of them have quasi-religious connotations, but I don't think they need to. Those are words like grace, the idea that we're loved more than we deserve, redemption and sin. We now use the word sin in the context of fattening desserts. But it used to be central in the vocabulary, whether you're religious or not, an awareness that we all sin and we all have the same sins - selfishness, self-centeredness. And I think rediscovering that word is an important task because without that, you just are too egotistical. You don't realize how broken we all are at some level.
CORNISH: Now, you've called yourself a recovering secularist in the past. Have you moved past recovering into something else? And, if so, what is that?
BROOKS: Yeah. So I'm a believer. I don't talk about my religious life in public, in part because it's so shifting and green and vulnerable. And so I've spent a lot of time in this book - and if you care about morality and inner life and character, you spend your time reading a lot of theology because over the last hundreds of years, it was theologians who were writing about this. Whether you're a believer or not, I think these books are very helpful. It's amazing to read Augustine, the Confessions, and a guy who got successful as a rhetorician but felt hollow inside, a guy who had a mom, Monica, who was the helicopter mom to beat all helicopter moms and how he dealt with the conflict with such a demanding mother. And so I read a lot of theology, whether it's C.S. Lewis or Joseph Soloveitchik, a Rabbi. And it's produced a lot of religious upsurge in my heart, but it's also fragile and green that I don't really talk about it because I don't want to trample the fresh grass.
CORNISH: David Brooks. His new book is called "The Road To Character." Thank you so much for speaking with me.
BROOKS: Thanks so much, Audie. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: During this conversation, David Brooks says that in 1950 the Gallup organization asked high school seniors the question "are you a very important person?" and "12 percent said yes." Brooks also says "[Gallup] asked again in 2005, and it was 80 percent who said they were a very important person." He mistakenly attributed the survey to Gallup. While the study of adolescent attitudes supports the sociological trend, the survey was done by other researchers and in different years than the ones he mentioned. Brooks was citing material in his book The Road to Character. Its eBook edition has now been updated to say: "Between 1948 and 1954, psychologists asked more than 10,000 adolescents whether they considered themselves to be a very important person. At that point, 12 percent said yes. The same question was revisited in 1989, and this time it wasn't 12 percent who considered themselves very important, it was 80 percent of boys and 77 percent of girls."]
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