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Living a life of consequence – making a difference in the world

Why good character, not career, is the key to a life of consequence.

David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times is at the top of my list when it comes to writers that I read and observe with admiration.

Brooks’ 800-word column appears each Tuesday and Friday in the Times and I’m amazed how he can summon such depth and gravitas in this brief format. He moves swiftly from one intriguing question to another, making complex human behavior accessible and understandable.

You can get a pretty good sense of what he writes about from just a few of his recent column titles:

The Structure of Gratitude

Hearts Broken Open

The Small, Happy Life

What Is Your Purpose?

Building Spiritual Capital

He’s written books as well. Brooks’ says he wrote his latest book “The Road to Character” to save his own soul.

The book has a simple construct:  it presents the idea that we have two separate sets of virtues, our resume virtues and our eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the ones we bring to the marketplace. Are we good businesspeople, professionals, achievers?

The eulogy virtues are the things people say about you after you’re dead. Were you honest, were you caring, were you courageous, were you capable of deep love?

Brooks writes about our “Big Me” culture of lives writ large on LinkedIn and Facebook. We live in a society where resume virtues get most of the attention, but we all know the eulogy ones are the most important.

His book is about people who developed those deeper virtues and how they did it. Among others, he writes about Saint Augustine, Samuel Johnson, Jane Addams, George Eliot, General Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower.

The character studies are fascinating and dive deep into core sins that were able to be overcome through radical self-awareness from a distance – another definition of humility.

He sums up the impetus for this book in a PBS interview with Judy Woodruff:

“Sometimes, you go – you achieve a few things in life. I have achieved more career success than I ever experienced or that I ever thought. And I just realized, it doesn’t make you happy. It’s an elemental truth. It’s so true.

Secondly, occasionally, you would meet somebody – I remember I was up in Frederick, Maryland. And I ran into some ladies who tutor immigrants on how to read English. And it takes years for them to do this. And I walk in a room with about 30 or 40 or them. And I was immediately struck by wave of inner light. They radiated an inner light of graciousness, of hope, of good cheer.

They were patient. They weren’t bragging about what wonderful work they were doing. They weren’t thinking about themselves at all. And I looked – I remember looking at that inner light that they had, and I think I have achieved things in life, but I don’t have that. I would love to have that.”

Brooks goes on to point out that simply writing a book or reading a book won’t instantly help start living a life of consequence, but it can provide a map for doing a little better each day and getting a little closer to that inner light.

Have a great week.

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