Living a Moral Life in the World That Hails Narcissism

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Road to Character" by David Brooks. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are David Brooks’s 15 guiding principles for living a moral life? How can you work to become a better person in a world that celebrates narcissism?

In his book The Road to Character, author David Brooks shares his 15-point humility code. His code covers topics such as becoming more selfless, admitting your flaws, seeking help from others, and more.

Continue reading for Brooks’s 15 guidelines for living a moral life, organized by theme.

Guidelines for a More Moral Life

To help us recalibrate our moral compasses, David Brooks, the author of The Road to Character, outlines a 15-point Humility Code. Following this code will help us circumvent our tendency for narcissism, help us live a moral life, and ultimately make us happier, better people. These are his 15 guiding principles for building character, organized by theme: 

Think “We” Instead of “Me” 

  1. Understand that we are naturally selfish and self-centered. We are narcissists at the core, and we have to combat the urge to act selfishly. This requires eternal vigilance because selfishness is deeply ingrained in our natures.
  2. Don’t pursue temporal happiness. Seek moral goodness instead and you’ll find happiness along the way. We aren’t here on earth for the momentary pleasure of buying some new trinket, basking in the praise of others, or increasing our social status. Serving our own self-interest doesn’t bring deep down joy, but serving others’ needs does. We naturally feel good when we live a life of moral virtue. 
  3. When looking for a career, don’t listen to popular advice to “follow your passion.” Instead, put your skills and abilities to use to serve the greater good. Having a vocation that both utilizes your unique gifts and serves your community will lead to a fulfilling life. Having a vocation that only does half of that equation will not. 

Crush Your Pride and Admit to Your Flaws 

  1. Humility is key to overcoming any human weakness. Own up to your flaws and imperfections—stop telling yourself you’re fine as you are. You can’t become a better person unless you are willing to humble yourself and learn. You must accurately assess your own flaws, and you must submit to the idea that you are not and will never be perfect. 
  2. To win against weakness, you must diminish your ego. Practice restraint. Stop announcing everything you do to the world. Teach your ego to be modest, even reticent. Joy does not come from convincing other people you’re great. In fact, trying to convince others of our greatness is an exhausting proposition. Instead, celebrate other people’s victories. Be a cheerleader for others. 
  3. Pride is our downfall. Pride makes us believe we are fine the way we are. It’s what makes us constantly try to prove to the world how great we are. Eliminate pride and we are suddenly able to see ourselves clearly, which means we can then better ourselves. 
  4. You don’t know as much as you think. Not even close. The humble person knows that she doesn’t understand everything around her. Start with admitting there is a vast universe of things you don’t know. Even when we have knowledge about a subject, we don’t necessarily have wisdom. 

Engage Fully in Your Moral Struggle  

  1. Although humans have a multitude of flaws, we also have the capability to overcome those flaws. We are sinners, but we don’t have to live sinful lives. We can choose to battle against our flaws and not give in—like an alcoholic choosing to avoid drinking alcohol or a work-addicted person choosing to leave the office and go play with his kids. 
  2. Once we have a roof over our heads and food to eat, engaging in the struggle for character is more important than any of life’s other struggles. There is beauty in the struggle because it gives meaning to life, whereas climbing the ladder of success tends to leave us feeling empty. You can work as a high-profile CEO or as a devoted caregiver—either way, your most dramatic battle will be for your own morality and character. 
  3. Character is built through self-discipline. You need to develop character-building habits by making good moral choices every day. The more good choices you make—big ones, small ones, hundreds of them every day—the better you become at self-discipline. 
  4. Short-term desires are the devil whispering in your ear. Gluttony or lust or a multitude of other sins will try to lure us, but the rewards are painfully short-term. Building character requires committing to the long-term. It means giving up this week’s desire in favor of the much bigger reward that comes from living a good life over a long period of time. 
  5. When you conquer your weaknesses, you reach a state of maturity that doesn’t require a lot of fanfare. You may or may not be an outward success, but that won’t matter much to you. You’re not looking to be praised or congratulated; the reactions of others are unimportant because you have found the meaning and purpose in your life. 

Seek Help From Other People and God

  1. You can’t build character completely on your own. You need help from family, friends, and God. You aren’t an island or a lone wolf; you are one of billions of humans who are engaged in a similar struggle for meaning in their lives. It’s impossible to improve yourself unless someone holds up a mirror for you, so you can truly see yourself. You can also draw on other people’s experiences to help you wage your battle with yourself. 
  2. When we battle against weakness, our fight often takes the form of a few steps forward and a few steps back, then forward again. When you fail, when you feel like you’re moving backward, you must simply surrender to grace. Admit and accept your defeat, and let the world embrace you and help you back on your feet. Grace will deliver the message that you aren’t alone in your struggles. 

Be a Moderate, Incremental Leader 

  1. If you’re a leader, make changes within your organization slowly and gradually. Don’t shoot for big, dramatic, headline-making changes; instead, make small shifts that people can adapt to and embrace. Understand that your job as a leader is not to be a ground-breaking pioneer or revolutionary change-maker. Your job is to find a balance between competing goals and interests. 
Living a Moral Life in the World That Hails Narcissism

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of David Brooks's "The Road to Character" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full The Road to Character summary :

  • How the world has become "me-focused" rather than "we"
  • An analysis of eight historical figures who selflessly contributed to the greater good
  • A 15-point plan to help you live a more virtuous and happy life

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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