The Road to Character

A review of the book The Road To Character. Every once in awhile I stumble upon a book that is fantastic, thought provoking, questions my mental models, and opens views to the world that I have not seen before. This book, despite its big Christian undertone, is one of them.

The broad idea behind the book is the distinction between Adam I and Adam II. Adam I is the ambitious, external seeking, career oriented, achievement hunting ego, while Adam II is the internal facing, morality guided ego. Adam I seeks to create and strive for external achievements that can be paraded and shown off. Adam II seeks a stable life that is righteous and serene.

He argues, and I believe correctly so, that there has been a shift from moral realism to moral romanticism. Moral realism is the acknowledgement that we as humans are flawed internally, and we cannot be trusted to our own primal instincts. We must thus submit to an external entity; Religion, Community, Institute, to guide our actions and align our moral compass. Moral realism seeks to tame and hone the internal, so we may service the external. Moral romanticism on the other hand argues that we know what is best for ourselves, and we should listen and follow to our inner voice, because it is always right. Guided mostly by gut-feeling, moral romanticism seeks to conquer the external to bring pleasure to the internal.

We can see this evidenced from the Me-Culture, the highly individualistic culture, and countless of advice preaching to follow your passion. It all encourages the person to focus entirely on the external, believing that it will bring pleasure, and subsequently peace to the internal. But how many stories have we heard about people, and all their mighty achievements, still feeling empty and hollow? Thats because we have failed and neglected the nourishment of Adam II.

This is not to say that Adam I is to be shunned in favor of Adam II. As always with everything, there must be a balance. A balance between self-actualization (external), and self-mastery (Internal).

This conversation has again brought me back to the topic of vocation, something I seem very fixated on to achieve and discover. He states that we should not focus on the achievements work brings, because they will be fleeting and forever unfulfilled. Also, don’t focus on the community you are serving, because you will inadvertly bend your work to serve it’s purpose. Instead, you should focus on the work itself, and do it well and responsibly. In focusing on perfecting your work, you will as a side effect gain achievements, as well as serve the community benefiting from the work. So find a craft you feel drawn towards, make sure you enjoy it, and do it with utmost care and dedication.

The work to build character is also one that must be exposed to the opportunities that bring about those lessons. You cannot build character alone in isolation. You must connect with another entity: a friend, a community, a religion, a vocation. This entity must bring across some level of austerity and hardship to faciliate the trails and tribulations necessary for growth. Just as a sword must go through the flames of the forge to be later strengthend at the anvil, we must seek opportunites and obstacles to facilitate our growth. Just as a muscle grows through micro-tears from usage, we must actively engage hardship, and not shy away from it.

The decisions, thought and actions you do in private, affect your growth of character more than those in public. With public observation absent, we are no longer influenced by what others think, but only by what we think of ourselves. Will I be able to accept it if I performed such an action, thought such a thought, or made such a decision? More often than not, we tend to falter in private, and the dichotomy between the public and private mannerism highlights the level of influence public scrunity has on us. Thus, hold yourself in high regard even in private. One exercise I read somewhere was to imagine your younger self looking into the future and observing your actions. Will you be willing to violate the sanctity of your own youth?

We should also seek to find a figure and role model we want to emulate. Not everyone is holy, so we could pick and choose characters and personas that we wish to model after. Why this is important is because we need a goal to strive towards, and having a role model makes it tangible enough to provide concrete comparisons. We need a vision of greatness that is already realized to know that it’s possible, instead of shying away from it because we think it’s unrealistic.

We should be meritocratic at work, but never in our personal life. We should not treat human relations as a business contract of pros and cons, but only ask what you can give for them. Being overly meritocractic in all areas of your life will make you a shrewd person.

Finally, and also rightfully so, the book ends by telling us that it’s okay to falter. No one is perfect, but the act of trying to be is good enough. As we stumble along the way in life, we learn more and more about ourselves, and it’s only though stumbling in our own mistakes can we discover the possible salvations, also on our own.

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