We live in an era that celebrates the self and places foremost value on achieving wealth, fame, and status.
New York Times columnist David Brooks achieved all of that and learned that none of it made him happy.
Then he came across a group of women tutoring immigrants in Frederick, Maryland. None of them were particularly wealthy or famous but "they just glowed."
"They radiated a goodness and a patience and a service," Brooks told 'CBS This Morning.' "They weren't talking about how great they were. They were just – nothing about themselves at all. And I thought, well I've achieved more career success than I ever thought I would, but I looked at the inner light they had, and I said, I haven't achieved that."
And so, he set out to explore that elusive quality, a certain contentment through selflessness. The result was "The Road to Character," a new book in which Brooks profiles some of the world's greatest leaders, thinkers, and humanitarians, in an effort to shine a light on the sort of moral virtues that have been discounted in the modern age.
"It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues," he wrote in a New York Times oped piece which quickly became the NYT's most-emailed story of the day. "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?"
Society today places great importance on resume virtues, he says, and teaches children from a young age to believe they are special, important.
"We're raised in a society called the 'big me' society," Brooks said Monday on "CBS This Morning." "In 1950, the [Gallup organization] asked high school kids, are you a very important person? Then 12 percent said yes. Asked again in 2005, 80 percent said, yes, I'm a very important person. We all think we're super important.
"That's great for your career if you're branding yourself. That's great for social media, if you want a highlight reel of you own life you can put up on Facebook, but if you want inner growth, you've got to be radically honest," Brooks said. "...[T]he road to character is built by confronting your own weakness."
In his "The Road to Character," Brooks found that great people in history became that way by doing just that – confronting their weaknesses.
Dwight Eisenhower learned that his weakness was his hot temper, so he learned to control it and adopted a moderate, upbeat exterior, qualities he knew were important to lead a country with confidence.
Dorothy Day led a life of drinking, carousing, and following her desires, until her daughter was born. Her focus shifted from herself to her daughter - and the rest of the world. "She became a Catholic, started a radical newspaper, opened settlement houses for the poor and lived among the poor, embracing shared poverty as a way to build community, to not only do good, but be good," Brooks writes.
As for himself, Brooks told NPR he is "paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley 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."
Writing the book has helped him to identify his own weaknesses, to spend more time studying morality and religion, and to seek a richer, more spiritual inner life.
"I came to the conclusion that wonderful people are made, not born – that the people I admired had achieved an unfakeable inner virtue, built slowly from specific moral and spiritual accomplishments."