April 20th, 2011 // 7:31 am @ Oliver DeMille
A review of the book The Social Animal: A Story of Love, Character and Achievement by David Brooks
There are at least three major types of writing. The first might be called Shakespeare’s method, which includes the telling of stories with deep symbolic and archetypal lessons. Many of the great world religious texts used this approach. The Greeks referred to this as poetry, though the meaning of “poetry” is much more limited in modern usage. In the contemporary world we often call this type of writing fiction, though this is a misnomer since the stories used are not actually untrue—they are, many of them, literally true, and nearly all of them are symbolically true. This could also be called the Inspirational style of writing.
A second kind of writing can be summarized as Tocqueville’s method, or the philosopher’s style. Called prose, non-fiction, or editorializing, this type of literature consists of the author sharing her views, thoughts, questions, analyses and conclusions. Writers in this style see no need to document or prove their points, but they do make a case for their ideas. This way of writing gave the world many of the great classics of human history—in many fields of thought spanning the arts, sciences, humanities and practical domains. This writing is Authoritative in style, meaning that the author is interested mostly in ideas (rather than proof or credibility) and writes as her own authority on what she is thinking.
The third sort of writing, what I’ll call Einstein’s method, attempts to prove its conclusions using professional language and appealing to reason, experts or other authority. Most scientific works, textbooks, and research-based books on a host of topics apply this method. The basis of such writing is to clearly show the reader the sources of assumptions, the progress of the author’s thinking, and the basis behind each conclusion. Following the scientific method, this modern “Objective” style of writing emphasizes the credibility of the conclusions—based on the duplicable nature of the research and the rigorous analysis and deduction. There are few leaps of logic in this kind of prose.
Each type of writing has its masters, and all offer valuable contributions to the great works of human literature. This is so obvious that it hardly needs to be said, but we live in a world where the third, Objective, style of writing is the norm and anything else is often considered inferior. Such a conclusion, ironically, is not a scientifically proven fact. Indeed, how can science prove that anything open to individual preference and taste is truly “best?” For example, such greats as Churchill, Solzhenitsyn and Allan Bloom (author of The Closing of the American Mind) have shown that “Tocqueville’s” style is still of great value in modern times—as do daily op eds in our leading newspapers and blogs. Likewise, our greatest plays, movies and television programs demonstrate that the Shakespearean method still has great power in our world.
That said, David Brooks’ new book The Social Animal: A Story of Love, Character and Achievement manages to combine all three styles in one truly moving work. I have long considered Brooks one of my favorite authors. I assigned his book Bobos in Paradaise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There as an undergraduate and graduate college text for several years, and I have recommended his book On Paradise Drive to many students and executives who wanted to understand American and modern culture. In one of the best descriptions of our society ever written, he outlined the new realities experienced by the “average” American citizen, who he called “Patio Man.” I have also enjoyed many of his editorials in The New York Times—and the ongoing, albeit unofficial and indirect, “debate” between his columns and those of Thomas L. Friedman, Paul Krugman, George Will and, occasionally, Peggy Noonan.
The Social Animal is, in my opinion, his best work to date. In fact, it is downright brilliant. I am not suggesting that it approaches Shakespeare, of course. But who does? Still, the stories in The Social Animal flow like Isaac Asimov meets Ayn Rand. It doesn’t boast deep scientific technical writing, as Brooks himself notes. Indeed, Brooks doesn’t even attempt to produce a great Shakespearean or scientific classic. But he does effectively weave the three great styles of writing together, and in the realm of philosophical writing this book is similar to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The content of the book, in fact, is as close as we may ever see to a 21st century update to Tocqeville (1830s) and Bryce (1910s).
I know this is high praise, and in our modern era with its love of objective analysis, such strong language is suspect in “educated” circles. But my words are not hyperbole. This is an important book. It is one of the most important books we’ve seen in years—probably since Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World or Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind. This book is in the same class as Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, Strauss and Howe’s The Fourth Turning, or Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles. It is as significant as any article in Foreign Affairs since Richard Gardner’s writings. It reads like Steven Pinker channelling Alexis de Tocqueville. The language is, well, beautiful, but beautiful in the modern sense, like the writings of Laura Munson or Sandra Tsing Loh.
The book also manages to bridge political views—I think liberals will find it moving and conservatives will find it convincing. It is not exactly Centrist, but neither is it patently Right nor Left. It will appeal to independents and people from all political perspectives. If it has a political leaning, it is the party of Common Sense—backed by meticulous research.
Moreover, The Social Animal clouds typical publishing stereotypes. I’m not sure where big bookstores will shelve it. It is a book on culture, politics, education, and career. It is a book about entertainment, marriage and language. It is about the upper, middle and lower classes in modern American society, how they interrelate and what challenges are ahead as they clash. It is about current events and future challenges. It is, above all, a book about success. It goes well beyond books on Habits or The Secret or even “Acres of Diamonds.”
As Brooks himself put it:
“Over the centuries, zillions of books have been written about how to succeed. But these tales are usually told on the surface level of life. They describe the colleges people get into, the professional skills they acquire, the conscious decisions they make, and the tips and techniques they adopt to build connections and get ahead. These books often focus on an outer definition of success, having to do with IQ, wealth, prestige, and worldly accomplishments.
“This story [The Social Animal] is told one level down. This success story emphasizes the role of the inner mind—the unconscious realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings….
“…we are not primarily the products of our conscious thinking. We are primarily the products of thinking that happens below the level of awareness.”
“The research being done today reminds us of the relative importance of emotion over pure reason, social connections over individual choice, character over IQ, emergent, organic systems over linear, mechanistic ones, and the idea that we have multiple selves over the idea that we have a single self.”
The book deals with such intriguing topics as:
- Modern dating and courtship
- Today’s marriages and what makes them succeed—or not
- The scientific versus popular views of child development
- Cultural trends such as global-warming awareness assemblies in high schools
- The scientific foundations of violence
- The kind of decision-making that leads to success versus mediocrity and failure
- A veritable manual for success in college
- The powerful leadership techniques of priming, anchoring, framing, limerance, fractals, metis and multiparadigm teams, among others (it is worth reading the book just for this)
- How to “ace” job interviews
- The new phases of life progression
- Effectively starting a new business—the steps, techniques, values and needed character traits
- Leadership in the modern corporation
- How to win a revolution by only making a call for small reforms
- The effectiveness of a talent for oversimplification
- The supreme power of a life’s viewpoint
The Social Animal struck a personal note with me because it brilliantly describes the true process of great mentoring that more of our teachers need to adopt and that I wrote about with Tiffany Earl in our book The Student Whisperer. I have seldom seen truly great teaching described better.
This book is primarily about success—specifically success in our complex modern world—but at a deeper level it is about happiness. Brooks writes:
We still have admissions committees that judge people by IQ measures and not by practical literacy. We still have academic fields that often treat human beings as rational utility-maximizing individuals. Modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of the hard skills, while failing to develop the moral and emotional faculties down below. Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops. Yet by far the most important decisions they will make are about whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise, and how to control impulses. On these matters, they are almost entirely on their own. We are good at talking about material incentives, but bad about talking about emotions and intuitions. We are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say.
The book, like any true “classic” (and I am convinced this will be one), is deep and broad. It includes such gems as:
- “The food at their lunch was terrible, but the meal was wonderous.”
- “For example, six-month-old babies can spot the different facial features of different monkeys, even though, to adults, they all look the same.”
- In his high school, “…life was dominated by a universal struggle for admiration.”
- “The students divided into the inevitable cliques, and each clique had its own individual pattern of behavior.”
- “Fear of exclusion was his primary source of anxiety.”
- “Erica decided that in these neighborhoods you could never show weakness. You could never back down or compromise.”
- “In middle class country, children were raised to go to college. In poverty country they were not.”
- Jim Collins “…found that many of the best CEOs were not flamboyant visionaries. They were humble, self-effacing, diligent, and resolute souls who found one thing they were really good at and did it over and over again. They did not spend a lot of time on internal motivational campaigns. They demanded discipline and efficiency.”
- “Then a quiet voice could be heard from the other end of the table. ‘Leave her alone.’ It was her mother. The picnic table went silent.”
- “Erica resolved that she would always try to stand at the junction between two mental spaces. In organizations, she would try to stand at the junction of two departments, or fill in the gaps between departments.”
- “School asks students to be good at a range of subjects, but life asks people to find one passion that they will do forever.”
- “His missions had been clearly marked: get good grades, make the starting team, make adults happy. Ms. Taylor had introduced a new wrinkle into his life—a love of big ideas.”
- “…if Steve Jobs had come out with an iWife, they would have been married on launch day.”
- “Epistemological modesty is the knowledge of how little we know and can know.”
There are so many more gems of wisdom. For example, Brooks notes that in current culture there is a new phase of life. Most of today’s parents and grandparents grew up in a world with four life phases, including “childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age.” Today’s young will experience at least six phases, Brooks suggests: childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement, and old age.
While many parents expect their 18- and 19-year-old children to go directly from adolescence to the adult life of leaving home and pursuing their own independent life and a marriage relationship, their children are surprising (and confusing) them by embracing their odyssey years: living at home, then wandering, then back home for a time, taking a long time to “play around” with their education before getting serious about preparing for a career, and in general enjoying their youthful freedom. Most parents are convinced they’re kids are wasting their lives when in fact this is the new normal.
The odyssey years actually make a lot of sense. The young “…want the security and stability adulthood brings, but they don’t want to settle into a daily grind. They don’t want to limit their spontaneity or put limits on their dreams.” Parents can support this slower pace with two thoughts: 1) the kids usually turn out better because they don’t force themselves to grow up too fast like earlier generations did, and 2) the parents get to enjoy a similar kind of relaxed state in the “active retirement phase.”
Most odysseys pursue life in what Brooks calls The Group—a small team of friends who help each other through this transition. Members of a Group talk a lot, play together, frequently engage entrepreneurial or work ventures with each other, and fill the role of traditional families during this time of transition. Even odysseys who live at home for a time usually spend much of their time with their Group.
This book is full of numerous other ideas, stories, studies, and commentaries. It is the kind of reading that you simply have to mark up with a highlighter on literally every page.
Whether you agree or disagree with the ideas in this book—or, hopefully, both—it is a great read. Not a good read, but a great one. Some social conservatives may dislike certain things such as the language used by some characters or the easy sexuality of some college students, and some liberals may question the realistic way characters refuse to accept every politically-correct viewpoint in society—but both are accurate portrayals of many people in our current culture.
The Social Animal may not remain on the classics list as long as Democracy in America, but it could. At the very least, it is as good a portrayal of modern society as Rousseau’s Emile was in its time. It provides a telling, accurate and profound snapshot of American life at the beginning of the 21st Century. Reading it will help modern Americans know themselves at a much deeper level.
This is a book about many things, including success and happiness as mentioned above. But it is also a classic book on freedom, and on how our society defines freedom in our time. As such, it is an invaluable source to any who care about the future of freedom. Read this book to see where we are, where we are headed, and how we need to change. The Social Animal is required reading for leaders in all sectors and for people from all political persuasions who want to see freedom flourish in the 21st century.
He is the co-author of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, and The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.