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Building character in a "big me" society

In "The Road to Character," Brooks argues we have made a wrong turn when it comes to personal morality
NY Times' David Brooks on Hillary Clinton 2016 and new book "The Road to Character" 06:49

In a society that seems to be becoming increasingly self-centered and shallow, what is the road to character?

According to New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks, it's understanding your own weaknesses.

David Brooks on "CBS This Morning" CBS News

"We're raised in a society called the 'big me' society. In 1950, the [Gallup organization] asked high school kids, are you a very important person? Then 12 percent said yes," Brooks said Monday on "CBS This Morning." "Asked again in 2005, 80 percent said, yes, I'm a very important person. We all think we're super important. But the road to character is built by confronting your own weakness. The road to success is taking advantage of your talents."

Our culture wants us to think well of ourselves, Brooks said, and children are told how great they are.

"That's great for your career if you're branding yourself. That's great for social media, if you want a high light 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.

In his new book, "The Road to Character," Brooks profiles some of the world's great leaders and thinkers in an attempt to provide a forum and the vocabulary to discuss "inner life" and virtues.

Dwight Eisenhower, for example, had an "amazing" mom, Brooks said.

"When [Eisenhower] was nine, he wanted to go trick-or-treating. She wouldn't let him. He punched a tree in his front year so bad he rubbed all the skin off his knuckles," Brooks said. "She sent him to his room, he cried, and then she said, 'he who conquereth his own soul is greater than he who taketh a city.' Seven years later, he said it was the most important conversation of his life because he had this weakness. He had overcome it and he became strong in his weakest spot."

Brooks also writes about Frances Perkins, labor activist and the first woman to be appointed in the U.S. cabinet and Dorothy Day, a champion of the poor, among others.

He was inspired to seek out this road to character while observing a group of women tutoring immigrants in Frederick, Maryland.

"They radiated a goodness and a patience and a service," Brooks said. "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."

While he wasn't having any crisis in his life, Brooks sensed a need for something more.

"I spent so much on my life on my career. I hope I was a decent dad, am a decent dad, but we have a moral obligation to get better every day. And no matter how old you are, you could be 80 and you could be done with your career, but there's so much left to do to become better every day," Brooks said.

A practical way to travel on the road to character is by asking yourself about your "core sin," Brooks said.

"How can I confront that every day? You can sit home ... at the end of the day and say, how did I do today? Was I really present for people when they needed me?" Brooks said.

Ultimately, he concludes that it's okay to be flawed.

"It better be, because we all are," Brook said.

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