David Brooks, a political and cultural columnist for The New York Times, has worked for The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The Atlantic Monthly, National Public Radio and the PBS NewsHour, among other broadcasts and publications. He is also the author of the New York Times bestseller "Bobos in Paradise," and now, "The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement."
Read an excerpt from "The Social Animal" below.
This is the happiest story you've ever read. It's about two people who led wonderfully fulfilling lives. They had engrossing careers, earned the respect of their friends, and made important contributions to their neighborhood, their country, and their world.
And the odd thing was, they weren't born geniuses. They did okay on the SAT and IQ tests and that sort of thing, but they had no extraordinary physical or mental gifts. They were fine-looking, but they weren't beautiful. They played tennis and hiked, but even in high school they weren't star athletes, and nobody would have picked them out at that young age and said they were destined for greatness in any sphere. Yet they achieved this success, and everyone who met them sensed that they lived blessed lives.
How did they do it They possessed what economists call noncognitive skills, which is the catchall category for hidden qualities that can't be easily counted or measured, but which in real life lead to happiness and fulfillment.
First, they had good character. They were energetic, honest, and dependable. They were persistent after setbacks and acknowledged their mistakes. They possessed enough confidence to take risks and enough integrity to live up to their commitments. They tried to recognize their weaknesses, atone for their sins, and control their worst impulses.
Just as important, they had street smarts. They knew how to read people, situations, and ideas. You could put them in front of a crowd, or bury them with a bunch of reports, and they could develop an intuitive feel for the landscape before them -- what could go together and what would never go together, what course would be fruitful and what would never be fruitful. The skills a master seaman has to navigate the oceans, they had to navigate the world.
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 denition of success, having to do with IQ, wealth, prestige, and worldly accomplishments. This story is told one level down. This success story emphasizes the role of the inner mind -- the unconscious realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits, and social norms. This is the realm where character is formed and street smarts grow.