March 9, 2011 — -- 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.
We are living in the middle of a revolution in consciousness. Over the past few years, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, anthropologists, and others have made great strides in understanding the building blocks of human flourishing. And a core finding of their work is that 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 unconscious parts of the mind are not primitive vestiges that need to be conquered in order to make wise decisions. They are not dark caverns of repressed sexual urges. Instead, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind -- where most of the decisions and many of the most impressive acts of thinking take place. These submerged processes are the seedbeds of accomplishment.
In his book, 'Strangers to Ourselves,' Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia writes that the human mind can take in 11 million pieces of information at any given moment. The most generous estimate is that people can be consciously aware of forty of these. "Some researchers," Wilson notes, "have gone so far as to suggest that the un-conscious mind does virtually all the work and that conscious will may be an illusion." The conscious mind merely confabulates stories that try to make sense of what the unconscious mind is doing of its own accord.
Wilson and most of the researchers I'll be talking about in this book do not go so far. But they do believe that mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness organize our thinking, shape our judgments, form our characters, and provide us with the skills we need in order to thrive. John Bargh of Yale argues that just as Galileo "removed the earth from its privileged position at the center of the universe," so this intellectual revolution removes the conscious mind from its privileged place at the center of human behavior. This story removes it from the center of everyday life. It points to a deeper way of flourishing and a different definition of success.