Wednesday, August 10, 2011


The subscription-only Publishers Lunch announces that Random House has signed up...

NYT columnist and #1 NYT bestselling author David Brooks' two new books, the first on humility, looking at the gale force wind of self-preoccupation, self-celebration, and self-enhancement that has come to dominate every aspect of our lives, and at how the idea of humility, defined as the opposite of self-preoccupation, and informed by a new and more accurate view of human nature, can open up new and better foundations for community, commitment, and life purpose in a changing world....

No word on what the second book is going to be, but a Brooks book on humility is frightening enough.

A search through his archives suggests that Brooks has been ruminating on humility for a while, and, in typical Brooks fashion, his thinking on the subject can lapse into incoherence. In an April 2010 column, he praised a hypothetical humble CEO (it's David Brooks, so, naturally, being a CEO is what makes you an average person):

Alongside the boardroom lion model of leadership, you can imagine a humble hound model. The humble hound leader thinks less about her mental strengths than about her weaknesses. She knows her performance slips when she has to handle more than one problem at a time, so she turns off her phone and e-mail while making decisions. She knows she has a bias for caution, so she writes a memo advocating the more daring option before writing another advocating the most safe. She knows she is bad at prediction, so she follows Peter Drucker's old advice: After each decision, she writes a memo about what she expects to happen. Nine months later, she'll read it to discover how far off she was.

A little more than a year later, Brooks wrote this in a blog post about humility:

Humility is not modesty either, Tangney argues. The modest person has a moderate view of himself, but may still think about himself all the time. Humility is better seen as the opposite of narcissism. The narcissist has a damaged sense of self and is consequently self-centered a great deal of the time, reacting in defensive ways to ego threat.

Did you follow that? A humble person, according to the blog post, doesn't think about him- or herself all the time, and isn't constantly worrying about "ego threat" ... but a "humble hound" CEO constantly engages in exercises that focus on the self and how the self performs tasks -- which is totally not thinking about oneself and the threat to one's ego all the time! No, seriously it isn't! Both are good, and both are examples of humility!

Elsewhere in Brooks's archives we get this, from 2009, about our loss of national humility:

On Sunday evenings, my local NPR station airs old radio programs. A few weeks ago it broadcast the episode of the show "Command Performance" that aired the day World War II ended. "Command Performance" was a variety show that went out to the troops around the world.

On V-J Day, Frank Sinatra appeared, along with Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Durante, Dinah Shore, Bette Davis, Lionel Barrymore, Cary Grant and many others. But the most striking feature of the show was its tone of self-effacement and humility. The allies had, on that very day, completed one of the noblest military victories in the history of humanity. And yet there was no chest-beating. Nobody was erecting triumphal arches.

"All anybody can do is thank God it's over," Bing Crosby, the show's host, said. "Today our deep down feeling is one of humility," he added....

At that point, Brooks had clearly just bought a humility hammer, so everything looked to him like a humility nail. Now, I've listened to some of this broadcast -- you can listen to it here -- and yes, it's strikingly somber. That reference to "humility" does come up early.

But aren't there other explanations for why the broadcast might be somber -- for instance, the fact that this was a brutal war in which we'd lost 400,000 troops in four years? And possibly there was a sense on the part of the armed forces that triumphalism would be counterproductive in a broadcast going out over open airwaves in countries that had in some cases just been defeated by the U.S. and its allies?

And for that matter, what does a government-sanctioned broadcast tell us about our national level of humility at that time? President Obama's speech after Osama bin Laden was killed was humble, somber, and non-triumphal -- but the spontaneous celebrations in the streets looked like, well, a bit like V-J Day in Times Square or other images of the stateside reaction to the end of the war.

But David Brooks knows that if you have an audience that thinks you're credible and you simply assert a Big Idea at the top of your lungs -- not really a humble thing to do, needless to say, but we'll pass over that -- people will think you're right just because you've asserted it. One of the letters written in response to Brooks's World War II column read as follows:

David Brooks reminds us of something worth thinking about: the "Greatest Generation" would never have called itself "The Greatest Generation."

Yeah, but the aging members of that generation bought the book that called them "the Greatest Generation," didn't they?

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