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The Life Report

I love David Brooks. For those of you who don’t live in the US, David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times. (He’s apparently a big fan of Norway, judging by this piece.)

Before I get to why I love this guy, I’ll tell you what I don’t like about him.

Deep down, he is a moderate with no political alignment. But because he once worked for William Buckley Jr., he was branded a conservative. As a result, he spends a lot of energy dealing with his brand. He really likes Obama, but when he says something nice about Obama, he sounds like he’s being rebellious. When he’s critical of Obama, he’s overly curt, doing it almost out of obligation to his brand. He defended John McCain when no rational person would find McCain defensible. David Brooks is at his worst when he writes about politics.

I love David Brooks anyway, because of gems like this. I know of no other newspaper columnist who would write something like this. It challenges the reader rather than dishing out red meat or preaching to the choir. David Brooks is at his best when he writes about American culture.

The article is about how people at old age look back at their lives, which is a topic that fascinated me since I came across this article on The Atlantic magazine. He’s asking people over 70 to send brief autobiographies to him:

“a brief report on your life so far, an evaluation of what you did well, of what you did not so well and what you learned along the way. You can write this as a brief essay or divide your life into categories — career, family, faith, community, and self-knowledge — and give yourself a grade in each area.”

Then, he went on to summarize what 70-year-old Yale graduates thought about their lives:

“The most common lament in this collection is from people who worked at the same company all their lives and now realize how boring they must seem. These people passively let their lives happen to them. One man described his long, uneventful career at an insurance company and concluded, “Wish my self-profile was more exciting, but it’s a little late now.”

You don’t need to be over 70 to do this. If you want learn about life, you should read old people’s reports. But if you want to make sure you live well, you should write a life report for yourself every decade: it might prompt you to change course while there’s still time. At 41, I’m going to write my own report for the first time. It seems an appropriate thing to do on an island sabbatical. Maybe you should, too.

  1. Rosa #

    That sounds like a great idea!. I just read the “Happiness project” (kinds of simple but asking you to look/improve several areas of your life). You need to know where you have been to know where you are going.

    November 1, 2011
    • I just had a look at the “Happiness project.” Yes, looks a little too Oprah-esque. You’re opening up a whole other can of worms! Once I came across an scientific paper on happiness — I have to find it. It’s good stuff. The most salient point is that for most people, what they THINK makes them happy don’t really make them happy. We’re all terrible at predicting happiness.

      November 2, 2011
  2. Stuart #

    You mean the David Brooks who thought the Iraq invasion was a good idea because Sadam had WMDS and who defended the decision even after there were no WMDS
    I can remember him on the News Hour saying something like ‘ They (the Bush Admin)
    hasn’t handled it too well but it was still the right decision’
    David Brooks is a bright guy who can talk and write well but that doesn’t make him wise.

    November 1, 2011
    • I don’t think he’s wise. Paul Krugman, for example, is more “right” than Brooks. But what I like about Brooks is that his column frequently gives me something to think about. Krugman is just preaching to a choir boy that is me.

      November 2, 2011
  3. I think there’s a lot of value in this type of self-reflection. Thank you for sharing this idea — it’s something I’m quite intrigued by!

    November 1, 2011
    • Yes, most of us are guilty of not doing this kind of big-picture self-reflection. Thanks for your comment.

      November 2, 2011

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