David Brooks

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It is 7:54 on Monday. Evening. Oh, wait. A friend called and needed help getting a message to someone because her internet isn’t working. We discussed a pending trip. Nothing else, I promise. It is now 8:17. Oh—a pleasant call back, 8:52. I really wanted to do this well. It’s an essence only.

My topic for the week is David Brooks’ new book, How to Know People. Last week, I attended a luncheon where he spoke and an evening conversation with him. Before the latter, he was signing books at the Interabang table (small independent bookstore). No one else was there. I’d brought my Amazon-purchased one, and with no shame said, “Will you sell my book?” Yep. There it is. The three people looked at me oddly, and I had to ask why. So, there was that.

The book is worth reading. Beyond that, I found it transformational in some ways. There are a zillion anecdotes and quotations, glimpses into his heart and mind, jokes and quips and allusions. While it could be summarized as “Be a good person, thoughtful and attentive, he offers two paradigms for How to Be and How Not to Be.

One is called Diminisher. This is one explanation: “Diminishers are so into themselves, they make others feel insignificant… If they learn one thing about you, they proceed to make a series of assumptions about who you must be.” Friends once took us to The Mansion, a legendary Dallas restaurant. It has its own Wikipedia page, for goodness’ sake. These people recounted hearing the story of two other couples arriving, looking at the crowd, and remarking, “Oh, nobody’s here.” Using people, not caring about their needs, and not seeing them as anything other than other—these are the marks of a Diminisher.

An Illuminator, on the other hand, has light within and can shine that light on another. That seems like a metaphor within itself, so think of it as having curiosity about people not just for what they’ve done or what they have but for who they are. Brooks has found two words to elucidate: nunchi, a Korean term for the ability to be sensitive to other people’s thoughts and moods. The Germans have herzensbildung, training one’s heart to see the full humanity in another.

There is a bit of a sting to realize sometimes I’ve been the former, not the latter. Listening—really hearing and not waiting to say something myself—needs attention. So does being what he calls a topper, someone who takes the speaker’s story but rather than acknowledge it and learn more adds her own story that is just above it in scope or seriousness or drama. That’s not hearing or seeing at all.

This is an important book, too. I wish there were a workbook. The concepts are important, but perhaps not completely original. If any of us truly lived The Golden Rule, the world would be different. I am humbled enough that you’d think I would catch on better. (At The Mansion, an entire, juicy, purple blackberry rolled down the front of my dress, mocking me all the way.) Brooks includes this which will serve as my conclusion as well: “If our country is going to come back from the inhumanity, and if our families are going to come back from the breakdown, and if our workplaces are going to thrive, we just have to be really good at this skill of seeing others, making them feel valid, respected, heard and understood.” Easier said than done, so let’s do it anyway.

(A link to a lecture from his book on character here.)

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