I must confess that when the first sentence in the introduction of a book begins with “this is the happiest story you’ve ever read,” I can’t help but be a bit skeptical. David Brooks, author of The Social Animal: The Hidden Source of Love, Character and Achievement begins his book with such a sentence. Now, I probably would not say that this is the happiest story I’ve ever read, but it is certainly a story that has captured by attention.
According to Brooks there have been a plethora of books written about how people succeed. These books, as Brooks states, focus on a person’s IQ, wealth, prestige and accomplishments. I would add that this is not uncommon in our everyday conversations. “What do you do?” “Where did you go to school?” “Who do you know?” “What have you done?” All these are questions that you and/or I have either asked or have been asked. And depending on the answer, we will either be impressed or unimpressed.
What I find fascinating is Brooks’ argument about what leads to success. He claims that it is not the outside (conscious) but the inner mind (unconscious) that leads to success. “If the study of the conscious mind highlights the importance of reason and analysis, study of the unconscious mind highlights the importance of passions and perception. If the outer mind highlights the power of the individual, the inner mind highlights the power of relationships and the invisible bonds between people. If the outer mind hungers for status, money, and applause, the inner mind hungers for harmony and connection.”
According to Brooks there are two levels of the mind, one unconscious and the other conscious, and he claims that the unconscious is more important than the conscious when it comes to determining what we do. It is in the unconscious mind that, as Brooks states, we hunger for harmony and connection, we long for relationships and human bonding.
In an effort to illustrate his findings, Brooks creates two characters – Harold and Erica. From birth to old age, he describes the lives of Harold and Erica. A critical part of their lives are the connections and relationships that have been present. For better or for worse Harold and Erica are impacted by their families, friends, co-workers, teachers, and strangers. Take for example Erica’s life.
As children we don’t choose the families we are born into, but we are deeply impacted by them. Erica was born to a mother who suffered from bouts of manic depression and a father who was physically absent. Her social status was constantly changing and at times would find herself not far from the poverty line. Yet, there was a fire and a fight in Erica. Where did this fire come from? Perhaps it was from her experiences of carrying her belongings in small plastic bags, saying good-bye to the comforts of the middle class, getting crammed into the spare room of relatives or friends or living in a decrepit empty apartment in some half-abandoned neighborhood. Perhaps these reasons and the decision her friend made to stab and kill a classmate forced Erica to fight and say “no more—I will not put up with this anymore!” It was this fire and fight in Erica that helped her get into the Academy. This was a turning point for her. The second turning point was meeting the Hispanic businesswoman who would have a great impact on Erica.
I wonder what would have happened to Erica if she had not enrolled in the Academy? I wonder how successful Erica would have been if she had not met the Hispanic businesswoman?
This makes me think of my own relationships. How am I different because of the people I have met? Or, how successful am I because of the people I have met? Who are the people that have played a positive and/or negative role in your life? In what way or ways have they impacted you?
According to Brooks we are social animals because we have the social skills that enable us to teach, learn, sympathize, emote, and build cultures, institutions, and the complex mental scaffolding of civilizations. “Our unconscious wants to reach outward and connect. It wants you to achieve communion with work, friend, family, nation and cause. Your unconscious wants to entangle you in the thick web of relations that are the essence of human flourishing. It longs and pushes for love.”
 David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. (New York, NY: Random House, 2012), vii.
 Ibid., ix.
 Ibid., 103.
 Ibid., xiv.
 Ibid., xvi.