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David Brooks on Six Virtues of the Mind

posted Sep 21, 2014, 3:05 AM by HSD Principal

In this New York Times column, David Brooks suggests a set of “cerebral virtues” important to those involved in knowledge work, and invites us to grade ourselves on them:

Love of learning – It’s important to be “ardently curious” about the world, he says.

Courage – This includes being willing to hold unpopular views, to look at information that doesn’t fit one’s preconceptions, and knowing when to be daring and when to be cautious.

Firmness – “The firm believer can build a steady worldview on solid timbers but still delight in new information,” says Brooks. “Firmness is a quality of mental agility.”

Humility – This is “not letting your own desire for status get in the way of accuracy,” he says. “The humble person fights against vanity and self-importance… Such a person is open to learning from anyone at any stage of life.”

Autonomy – Brooks is looking for the happy mid-point between uncritically glomming onto new ideas and stubbornly resisting them: “Autonomy is the median of knowing when to bow to authority and when not to, when to follow a role model and when not to, when to adhere to tradition and when not to.”

Generosity – “This virtue starts with the willingness to share knowledge and give others credit,” says Brooks. “But it also means hearing others as they would like to be heard, looking for what each person has to teach and not looking to triumphantly pounce upon their errors.”

“[T]hinking well,” Brooks concludes, “means pushing against the grain of our nature – against vanity, against laziness, against the desire for certainty, against the desire to avoid painful truths. Good thinking isn’t just adopting the right technique. It’s a moral enterprise and requires good character, the ability to go against our lesser impulses for the sake of our higher ones.”

“The Mental Virtues” by David Brooks in The New York Times, August 29, 2014,


Excerpt taken from Marshall Memo 551, September 8, 2014