The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement

By: David Brooks
Listened to audio version

Many years ago, I read a book called The Flow, by a writer with the unpronounceable (at least for me!) name: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He described the experience some lucky few of us have of reaching a point in our performance of some art, task, job, endeavor, where it becomes essentially effortless, and we are lost in the doing of it - we become simply "now." We aren't commenting on our behavior, watching it, thinking about something else, we are simply dancing or painting or writing or even raking the leaves. We are in the flow.

It was Brooks' confirmation of this state that I found most intriguing about his discussion of how our lives and natures are shaped as humans. He agrees, and cites numerous studies that confirm, that it is possible to achieve this timelessness of "being," though admittedly, it is rare.

Brooks uses a tried-and-true formula for his book: he introduces us to Baby Harold, and we follow this character through his life, ultimately to its conclusion. Though we don't meet her as early, we are also introduced to his eventual wife, Erika, and we learn a great deal about how her character was formed. But for Harold, we are there for every small moment in his growth and development - from his pre-natal days when he began to learn the patterns of his native tongue (babies in utero actually hear people talking, and while they don't understand the words, they do learn the rhythms of the language, and when they cry after birth, scientists have found that they cry in the pattern of the language they heard in the womb), to his early childhood with his quirky interpretations of the mysterious world around him as he tries to sort it out, to his relationships with schoolmates, friends, and finally his wife. 

Erika, on the other hand, we meet as a youngster from a chaotic home - a mixed race child of a bipolar mother. Her formation is clearly informed by this difficult rearing, but an opportunity to attend a Charter School provides the stability that eventually push her toward big life achievements, including fame and wealth.

Brooks is tireless in his research. If there is a major study on human development that he hasn't read, I'd love to find it! He challenges the old standards: grades, IQ scores and the like, and underlines the value of the more flexible and accurate series of "quotients" of human behavior: emotional, artistic, mechanical, and so on that each of us has in varying amounts. 

Most of all, he reaches the conclusion that it is our sociability that most consistently shapes us as humans. As noted in the pre-natal listening, we are formed wanting to, needing to, interact with other humans, and most of our lives are spent either in the pursuit, or the escape, of this interaction. What we learn, how we learn it, and who we become are based on this essential trait. We adapt, we grow, we learn new skills, we marry and form social attachments partly as a result of our raw materials, but largely as a result of how and with whom we interact from birth on. 

If we're lucky, like Erika, the craziness of our home life may be mitigated by an opportunity to attend a structured and rewarding Charter School, where life is predictable and patterned. Or if we're lucky like Harold and have parents who provide a secure and responsive home life, we may not be as driven to achieve in a material sense because we find our feet as social wizards early on. 

Brooks debunks the myth that old age brings mental infirmity, and instead suggests that science is discovering that we simply "rewire" as we age: our brains organize differently over time, and every age has something to bring to the mix. He stresses our ability to reflect on our own behavior, and to a greater rather than lesser extent, change it if we feel we need to. We can, in other words, learn from our mistakes. And we can be damaged by our associations. Does it all add up to your mom's old dictum: choose your friends wisely? Not exactly, but at least according to this book, it can't hurt. 

I have to confess that I am not sure how I would have read this book had I not had it conveniently in the car, so I "read" it in short snatches. It doesn't strike me as the kind of book you'd stay up late into the night, unable to put down. More scholarly than exciting, it's the kind of book meant to be sipped rather than quaffed, and it's too packed with information and references to not require a little mulling time between chapters or sections. 

Interestingly, I had a discussion with a friend just recently about the old Nature-Nurture debate, and while he is still convinced that it's Nature than runs the show, my own thinking - and many of this book's conclusions -  is that it's very hard to draw a line. True, if you're born very short or very tall, this characteristic will have an unalterable impact on certain aspects of your life and development. But a short man who discovers gymnastics may be just as satisfied with his sports life as the high school football hero, or a tall woman who discovers she's fashion model material may more than overcome her gawky awkwardness as a pre-teen. 

As I told my friend, and as this book tends to emphasize, life is a game of catch, not pitch. We pick the balls thrown to us, and we make the best play we can with what comes our way.


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