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.