The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement by David Brooks is one of my favorite books ever, and I believe my favorite essay. I remember while I was reading it how amazed I was by the intelligence of the writing, and the way the book was created. The whole book is like a ballet: it takes a lot of hard work and practice to make it look effortless. And that’s what David Brooks did with The Social Animal. His research work is very strong (his background as a journalist shows) and yet his writing makes it all come together into a fun and easy-to-follow story.
So what is is about?
The book takes us on the journey of “Harold” and “Erica”, two characters Brooks created to be able to explain what we think of as human nature through lifetime: what drives us to act in a certain way, what keeps us from achieving success, what makes us fall in love, and what makes go for one option instead of the other.
Brooks asserts in The Social Animal that even if we like to think that we are in control of our lives, making decisions day after day and acting the way we want to, the truth is far from it. In fact, most of our lives would be guided by our subconscious mind, which Brooks says determines who we are and how we behave. In a very rational world, where we are expected to be in control much of the time, the emotions would be playing a much larger role than we are willing to recognize.
What makes The Social Animal so interesting is how Brooks defends his thesis. Instead of simply reporting about the astronomic research work he did (which included visiting Antonio Damasio’s lab at the University of Southern California, one of the most famous neuro-scientists of this era), the use of fictional characters to describe how much our emotions and our subsconcious influence us throughout life is brilliant. Bringing research back to the field, incorporating the results into a story that makes sense for us is the key I believe for the success of this book. And it makes it much easier to understand what research findings mean when they are applied to real life.
My key learnings
This book is about humbleness. As much as we would like to think we are in control, we are not. Life is much bigger than us, and this is what makes it so precious and wonderful. Brooks’ book is for me all about finding balance, being able to listen to what that inner voice is telling us to do, but also not trying to overthink everything. The more I let go, the more I am amazed by the synchronicity of life, and how easy it is to follow the path that works for you.
Some of my favorite quotes
p. 43 “The Babe acknowledges a self in the Mother’s form years before it can recognize a self in its own.”
Coleridge describes how his own child, then 3 years old, awoke during the night and called out to his mother.
“Touch me, only touch me with your finger”, the boy pleaded.
The child’s mother was astonished.
“Why?” she asked.
“I’m not here”, the boy cried. “Touch me, Mother, so that I may be here.”
p. 148 “Human brains are not so different from the fragments, special-purpose, action-oriented organs of other animals and autonomous robots. But we excel in one crucial respect: we are masters at structuring our physical and social worlds so as to press complex coherent behaviors from these unruly resources. We use intelligence to structure our environment so that we can succeed with less intelligence. Our brains make the world smarter so that we can be dumb in peace!”
p. 155 “ Society is a layering of networks. What connects people isn’t mostly love, it’s trust. Trust reduces friction and lowers transaction costs. Trust creates wealth.”
p. 168 ” Wisdom doesn’t consist of knowing specific facts or processing knowledge of a field. It consists of knowing how to treat knowledge: being confident but not too confident; adventurous but grounded. It is a willingness to confront counterevidence and to have a feel of the vast spaces beyond what’s known.”
p.177 “School asks students to be good at a range of subjects, but life asks people to find one passion they will follow forever.”
The TED talk