One More Mile on “The Road to Character”

My longtime friend Jay Helman had some additional reflections regarding my most recent post on David Brooks’s The Road to Character that I found worthy of note. So I’m turning the first part of this post over to him before winding up with a few thoughts in response. More of a continuing conversational mode that blogs ideally engender, rather than a straight monologue. So pour a cup of coffee and enjoy!


JAY: I have continued to chew on this post which has led me to the realm of sport and, to a lesser extent, film.

Sport began with me thinking about a widely acknowledged great man with whom I had the honor of working briefly in my life. As an 18- and 19-year-old athlete I had the extraordinary opportunity to be part of Coach John Wooden’s UCLA basketball program. Considered by many the greatest college hoops coach ever, Coach Wooden is also known for inspiring many people off the court with his “Pyramid of Success” and the high standards he set for himself and his charges during their remarkable run of college basketball titles in the ’60s and ’70s.

In the context of some of the observations made by Brooks it strikes me that Wooden was remarkable in his ability to seamlessly weave together his resume traits with his eulogy traits (Adam I and Adam II). In short, Wooden was a great coach at least in part because he taught important life and spiritual lessons while simultaneously being relentlessly insistent on teaching the fundamentals of the game.



His players were encouraged not to think about, or talk about, winning. Given the unparalleled successes the program had winning games and championships, this “no-talk-about-winning” principle seemed foreign to many outside the program.

And yes, Coach Wooden was a humble man who redirected his successes to others, including the great athletes he coached.

People began offering him their place in line, figuring this great man had more important matters awaiting him. He very quietly denied the offers and waited his turn at the back of the line.

A personal recollection of Wooden’s humility comes to mind, and it is one that has had a lasting impact on my life. One afternoon in a crowded bank in Westwood, a line for the tellers stretched to the door. Coach Wooden walked in and the place went quiet. People began offering him their place in line, figuring this great man had more important matters awaiting him. He very quietly denied the offers and waited his turn at the back of the line.

The selflessness reflected in this simple act was consistent with his fundamental character, and it was brought to his teaching and coaching daily. He was, in essence, authentic.

Reflecting on Wooden led to thinking about other great sports figures and the important characteristics of their greatness beyond physical talent. It seems to me that the truly great ones possess the unmistakable quality of making those around them better. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and John Elway come to mind immediately. Something about these men just seemed to raise the level of those who played with them.



It is difficult to know exactly what this is, but one certainly knows it when seeing it; especially because it is a rare gift and so visible in the  result-driven world of sports. My suspicion is that there are elements of service, humility, selflessness, loyalty and charisma involved here.

There is likely also a broad social aptitude allowing them to connect on many levels with an array of people from varied life circumstances. They appear to take great joy and have strong passion for their sport and for competition.

Can some of these characteristics also apply to great actors? After viewing Meryl Streep’s recent film Rickie and the Flash, my fascination for her considerable talents skyrocketed, leading me to learn more about her and continue to grow more curious about her greatness. Her humility comes through as genuine in countless interviews. I suspect she weaves together life values and craft (resume and eulogy), and that she makes others better simply by being who she is and practicing her art.


ANDREW: Two intriguing points strike me here, Jay. One about Coach Wooden’s intense competitiveness while almost forbidding his players to think about winning.

In other words: Process, not product. Focus on the fundamentals, the elements, the execution, the fidelity to being in this moment with all of one’s being, and the product takes care of itself. Practice and drill until everything becomes second nature, until one instinctively knows the “right” thing to do in any given circumstance, and success will happen. (At least to the limits of one’s potential, which is really what the game, any game, including the game of life, is about.)

Therein lies paradox, too: focusing on the product of success detracts from the process of doing things correctly, and the latter is actually your best chance of achieving the former.

Seems to me it’s Wooden and the Buddha, joined at the hip.



Second is the fascinating introduction of an actor into the discussion of character. Brooks focused strictly on writers, military and political leaders (no surprise, I suppose, him being a writer dealing mostly with politics, and politics always involving war…). But that’s a limited sample.

It would have made for a more interesting book, I think, if he would have examined a few more artistic types, but I suspect Brooks, conservative sort that he is, just couldn’t relate to their generally more Bohemian ways and couldn’t manage to weave them into his rubric of what defines character.

But then you raise the specter of an actor, people who not only are and have characters, but inhabit and play different characters in very intense ways as part of their professional lives. Actors themselves often speak of how therapeutic and emotionally expansive it can be trying on and exploring the different masks of character involved in their work.

One can surmise that it teaches them much about human character in general, and no doubt raises important questions about their own. Some of them use it to better integrate their own character, while some have been known to disintegrate, no longer knowing, if they ever did, who they actually are.

The other question: What can we know of their true character, them being the gifted performers that they are? They’re pros; they can dance circles around amateurs who put on airs or try to impress others by being someone they’re really not.

I strongly suspect you’re right about Meryl Streep being a person of deep character who has become even more so by deep immersion in the characters she has played. But then millions of people thought they knew Bill Cosby, too…

What we can marvel at unequivocally, though, is what a gateway acting provides to the depths of human character, in all its conflicts and complexities. Little wonder we love movies as we do. And when we witness high quality acting, we ourselves have the opportunity to delve right into those complexities along with the actor who carries us not so much on her shoulders, but in the depths of her heart.


Only reason to play this is because it’s gorgeous, but that’s reason enough on a Saturday night… (By the way, it’s much more folk than bluegrass.)


If you’re on Facebook, please visit Traversing’s page! It’s a daily 20-second snack, a kind of micro-blog where I steal shamelessly (though I always cite sources) from the wisdom and other musings of the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.

Twitter: @AndrewHidas


Much appreciation to the photographers!

Elizabeth Haslam, for the rotating banner photos at top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Photo of John Wooden quote courtesy of Evelyn Giggles,  some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Reconstructed Harbor Temple in Xanten, Germany by Carole Raddato, Frankfurt, Germany, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:

Mountain lake photo courtesy of Image Catalog, unknown photographer, public domain, see more at:

9 comments to One More Mile on “The Road to Character”

  • Angela  says:

    Who has been my Coach Wooden?

    Have I been that for anyone? In small ways, big ways, just by being me? My best self?

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Great questions, Angela. For myself, I’m not sure I can even presume answers to the last three, though they are worth chewing on, even in the context of being mindful that we do rub off on people. Not just on mentees and associates, but perhaps even more so on our intimates. A great Brooks line here: “When you have deep friendships with good people, you copy and then absorb some of their best traits.”
      I don’t think I’d ever really considered that before, which may simply mean that I’m dense beyond measure, but there it is…

      As for your first question, I’m going to ponder it for a bit, because I’m not sure it’s only one person. Have you yet answered that question for yourself?

  • Angela  says:

    And, did Mr. Brooks possibly read:

    Proverbs 13:20

    Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”

    Put in a more colloquial form
    “If you keep good company you will be good company.”

    Obviously, discerning who is wise and who is foolish is a key step here, quite possibly the work of a lifetime….

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Angela, you’ve managed to nick my intellectual Achilles heel (well, just one of them, truth be told) with that OT reference, though I’m more familiar with Proverbs and a few other choice selections than I am, say, the Book of Samuel 2. I’ve always found it difficult to get past the anthropomorphism and that ever-so-angry Bearded Guy in the Sky smoting his peoples left and right and “choosing” his favorite among them. (Can you imagine?) That said, far wiser minds than I have plumbed the depths of that great book to profound benefit, so it remains on my list for more concentrated exploration—jostling for position among Moby Dick, most of James Joyce, and all of Henry James. Am hoping I live a while longer!

  • Dennis Ahern  says:

    One of my favorite Wooden quotes has long been “Don’t confuse activity with achievement.” A solidly Zen statement and it should be tattooed on the wrist of those of us who are self employed.

    • Jay Helman  says:

      Dennis, truly one of Coach Wooden’s more memorable aphorisms. Another, and one of my favorites: “failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Noted, Dennis! My personal fave: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” I’ve lost track of how many hundreds or thousands of times over the years I’ve recalled and reminded myself of that maxim, allowing me to take a breath amidst some minor panic over being late or otherwise flustered, cutting corners like mad, absolutely in a hurry…

  • Jay Helman  says:

    And more on Meryl Streep: in an interview on “Rickie and the Flash” (a must, must see), Streep is deeply praised and then asked if she could ever teach acting methods. Clearly embarrassed by the praise and astonished by the question, Streep dismissed the praise and quite genuinely offered that she could never teach someone to act. Acknowledging that her answer would sound trite and superficial she went on to say convincingly that she simply becomes the character and is no longer, in a sense, acting. So, as Andrew points out about Wooden and process, Streep becomes so immersed in process that the “product” becomes secondary and, hence, the perfection of it all.

    In the same interview Streep is asked about playing opposite her real-life daughter, Mamie Gumer, playing the role of her troubled on-screen daughter. Asked if she had moments when she confused the two, Streep replied “Oh heavens, no. I was Rickie and she was Rickie’s daughter.” Streep was so genuine in her portrayal of Rickie that all characters in the film, including daughter Mamie, became those characters. This near-transcendent quality of making others better, I believe, is a vital quality of greatness. From film I would also like to add Tom Hanks to the board for consideration.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Interesting anecdote about Streep & daughter’s roles. In a less conscious or more self-dramatizing person, I can see (or hear!) an actor going all gaga over that matter, citing the torment & conflicts & messiness of confusing the movie set with life outside it. But in someone seemingly as conscious as her, acting is the craft, which she approaches with deep devotion, but the boundary lines between it & the rest of her life are clear. I sense the same, yes, with Tom Hanks, just terrific in the current “Bridge of Spies.”

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