The Second Mountain - Critical summary review - David Brooks

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The Second Mountain - critical summary review

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Self Help & Motivation

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 978-0812993264

Publisher: Random House

Critical summary review

Do you feel like something substantial is missing from your life? Are you lost and trying to find the way forward? “The Second Mountain” evaluates the search for meaning in today’s world. Motivated by a personal crisis, author David Brooks wanted to create new meaning in his life. He found that joy and fulfilment can be derived from living a life dedicated to others. So, get ready to discover how to lead a moral and fulfilling life!

Personal success is toxic

You probably know this kind of person: someone who seems to radiate joy, who is self-confident and fulfilled in what they do and who they are. These people know where their life is taking them and what it is that they should do. And you probably wish you could be the same.

Brooks says that many of these people have realized something about life that most others have not: to be truly happy, you should focus on others, rather than on yourself. They have climbed the second mountain.

The author uses the metaphor of two mountains to describe what life is like for most people. At the start, you are focused on yourself, your career, and your identity. You climb the first mountain. But there will inevitably come a time in your life when you fall into a valley of suffering and uncertainty. That is when you realize that all your egocentrism has not fulfilled you, and you begin the journey to the second mountain: toward a life of service to others.

But today’s society shows a worrying tendency towards individualism. Especially in the U.S., the idea of the American dream has led millions to put their own success and well-being before that of anyone else’s. And this in turn has encouraged a division within the American society. It has sparked an epidemic of loneliness, hate, and mistrust. For example, in the 1940s and 1950s, around 60% of Americans found their neighbors trustworthy. Nowadays, that number has shrunk to 32% - and even less among millennials, where it is only at 18%.

The two mountains

A focus on individualism has also led us to follow a set path towards a stable career. You want the best for yourself, so society tells you to get a good job, and that will make you happy. How do you get a good job? By getting good grades and going to a good college. Brooks describes a common journey of what comes next. 

Once you have graduated from college, you face a problem. For your entire life, you have been surrounded by structures. There was always someone who told you what to do - your parents, your teachers, your professors. There were deadlines, tests, essays - and then suddenly, you are out in the big wide world with nothing to hold on to.

Even though you are free to do whatever you like and the future is full of limitless possibilities, you are still looking for a framework, something to anchor you while you discover what it is that you want. That is how most people end up working for a standard company, pursuing a predictable career. 

And before you know it, you become completely engrossed in your job and the company culture. While it begins to define who you are, you can’t help but notice a nagging feeling that something is missing in your life. Still though, you keep climbing the career ladder. You are on the first mountain. You pursue an individualistic worldview, and your ego is at the center of all your endeavors.

Inevitably, though, there will be a change. Either you reach the summit - the very pinnacle of your career - and realize it doesn’t satisfy you. Or maybe a profound change happens in your life that makes you question everything you knew to be true up to that point. This might be the loss of a loved one, a significant heartbreak, or a severe illness that affects you or someone close to you. And before you know it, you have fallen into the valley of suffering.

Brooks says what happens next is a so-called “telos crisis.” You have no idea where you are going or what your purpose is in life. When you are in the valley, it can be tempting to drown your sorrows in alcohol. But instead, you should accept the fact that suffering is a part of life. Stand tall and wait for it to pass - it will teach you something eventually.

At some point in that valley of suffering, you finally realize that there must be something more to life. You shed your old, egoistic self, and become a new self that is defined by your heart and soul - that is, your inner yearning to be connected to others. You are ready to start climbing the second mountain.

Climbing the second mountain

You probably have heard of the resilience of bamboo plants. There is a story about a man who did not want bamboo growing in his front garden. So, he cut it down and smashed the roots into tiny little pieces, finishing off the tree by pouring poison into the hole. Just to be extra sure, he then filled up the hole with gravel and finally, cemented it over. Two years later, to his astonishment, a tiny green bamboo shoot was pushing up through the cement.

The bamboo was unquenchable. Brooks says we have a similar trait within ourselves - our desire - rooted within our souls and hearts. It is the heart’s desire to be united with someone else. And it is the soul’s desire to create moral worth and moral responsibility. 

Taken together, these desires lead you down the path toward the second mountain - a place of a worldview based on relationships, where you come to see yourself in terms of your usefulness to others. 

The best thing about climbing the second mountain is that you will stop chasing happiness. Instead, you will receive limitless joy. What is the difference, you wonder? While happiness is a great feeling, it only lasts for short periods of time. You get a burst of happiness when you have fulfilled a goal, for example. But when it wanes, you will once again be in pursuit of the next moment that gives you happiness.

Joy, however, is a permanent feeling. Especially the kind of moral joy you derive from helping others. Just take the Dalai Lama as an example. The author once had lunch with him and was startled when the Dalai Lama burst out laughing several times, for no apparent reason. Once you become enmeshed and embedded in a life with others, you will be able to attain the same amount of joyfulness the Dalai Lama enjoys.

A love for others and the world is a good starting point to climb the second mountain, but it won’t sustain you forever - you also need commitment. People who live on the second mountain have made a promise to something or someone without expecting a reward. They see other people and their needs, and have made helping them their life’s mission.

Finding a vocation

One way in which people realize their second mountain is through a vocation. A vocation is much more substantial than a career because it is not solely focused on making money. 

Your vocation is something that resonates deep within you. It demands a response from within your soul. Maybe, for you, it is writing. Or maybe it is protecting the environment. Maybe when you were younger you even had an intuition of what your vocation would be, like George Orwell did, but walked away from it for whatever reason. 

So how do you recognize your vocation? Nietzsche suggests you think about everything that ever inspired love or passion within you, put them all in row before you, and maybe you will discover a pattern that leads to your vocation. 

Even though discovering your vocation frees you from the shackles of uncertainty, the hard part still lies ahead: you need to find a way to follow your calling. Maybe you already have a job. Or maybe you are afraid of making a big change for fear you might end up unemployed and homeless.

Brooks says the best thing you can do is just go for it. Commit to your vocation or your chosen career path. Only then will you achieve true mastery. There will probably be testing periods, and if you are just working to make money, these are usually the times when you would give up. But when you do something that is defined by your passion, you will have the energy to push through and come out of the experience strengthened.

Another aspect of following your true calling is that it will probably involve a lot of deliberate practice. You need to be willing to do the boring things over and over again to reach your goal. You can take inspiration from Benjamin Franklin. To teach himself to write, he would take essays out of “The Spectator,” convert them into poetry, and then put them back into prose. Finally, he compared them to the originals to see how his writing developed. 

By following your vocation, you will also make yourself useful to others. You will do something you are truly passionate about, and this will inspire others as well.

Building a healthy community

Since climbing the second mountain is about being of service to others, it is only natural to commit yourself to community building. For some people, faith and church fulfill this role. 

But if you are not religious, there are many other ways in which you can be of service to the community you live in. You can become a weaver: someone who puts your community back together and heals lives. 

A healthy community is made up of a system of relationships. Neighbors used to be the most important ties within a neighborhood. There used to be an atmosphere of mutual understanding and helpfulness that has all but vanished in current times. People are feeling increasingly lonely and isolated, especially when they live in crowded cities. Brooks says this has led to a sharp rise in suicide rates as well.  

If you want to contribute to community renewal, you should attempt to focus on the neighborhood as a whole, rather than just on the individuals. Find a way to bring the neighborhood together. You could start by organizing a community dinner or barbecue. Or, you could do what Mary Gordon did with her Roots of Empathy project: she trains children at a school in empathy by having a mother and an infant visit once a month. The class gathers around to watch what the child is doing, and they learn to put themselves into the mind of a baby. 

In one class, there was a boy named Darren who had witnessed his mother’s murder when he was four years old, leaving him with no permanent or stable family. After being allowed to hold the baby for a while, he asked, “If nobody has ever loved you, do you think you could still be a good father?”

These moments of combustion are powerful ways to bring a community together. This can also be achieved through storytelling events.

Final Notes

True joy in life comes from being of service to others. If you live a life purely devoted to your own happiness and success, you will always feel that something is missing. But in helping others, you also help yourself: you follow the calling of your heart and soul and make yourself whole again.

The New York Times reviewed “The Second Mountain” as follows: “David Brooks’s gift - as he might put it in his swift, engaging way - is for making obscure but potent social studies research accessible and even startling.”

12min Tip

Ask yourself: what is the purpose of your life? Being of use to yourself or to others? That is how you know whether you are on the first or the second mountain.

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Who wrote the book?

David Brooks is a Canadian-born American author and cultural commentator. He contributes as a film critic to The Washington Times and has worked as a reporter and op-ed editor for The Wall Street Journal, editor at The Weekly Standard, and as a commenta... (Read more)

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