by David Brooks (2019 – Penguin Random House)
Two books I’ve read in the last five years offered different perspectives on a central theme that profoundly changed how I view the life course and retirement. The Shift by the late Wayne Dyer and Falling Upward by Richard Rohr both taught me that the agenda for the second half of life is quite different than the first half. What drives and fulfills us in the first half of life is important, but fulfillment in the later phases of life will come from a deeper place and higher aspirations. As Dyer puts it, there’s a shift from pursuing “success to significance”.
David Brooks’ latest book The Second Mountain echoes the same powerful theme. As he describes it:
“If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second mountain is about shedding the ego and losing the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution.”
At some point in our life, the search for personal happiness begins to be less satisfying and the pursuit of greater purpose meaning and “moral joy” become more important. According to Brooks, a sense of purpose stems from making meaningful commitments and those are rooted in community and helping others.
Brooks looks at the theme from a few new angles. He first tells the story from a big-picture perspective around culture and society today and explores community building in some depth. He adds compelling stories of people who are living a “second mountain” life and shares his own experiences, including the dissolution of his marriage and the story of his second marriage.
The two mountains in this book are not sequential. You don’t graduate from one directly to the other. You pass through valleys, the rough patches and challenges that appear throughout life.
Brooks’s personal story and the stories of others he profiles in the book emphasize that most of our personal growth does not come from success. Rather it is forged by persevering through adversity, learning the key lessons and emerging to seek higher ground.
“The second mountain life is a spiritual adventure, but it is lived out very practically day by day.”
Like Richard Rohr’s Falling Upwards, Brooks paints a rich portrait of the spiritual dimension of mid to later life. While I believe that the main message of this book will be valuable to many people, this is not a book that everyone will love. While I have read and enjoyed all of David Brooks’ books, he is the rare political commentator who can aggravate readers on both sides of the political spectrum. While this book is not an overtly political one, he delves into his personal spiritual and religious journey, and some may find him to be polarizing on religion as well. I found his observations to be interesting and relevant, but they may not resonate with all readers.
This is a thought-provoking book that can be valuable in self-reflection about where you are in life and help to clarify your values. It can be alarming to see how deeply ego and “first mountain” values can be rooted. Brooks’ work can illuminate the “push and pull” of tensions faced during transitions and periods of personal growth, like retirement or shifting to a second act career.
This book can help you to reframe periods of adversity, reflect upon them differently and extract valuable lessons for your next chapters.