A Few Thoughts on David Brooks’ New book, The Second Mountain

I just finished reading David Brooks’ The Second Mountain on my Kindle and took lots of notes, fist-pumping “Yes! Yes!” along the way because his themes are so relevant to the work we do at Life Reinspired.

In his book, Brooks describes the First Mountain as a uphill push of empire-building and score-keeping, wherein accomplishments expand our egos and sense of self. At some juncture—often triggered by a major life event such as retirement, a death in the family, divorce, cancer, selling your company, or even the leaden ennui of “Is this all there is?”—we  break open and turn our hearts and efforts toward relationships and service with and for the people and causes we care about most. And the change of focus from ego expansion to loving and serving others enables us to transcend the self and shrink ego concerns down to size. This is the Second Mountain.

I find this concept fascinating and relevant for several reasons. First, there can be a substantial loss of identity and prestige associated with a major life dislocation such as retiring or divorcing. When we choose to give ourselves to people we love and what matters most, though, we are infused with a sense of belonging. We find where we nestle into the human firmament when we have everything to give and nothing to prove.

Second, I love Brooks’s distinction between happiness and joy. Happiness, he posits, happens when a personal desire is fulfilled—be it funding a dream vacation or scoring accolades for our achievements. Happiness is wonderful, to be sure. But joy is even better, and it emerges when desire is turned outward for others.

“Happiness is something you pursue,” says Brooks, “while joy is something that rises up unexpectedly and sweeps over you. Happiness comes from accomplishments; joy comes from offering gifts.”

Sometime it takes most of a lifetime to begin ascending that second mountain of joyful generosity and service. And sometimes it starts decades earlier. My oldest son and his wife, Sheff and Deirdre Otis, have nine children—four of them adopted—and provide emergency foster parenting to numerous children in dangerous situations, often involving drug abuse and/or domestic violence. Often these kids arrive at Sheff and Dierdre’s home wearing nothing but a diaper, and Dierdre’s latest project is to raise money to provide resources—clothing, diapers, car seats, etc.—for those fostering kids in need. Sheff and Dierdre get lots of recognition for their generosity, but that’s not why they are generous. They give themselves to the care and feeding of the world’s little ones because it matters greatly.

Giving love breeds abundant love. Generosity breeds abundant generosity of spirit. That’s joy we’re talking about, joy that transcends self.

Freedom is overrated. The Marlboro Man is a lonely dude and so is that solitary dragon-slayer on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. Accomplishments and achievements matter, yes, but it is commitments to people, community, and cause that expand the heart and soul and constitute a life fully lived.

Caroline Hall is Co-Founder of Life Reinspired, a reset lab for successful Baby Boomers contemplating a meaningful next chapter of life. She is President of MAC Advisors, an executive coaching and leadership development company. She’s also senior faculty for the Coaches Training Institute.