Every once in a while, I meet a person who radiates joy. These are people who seem to glow with an inner light. They are kind, tranquil, delighted by small pleasures, and grateful for the large ones…they live for others, and not for themselves. They know why they were put on this earth and derive a deep satisfaction from doing what they have been called to do.
Did you read the paragraph above and think, hey, I’d like to be that person? I know I did. It’s how David Brooks begins his latest book The Second Mountain and it describes how we too might reach the same deep-seeded level of contentment and get the most out of our second half of life.
What’s the second mountain? Brooks sees life as being comprised of two different stages or journeys. He refers to them as the first mountain, the place we all start in life, and the second mountain. Let’s start by looking at his take on the first mountain and what it entails:
The goals on the first mountain are the normal goals that our culture endures—to be a success, to be well thought of, to get invited into the right social circles, and to experience personal happiness. It’s all the normal stuff: nice home, nice family, nice vacations, good food, good friends, and so on.
Brooks reminds us that traversing the first mountain can be a difficult journey. Along the way, we may get knocked off course by some real or perceived failure. Our marriage may fall apart, we may lose our job, suffer a blow to our reputation or go broke. We may also grow bitter as we grow older, feeling the world has slighted us in some way, and simply close our eyes to what life has to offer us in our later years.
But for some of us, when our journey is complete on the first mountain, we look at the horizon and see a second mountain. It’s marked by the realization that there is something more important than our personal happiness and own self-interests.
Brooks points out that in our culture we often get caught up in pursuits that feed the ego, like the quest for money, power and fame. But for those who see the second mountain, those things no longer really matter. Instead, in his words, “we want the things that are truly worth wanting.” We come to realize:
“Oh, that first mountain wasn’t my mountain after all. There’s another, bigger mountain out there that is actually my mountain.”
The second mountain is not the opposite of the first mountain and to climb it doesn’t mean you’re rejecting the first mountain. It just means you’ve realized that there’s more to your life than the pursuit of personal success, that there’s actually a “more generous and satisfying phase of life” out there. You trade ambition and independence for kindness and relationships. In Brook’s words:
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. If the first mountain is about moving up, the second mountain is about planting yourself amidst those who need, and walking arm and arm with them.
You make commitments to the well-being of others. You refashion who you are, and do things like performing spontaneous act of kindness, “making generosity part of your daily routine.” That doesn’t mean rejecting things you achieved on the first mountain, but changing your values and philosophy so that your idea of a good life does not stop there.
When we change our focus from ourselves to those outside the self, we elevate our own level of contentment and happiness. In Brook’s lightly edited words:
The people who radiate a permanent joy have given themselves over to lives of deep and loving commitment. What flows from their spirit is mostly gratitude, delight, and kindness.
Brooks concludes that the things we thought were most important—achievement, affirmation, intelligence—are actually less important, and the things we had undervalued—heart and soul—are actually more important.
You stop asking, “what do I want from life?” and start asking, “what can I offer life?”