Book: The Second Mountain

I had a hard time with this book; it showed up in the TED book club mailing months ago, and I went into my reading primed to love the message, which is concise and persuasive... but maybe so persuasive on its own that the book feels like 300 pages of filler.

David Brooks's "The Second Mountain" is about the sense he's developed, later in his life, that our lives play out on a landscape populated by peaks whose summits, we're told, offer peace, happiness, alleviation from the anxiety of modern life. If you get to the top, earn the PhD, become CEO, you can stop.

But then you reach the peak, and you realize that the gnawing discomfort you have with your own life was there because, just maybe, your whole viewpoint of the world as a peak-covered landscape where gladiators fight for zero-sum... what, Strava CRs? is a broken model.

David Brooks has looked at his own life and the lives of other folks he's found who have achieved a deep sense of fulfillment and found that the pattern is the same. These people reached the top, or gave up on the attempt, and set their sights on a second mountain - some objective or life goal not about them, anymore, but characterized by a thick web of connections to other people, and to a life of service.

I almost think of this like a decision to distribute your sense of self out among as many people as you can. By confining your sense of who you are into one body, you end up feeling, predictably, like you're an island, alone in a big empty world. By dedicating yourself to some cause that ignores you completely and can only be fulfilled my making other people fulfilled - by climbing the second mountain - you can cut past a whole tangled mess of self-doubt.

I love that message. But the book, as a vehicle for this message, has a big problem.

The problem is that if you already believe in this idea, or haven't yet made the leap but get the shape of what I've sketched out above, the book doesn't add anything. I didn't find anything in "The Second Mountain" that I could use to persuade, say, myself as a college student, worrying about grades and internships, that I was playing a fool's game.

Brooks has filled the book with examples of people that have found their second mountain, and are happier as a result. But why? If you take it as self-evident that this is a better way to live, why do you need examples?

What I wanted was a kick in the ass that would help me get over the current anxiety I've been feeling about job security, money and finances — anxieties that I intellectually believe are stupid, given my bank account and family situation, but that I emotionally can't quite let go of. I would be financially fine for at least, say, 10 years if I started giving away half of my income. Why am I not doing that?

Maybe my reaction to this book is unfair; I found that the stories in the book were too vague to motivate me to make any change in my own life. Maybe it's a character flaw that I was looking for a manual.

The goal of reading, as Mortimer Adler states in How to Read a Book, is to achieve enlightenment of a sort. With a practical book, if you come to the end of the book and find that you agree with the premises, and that the author's conclusions make sense, that there are no logical errors... well, then you're obligated to do what the author suggests. A practical book is trying to persuade you of something.

I'm persuaded, but I wanted my hand held. I wanted Brooks to give me a guide for how to find the second mountain, and how to just turn back and forget about tagging the first summit. I didn't find it here, and I suspect you won't either... but maybe the fact that I'm so annoyed by this means the book has done its job.

Here's the link to "The Second Mountain", by David Brooks. If you want to hear him speaking about his previous work, especially "The Road to Character", check him out on Sam Harris's podcast.


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