Cover image for The second mountain : the quest for a moral life / by David Brooks.
The second mountain : the quest for a moral life / by David Brooks.
Title Variants:
2nd mountain

Quest for a moral life

First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [2019]

Physical Description:
xxxiii, 346 pages ; 25 cm
"Everybody tells you to live for a cause larger than yourself, but how exactly do you do it? The bestselling author of The Road to Character explores what it takes to lead a meaningful life in a self-centered world." -- From summary.


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
302 BRO Book Adult General Collection

On Order



#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER * Everybody tells you to live for a cause larger than yourself, but how exactly do you do it? The author of The Road to Character explores what it takes to lead a meaningful life in a self-centered world.

Every so often, you meet people who radiate joy--who seem to know why they were put on this earth, who glow with a kind of inner light. Life, for these people, has often followed what we might think of as a two-mountain shape. They get out of school, they start a career, and they begin climbing the mountain they thought they were meant to climb. Their goals on this first mountain are the ones our culture endorses: to be a success, to make your mark, to experience personal happiness. But when they get to the top of that mountain, something happens. They look around and find the view . . . unsatisfying. They realize: This wasn't my mountain after all. There's another, bigger mountain out there that is actually my mountain.

And so they embark on a new journey. On the second mountain, life moves from self-centered to other-centered. They want the things that are truly worth wanting, not the things other people tell them to want. They embrace a life of interdependence, not independence. They surrender to a life of commitment.

In The Second Mountain, David Brooks explores the four commitments that define a life of meaning and purpose: to a spouse and family, to a vocation, to a philosophy or faith, and to a community. Our personal fulfillment depends on how well we choose and execute these commitments. Brooks looks at a range of people who have lived joyous, committed lives, and who have embraced the necessity and beauty of dependence. He gathers their wisdom on how to choose a partner, how to pick a vocation, how to live out a philosophy, and how we can begin to integrate our commitments into one overriding purpose.

In short, this book is meant to help us all lead more meaningful lives. But it's also a provocative social commentary. We live in a society, Brooks argues, that celebrates freedom, that tells us to be true to ourselves, at the expense of surrendering to a cause, rooting ourselves in a neighborhood, binding ourselves to others by social solidarity and love. We have taken individualism to the extreme--and in the process we have torn the social fabric in a thousand different ways. The path to repair is through making deeper commitments. In The Second Mountain, Brooks shows what can happen when we put commitment-making at the center of our lives.

Author Notes

David Brooks is one of the nation's leading writers and commentators. He is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times and appears regularly on PBS NewsHour and Meet the Press . He is the bestselling author of The Road to Character; The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement; Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There; and On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this ardent follow-up to The Road to Character, New York Times columnist Brooks explores his thinking about factors that form a moral life. He confesses that he wishes to "in part compensate for the limitations of" his previous book, as he no longer believes that character formation is based entirely on individual achievements. Instead, Brooks now professes that one builds character by giving oneself away to a community-or to a cause out of love-a premise that manifests itself in his theory of "the two mountains." For Brooks, the summit of the first mountain is traditional success based on one's achievements. Along the way, one can expect failure or setbacks. Through the ensuing stage of suffering (the valley), one gets the strength and life experience to commit to climbing the second mountain, where Brooks believes true joy can be found. Enjoying one's work, getting married, studying philosophy or religion, and establishing community helps to form the path between the mountains, Brooks writes. As he teases apart his metaphor, Brooks relates his own experiences: a newfound love after divorce and a religious awakening that has brought him to the cusp of Christianity from Judaism. While some readers will find his revelations obvious, Brooks's melding of personal responsibility with respect for community will have broad appeal. (Apr.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

THE EGO, a necessary construction, can also become a burden. In its unrelenting focus on power, achievement and sensual gratification, it breeds a culture, both inner and outer, of oppression, insecurity, addiction and loneliness. Enough is never enough. There is always someone richer, more accomplished and more successful than you are. Spiritual traditions across the world have offered counsel. The happiness that comes from accumulation is fleeting, they remind us. There is another kind of happiness, let's call it joy, that comes from helping others. David Brooks has a feel for the serenity such a passion can bring. He dubs it the second mountain. While self-satisfaction is the first mountain's primary goal, gratitude, delight and kindness spring from a life devoted to service. "In the cherry blossom's shade," a Japanese haiku reminds us, "there's no such thing as a stranger." Surrender of self awakens love and connection. Brooks is an unlikely avatar of interdependence. A prominent journalist and columnist at The New York Times, he is, by his own description, a workaholic and insecure overachiever. Part memoir and part manifesto, "The Second Mountain" is a chronicle of his gradual climb toward faith. In a sparkling and powerful introduction, Brooks equates the shortcomings of Western culture with his own failings as a husband. "My first mountain was an insanely lucky one," he writes. "I achieved far more professional success than I ever expected to. But that climb turned me into a certain sort of person: aloof, invulnerable and uncommunicative, at least when it came to my private life. I sidestepped the responsibilities of relationship." Brooks does not mince words here. The rampant individualism of our ego-obsessed culture is a prison, he declares, a catastrophe. First mountain people are divided, alienated and insufficient. They suffer from "a rot" in their "moral and cultural foundations" that is mirrored by "the rot we see in our politics." Second mountain people, having given themselves away, lead lives of deep commitment. For them, happiness is good but joy is better. "Happiness comes from accomplishments; joy comes from offering gifts. Happiness fades; we get used to the things that used to make us happy. Joy doesn't fade. To live with joy is to live with wonder, gratitude and hope. People who are on the second mountain have been transformed. They are deeply committed. The outpouring of love has become a steady force." This is beautiful stuff. In admitting to his failure as a husband, Brooks tantalizes with a promise to chronicle his own unsteady recovery. In this, he only partially delivers. As soon as he alludes to the problems in his marriage he offers a disclaimer. "My ex-wife and I have an agreement that we don't talk about our marriage and divorce in public," he writes. In what was initially a mea culpa, he offers the barest of apologies. "I prioritize time over people, productivity over relationship." But something severe must have happened to throw Brooks into the dark night of his soul. In 2013, his marriage of 27 years dissolved. He moved into an apartment. He missed his children, was lonely, ashamed and adrift. To set himself right, "having failed at commitment," he decided to write about people who "do commitments well." He does this with a feel for those who, rather than succumbing to their own personal traumas, turn toward helping others and, in so doing, renew the lost sense of community that afflicts an America whose churches, neighborhoods, mores and cultural institutions are all in decline. What follows reads, unfortunately, like one long commencement address. Inspirational quotes from the likes of C.S. Lewis, Alain de Botton, Viktor Frankl, David Foster Wallace, Carl Jung, E.O. Wilson, William James and Abraham Lincoln recur while we hear about people who courageously send their children to public school and invite their neighbors over for dinner. Brooks believes in the ground-up remaking of community rather than in topdown government-inspired reform. He faults the culture's freewheeling encouragement of rampant individualism for most of society's ills and puts this blame squarely on "free-to-be-you-and-me" liberalism. His argument, inspiring in his introduction, quickly becomes repetitive and tendentious. He has a penchant for lists (the four commitments, the 10 personality traits of a suitable marriage partner, the six layers of desire), for italicized Greek and Hebrew words (chessed: Hebrew for loving kindness) and for the kinds of stories politicians often cite in proclaiming what they take to be the enduring goodness of their version of real Americans. Through all of this we wonder, what about his own journey to faith? What really happened to get him there? Will his agreement with his ex-wife stop him from showing his face? FINALLY, TOWARD THE END of the book, Brooks's "aha!" moment is revealed. Hiking in Aspen in the throes of remorse over his failed marriage, he pauses to read a Puritan prayer. It speaks to him of the redemptive power of suffering, of grace and repentance, and he senses "the presence of the sacred in the realities of the everyday." Something opens in him, such that he begins to notice a connection with his research assistant, a woman 23 years his junior. "Anne and I had worked together for three years, and I valued her work tremendously but barely noticed her as a person," Brooks assures us. "I was an inept and absent colleague." But after his epiphany, things begin to quicken between them. She resists and, for three years, moves away, but Brooks persists. In the spring of 2017 they are married. While his first wife had converted to Judaism and kept their home kosher, in this marriage Brooks hints of his own conversion to Christianity. He appears to still be wrestling with it. "Do I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ?" he asks. "The simple, brutally honest answer is, 'It comes and goes.'" This is the only time that this master of certainty expresses any doubt. His book would be immensely more powerful with more of it. Nor is there any of the self-deprecating humor we might expect from someone who has climbed the second mountain. Brooks does remember a lunch with the Dalai Lama. "He didn't say anything particularly illuminating or profound," Brooks makes a point of telling us, "but every once in a while he just burst out laughing for no apparent reason." Brooks was touched by the Dalai Lama's infectious joy but does not return the favor. Despite lots of illuminating and profound quotes and stories, he never makes us smile. In trying to crack the hard shell of his ego, Brooks yearns to wake up his heart and soul. He looks to writing as his vehicle. He buys a Fitbit to keep an eye on himself. It keeps telling him he is sleeping between 8 and 11 in the morning when he is, in fact, writing this book. He takes this as a positive message, that he is relaxed and in the flow, but maybe the Fitbit was trying to tell him something. The Lord works in mysterious ways after all. Brooks ties the shortcomings of Western culture to his own failings as a husband. MARK EPSTEIN is a psychiatrist in New York City. His latest book is "Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself."



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. These people are not perfect. They get exhausted and stressed. They make errors in judgment. But they live for others, and not for themselves. They've made unshakable commitments to family, a cause, a community, or a faith. They know why they were put on this earth and derive a deep satisfaction from doing what they have been called to do. Life isn't easy for these people. They've taken on the burdens of others. But they have a serenity about them, a settled resolve. They are interested in you, make you feel cherished and known, and take delight in your good. When you meet these people, you realize that joy is not just a feeling, it can be an outlook. There are temporary highs we all get after we win some victory, and then there is also this other kind of permanent joy that animates people who are not obsessed with themselves but have given themselves away. I often find that their life has what I think of as a two-mountain shape. They got out of school, began their career or started a family, and identified the mountain they thought they were meant to climb: I'm going to be a cop, a doctor, an entrepreneur, what have you. On the first mountain, we all have to perform certain life tasks: establish an identity, separate from our parents, cultivate our talents, build a secure ego, and try to make a mark in the world. People climbing that first mountain spend a lot of time thinking about reputation management. They are always keeping score. How do I measure up? Where do I rank? As the psychologist James Hollis puts it, at that stage we have a tendency to think, I am what the world says I am. The goals on that first mountain are the normal goals that our culture endorses--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. Then something happens. Some people get to the top of that first mountain, taste success, and find it . . . unsatisfying. "Is this all there is?" they wonder. They sense there must be a deeper journey they can take. Other people get knocked off that mountain by some failure. Something happens to their career, their family, or their reputation. Suddenly life doesn't look like a steady ascent up the mountain of success; it has a different and more disappointing shape. For still others, something unexpected happens that knocks them crossways: the death of a child, a cancer scare, a struggle with addiction, some life-altering tragedy that was not part of the original plan. Whatever the cause, these people are no longer on the mountain. They are down in the valley of bewilderment or suffering. This can happen at any age, by the way, from eight to eighty-five and beyond. It's never too early or too late to get knocked off your first mountain. These seasons of suffering have a way of exposing the deepest parts of ourselves and reminding us that we're not the people we thought we were. People in the valley have been broken open. They have been reminded that they are not just the parts of themselves that they put on display. There is another layer to them they have been neglecting, a substrate where the dark wounds, and most powerful yearnings live. Some shrivel in the face of this kind of suffering. They seem to get more afraid and more resentful. They shrink away from their inner depths in fear. Their lives become smaller and lonelier. We all know old people who nurse eternal grievances. They don't get the respect they deserve. They live their lives as an endless tantrum about some wrong done to them long ago. But for others, this valley is the making of them. The season of suffering interrupts the superficial flow of everyday life. They see deeper into themselves and realize that down in the substrate, flowing from all the tender places, there is a fundamental ability to care, a yearning to transcend the self and care for others. And when they have encountered this yearning, they are ready to become a whole person. They see familiar things with new eyes. They are finally able to love their neighbor as themselves, not as a slogan but a practical reality. Their life is defined by how they react to their moment of greatest adversity. The people who are made larger by suffering go on to stage two small rebellions. First, they rebel against their ego ideal. When they were on their first mountain, their ego had some vision of what it was shooting for--some vision of prominence, pleasure, and success. Down in the valley they lose interest in their ego ideal. Of course afterward they still feel and sometimes succumb to their selfish desires. But, overall, they realize the desires of the ego are never going to satisfy the deep regions they have discovered in themselves. They realize, as Henri Nouwen put it, that they are much better than their ego ideal. Second, they rebel against the mainstream culture. All their lives they've been taking economics classes or living in a culture that teaches that human beings pursue self-interest--money, power, fame. But suddenly they are not interested in what other people tell them to want. They want to want the things that are truly worth wanting. They elevate their desires. The world tells them to be a good consumer, but they want to be the one consumed--by a moral cause. The world tells them to want independence, but they want interdependence--to be enmeshed in a web of warm relationships. The world tells them to want individual freedom, but they want intimacy, responsibility, and commitment. The world wants them to climb the ladder and pursue success, but they want to be a person for others. The magazines on the magazine rack want them to ask "What can I do to make myself happy?" but they glimpse something bigger than personal happiness. The people who have been made larger by suffering are brave enough to let parts of their old self die. Down in the valley, their motivations changed. They've gone from self-centered to other-centered. At this point, people 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. To climb it doesn't mean rejecting the first mountain. It's the journey after it. It's the more generous and satisfying phase of life. Some people radically alter their lives when this happens. They give up their law practices and move to Tibet. They quit their jobs as consultants and become teachers in inner-city schools. Others stay in their basic fields but spend their time differently. I have a friend who built a successful business in the Central Valley of California. She still has her business but spends most of her time building preschools and health centers for the people who work in her company. She is on her second mountain. Still others stay in their same jobs and their same marriages, but are transformed. It's not about self anymore; it's about a summons. If they are principals, their joy is in seeing their teachers shine. If they work in a company, they no longer see themselves as managers but as mentors; their energies are devoted to helping others get better. They want their organizations to be thick places, where people find purpose, and not thin places, where people come just to draw a salary. In their book Practical Wisdom , psychologist Barry Schwartz and political scientist Kenneth Sharpe tell a story about a hospital janitor named Luke. In the hospital where Luke worked, there was a young man who'd gotten into a fight and was now in a coma, and he wasn't coming out. Every day, his father sat by his side in silent vigil, and had done so for six months. One day, Luke came in and cleaned the young man's room. His father wasn't there; he was out getting a smoke. Later that day, Luke ran into the father in the hallway. The father snapped at Luke and accused him of not cleaning his son's room. The first-mountain response is to see your job as cleaning rooms. "I did clean your son's room," you would snap back. "It was just that you were out smoking." The second-mountain response is to see your job as serving patients and their families. It is to meet their needs at a time of crisis. That response says, This man needs comfort. Clean the room again. And that's what Luke did. As he told an interviewer later, "I cleaned it so that he could see me cleaning it. . . . I can understand how he could be. It was like six months that his son was there. He'd been a little frustrated, and I cleaned it again. But I wasn't angry with him. I guess I could understand." Excerpted from The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life by David Brooks All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. xi
Part I The Two Mountains
1 Moral Ecologiesp. 3
2 The Instagram Lifep. 14
3 The Insecure Overachieverp. 21
4 The Valleyp. 26
5 The Wildernessp. 38
6 Heart and Soulp. 44
7 The Committed Lifep. 52
8 The Second Mountainp. 60
The Four Commitments
Part II Vocation
9 What Vocation Looks Likep. 87
10 The Annunciation Momentp. 94
11 What Mentors Dop. 100
12 Vampire Problemsp. 106
13 Masteryp. 123
Part III Marriage
14 The Maximum Marriagep. 137
15 The Stages of Intimacy Ip. 147
16 The Stages of intimacy IIp. 154
17 The Marriage Decisionp. 165
18 Marriage: The School You Build Togetherp. 174
Part IV Philosophy and Faith
19 Intellectual Commitmentsp. 189
20 Religious Commitmentp. 202
21 A Most Unexpected Turn of Eventsp. 211
22 Ramps and Wallsp. 253
Part V Community
23 The Stages of Community Building Ip. 265
24 The Stages of Community Building IIp. 281
25 Conclusion: The Relationalist Manifestop. 296
Acknowledgmentsp. 313
Notesp. 317
Indexp. 329