You played by the rules. Kept your head down, went to school, and embarked on a promising career. While others got distracted, you embraced a strong work ethic.
Promotions followed. You and your spouse moved out of that tiny apartment and bought a house. Kids came along, and the rhythms of life changed, but you remained disciplined.
You stuck to a lean diet, exercised regularly, got up early, and made your bed every morning. There were amazing vacations, nice cars, and sound investments for your retirement.
According to the author David Brooks, you’ve made it to the top of your first mountain. The goals that you achieved are the ones American culture endorses: to reach financial success, make your mark, and live happily ever after.
But there’s a problem. You feel all knotted up inside. Unsettled. As the dust jacket on David Brooks’s book The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life states:
“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.”
The second mountain
According to Brooks’s book, 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.”
When we’re still climbing that first mountain of success, we tend to cast a wary eye at commitments. We might be committed to our spouse and kids, but avoid outside commitments. Namely, because they compete with our precious time.
When I was a police chief, I had a busy work schedule. I was hyper-focused on my career and tried to avoid seemingly unnecessary commitments. I joined the local Rotary club, not for philanthropic reasons, but to benefit my career.
I knew being in the Rotary club would benefit my reputation, and provide important community connections. I wasn’t alone. There were business people in my Rotary club who joined for similar, self-centric reasons.
But a funny thing started to happen. Our Rotary club often took on weekend community projects. We assisted elderly residents by installing safety rails in their homes. We volunteered at the City’s annual electronic waste clean up day.
I remember working those “e-waste” cleanups. Local residents drove up to our drop off location. “Hey Chief, how are you doing,” many would say, adding, “Thanks for being here and helping out!”
I was surprised at the sheer number of people I knew. I enjoyed the conversations, learning things about our city and its residents. It felt good to greet familiar faces and catch up on events. I started to see the community as something more than a piece of my professional career. I realized that the community was like an extension of my family.
The community was my people. My tribe. I felt a sort of kinship to them. Looking back, I realize this was a turning point, as I moved from self-centered to other-centered.
As a police chief, I had reached the pinnacle of my law enforcement career. I had a good income, benefits, and professional respect. I reached the top of my first mountain, but those Rotary experiences made me realize that I was dissatisfied with the view.
My second mountain was calling.
The vanity of ambition
According to David Brooks’s book, four commitments define a life of meaning and purpose:
-Commitment to a spouse (and family)
-Commitment to a vocation
-Commitment to a philosophy or faith
-Commitment to a community
When we’re on our first mountain, we may indeed love our spouse and family, but we are still victims of hyperindividualism. The spouse and kids are part of the successful image in our heads. We are still stuck in the vanity of ambition.
There was a time in American culture when communities mattered more. Farmers helped one another out. City neighborhoods were tight-knit, as families came together to watch each other’s kids. People worked in one position or company their whole lives. Everyone went to the same bank. The same butcher.
It’s not like that so much anymore. Society is more mobile, fractured, and consumed with digital life. We’re more connected, yet have more loneliness and existential angst.
David Brooks writes of those old American communities:
“That moral ecology had a lot of virtues. It emphasized humility, reticence and self-effacement. The message was you’re no better than anybody else, but nobody is better than you. It held that self-love-egotism, narcissism- is the root of much evil. If you talked about yourself too much, people would call you conceited, and they would turn up your nose.”
Of course, the old American culture had its failings. There was racism. Housewives were often trapped, unable to pursue careers. The point is, there was less of the hyperindividualism we see today.
A second, timeless, larger self
Visit Instagram and you’ll see endless, vainglorious posts of people flexing in the gym. “Look at me!” they seem to be exclaiming. When we’re on the first mountain of our lives, we are self-centric. It takes time to move from self-centered to other-centered. But eventually, as we reach the top of our first mountain, we experience a stomach level sadness. We feel lost.
We begin to intuit that maybe, just maybe, it’s not all about us. Perhaps life has a deeper meaning than six-pack abs and Facebook likes. Your heart begins to whisper to you. A longing for meaning surfaces in your soul, and as C. S. Lewis writes, we begin to notice:
“The scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
And so we descend into the valley. That confusing, no man’s land between our first mountain and second mountain. As David Brooks notes, the “shallow food” of ambition won’t satisfy this deeper hunger in us. We discover that money, titles, and vacations don’t shape our moral purpose. We need something more meaningful.
This is when we start to look more closely at our vocations, which are different than our careers. Careers are all about marketing your talents and professional skills to make a good living. A vocation is less about your ego and more about a true calling. Perhaps it’s an injustice you want to fight or the deepest expression of your creative self. It’s a holy thing.
This recognition that you are meant for something deeper and more meaningful is best captured in the words of the poet Rilke, who said:
“The knowledge comes to me that I have space within me for a second, timeless, larger self.”
Our transformation happens in the valley, as we begin to find our vocation. We also burrow deeper into the substrate of our souls, finding purpose in religious faith and/or a commitment to a philosophy. Life becomes about serving something greater than ourselves. We become acquainted with the joys of deep commitments and service to an ideal or others.
As David Brooks writes:
“Fulfillment and joy are on the far side of service.”
We discover that commitments and sacrifices to a greater cause or purpose shape our moral foundation. As the theologian Tim Keller notes, real freedom “is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones.”
A cause or purpose outside of ourselves
When I lived in California, I knew a young man named Elliot who created a successful martial arts school after he graduated from high school. My son achieved his black belt at Elliot’s martial arts school.
I used to think that Elliot found his calling. That he was already on his second mountain. He was so passionate about the martial arts, and a gifted instructor. He married a beautiful young woman who was also a martial artist. The world was his oyster. But then, Elliot’s marriage ended. Later, he decided to sell his martial arts school. I was surprised by all of this.
A few years went by and I received a Facebook post from Elliot. He started a GoFundMe campaign to build a skatepark in Mexico for children in a small village. It was obvious from the post that Elliot was passionate about the project.
He knew the people in this small Mexican village and was committed to helping improve their lives. I made my donation with a smile. Elliot had found his calling. He was on his second mountain.
Our lives seem to go best when in service to others or a worthy ideal. A cause or purpose outside of ourselves. When we pursue an ideal, we don’t mind the restrictions and hardships that accompany the journey.
When we’re young, we crave freedom. We don’t want to be tied down or restricted in any way. We are hyper-individualistic. As we move to our second mountain, things change. We understand that sometimes restrictions can lead to greater freedom.
For example, if you want to enjoy the freedom of playing concert level, classical piano, you need to embrace years of practice and study. Such an effort may feel restrictive but will lead to immense creative freedom.
Enrich your moral character
If you want to have a meaningful life, you need to find your second mountain. You need to move from self-centric living to other-centric living. This can be found in deepening your commitment to your spouse and family. Learning to listen much closer, and making their growth and happiness more important than your own.
If you want to have a meaningful life, you need to find your vocation. Your true calling. The thing you love doing deep down in your soul, regardless of whether it makes money. In my case, I retired early from my police career because I could no longer ignore the siren song of my creative being. I knew that writing and creating art would feed my soul and inspire others.
Yes, we have to make a living. Sometimes our true vocation is not something that earns an income. Thus, we learn to become pragmatic jugglers. We find a job or career to make money, and craft our schedule to make time for our vocation. In this way, we continue to grow and start climbing our second mountain.
If you want to have a meaningful life, committing to a healthy philosophy or faith helps. It’s about believing in and pursuing something greater than yourself. Whether it’s a religion, ideal, or humanitarian purpose, such a commitment can enrich your moral character.
Some people join a political cause, which is fine, so long as the ideal is worthy. However, once politics becomes your ethnic and moral identity (David Brooks warns), it becomes impossible to compromise, because compromise becomes dishonor.
As David Brooks goes on to note:
“These days, partisanship for many people is not about which party has the better policies. It’s a conflict between the saved and the damned. People often use partisan identity to fill the void left when their other attachments wither away- ethnic, neighboorhood, religious, communal, and familial.”
Lastly, if you want to have a meaningful life, rediscover the benefits of committing to a community. Perhaps it’s the community in your small town. Serving on your city council, or in the local soup kitchen.
For a loner like me, I strive to serve my online community of readers and collectors of my artwork. I commit to producing the best writing and artwork I can, to educate, entertain, and hopefully enrich the lives of others.
My work involves a lot of reading, research, and artistic trial and error. It can sometimes be exhausting but is also deeply fulfilling. Especially when I hear from readers who tell me how much my work helped them, or collectors who say my paintings uplift them.
The view is spectacular
There’s nothing wrong with financial and career success. It’s not a sin to work out and improve your appearance. A lot of us strive for such things on our first mountain. But when you start hearing those internal whispers from within your soul, listen.
When the view from atop the first mountain loses its luster, pay attention. Your second mountain is calling, and let me tell you, the view from the second mountain is spectacular.
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint, and write about life. Get my free, weekly newsletter here for the latest artwork and essays.