Finding True Happiness on the Second Mountain

Why real fulfilment comes through commitment and community

Laurence McCahill
The Happy Startup School


Photo by Nathan Getzin at Timberline Lodge, Alptitude USA 2018

Many of us spend our lives on what writer David Brooks calls the first mountain.

“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.”

Happiness here tends to be individual. Some never leave this place.

But it can feel hollow.

This is why for many people something shifts.

Either they taste success and find it unsatisfying, questioning ‘Is this it?’.

Or they get knocked off by a significant life event, whether something that directly affects them – their career, reputation or health – or the death or illness of a loved one.

Some shrivel in the face of this kind of suffering, however for others this ‘valley’ is the making of them.

They are made larger by these experiences and go on to rebel against their old, ego ideal and the mainstream culture they’d previously bought into.

They come to the profound realisation that the first mountain wasn’t their mountain after all, and maybe there’s a bigger mountain out there that’s actually theirs.

One that doesn’t mean rejecting the first chapter of their life, but seeing it as the journey after that that counts – a more generous and satisfying phase of life.

Most of the people I meet are at this point, at the start of a more fulfilling journey. Richer in a different sense.

The prison of self: From me to we

In his book Second Mountain: The quest for a moral life Brooks takes us on a journey from our ego-obsessed, hyper-individualist culture to the second mountaintop characterised by commitment and community.

Here are 10 of my favourite takeaways from the book:

  1. On commitments:
    Our commitments give us our identity. They give us a sense of purpose. And paradoxically allow us to move to a higher level of freedom.
  2. On transformation:
    Programs don’t change lives, relationships do. Real change happens through deepening relationships.
  3. On second mountain people:
    Their desires have been transformed. They have a desire to live in intimate relation with others, to make a difference in the world. They are driven by a desire for belonging and generosity. They exhibit bright sadness and a sober happiness. They are community builders and weavers, sharing an ethos that puts relationship over self.
  4. On judging others:
    They reject the notion that some people have everything in order and others are screw-ups. In their view we are all stumblers. They see the task of life as to “love your crooked neighbour with all your crooked heart”, with the awareness that we are all a by-product of the circumstances we find ourselves in.
  5. On self-help:
    True happiness is not found through an endless inner process of self-excavation but rather an outer process of giving – to making maximal commitments to things we really care about and then serving them in a wholehearted way.
  6. On the meaning of life:
    Don’t ask questions like ‘What do I want from my life?’ or ‘What can I do to make myself happy?’, but rather ‘What is life asking of me? What is my responsibility here?’
  7. On vocation:
    The summons to vocation is a very holy thing, but the messy way it happens in actual lives doesn’t feel holy at all: just confusing and screwed up.
  8. On finding clues:
    The way to discover what you were put on earth for is to go back into your past, list the times you felt most fulfilled, and then see if you can draw a line through them. Let the young soul survey its own life with a view to the following question: ‘What have you truly loved thus far? What has ever uplifted your soul, what has dominated and delighted it at the same time?’ Nietzche
  9. On talent vs interest:
    In choosing a vocation, it’s precisely wrong to say that talent should trump interest. Interest multiplies talent and is in most cases more important than talent. It’s about finding something you care about so much that you’re going to get better at it for the next few decades, something that captures you at their depth of your being.
  10. On your role:
    The world is full of problems, but very few are the problems you are meant to address. It’s not about finding the biggest or most glamorous problem in the world.

“It’s about finding a match between a delicious activity and a social need. It’s the same inward journey we’ve seen before: the plunge inward and then the expansion outward. Find that place in the self that is driven to connect with others. The spot where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger”

📔 Read the book: Second Mountain: The quest for a moral life

🚀 Join others on their second mountain adventure on Vision 20/20 our group coaching program — now enrolling for our March 2024 cohort.



Laurence McCahill
The Happy Startup School

Designer, coach, entrepreneur. Co-founder The Happy Startup School.