June 19th, 2020

The Second Mountain by David Books

If you've ever felt like you're living a life that's missing some sort of purpose, outside of enriching yourself financially, then David Brooks has written The Second Mountain for you. Brooks defines the first life of living mostly for yourself and focused on your own individualism and personal desires as the First Mountain1. To Brooks a Second Mountain life is one that's puts the focus of your actions on others and their needs2. Brooks says that Second Mountain people will have a focus on one of the four following areas.

  1. A vocation
  2. Spouse or Family
  3. Philosophy and Faith
  4. A Community

The purpose of his book is to show you how to move to living a Second Mountain life3. Brooks breaks his book up into two main sections. Part one is about how the two different mountains in life happen to us. The second part is all about the four different areas that second mountain individuals will be focused on so you can see what someone living in this way will look like.

Many of Us are Focused on The First Mountain

According to Brooks the big reason that we have a First Mountain focus currently is the moral ecology that we live in4. It is one that subtly guides our talk, dress, and ultimate purpose towards living for our own fulfillment and enrichment instead of thinking about how we can sacrifice to help everyone around us.

The result of this individualist moral ecology is four social crisis that Brooks identifies5.

1. The Loneliness Crisis

We're less likely to belong to a group like a church or civic club, and we're less likely to stay in a relationship for the long term. This means we're more likely to be alone.

2. Distrust

Many of us don't trust that any sacrifice will be returned. Brooks says that the assumption is now that if we make any sacrifice we're simply giving up our small piece of pie and will never see anyone return the sacrifice to us. Leaders Eat Last talked about this change happening in corporate culture as businesses in North America shifted from taking care of employees to viewing them as numbers on a sheet to move around so that budgets could be hit. If you're a number to your job, why would you sacrifice for it instead of getting everything you can out of it?

3. Crisis of Meaning

Brooks sees the current mental health crisis as an outflow of the two issues above. We have no one to turn to when we're struggling and we don't trust people anyway. We've lost trust in institutions like church that may have given meaning and a support group in the past.

4. Tribalism

The final result of the three issues above is tribalism. We retract to a small piece of something that we can call our own and then create in/out groups. We guard every spec of value we can from the out group and attempt to band together to find some meaning with those that we can identify in any way. Then as a group we make villains out of anyone that we don't identify as in our group.

The Four Commitment Areas

If you're ready to move past a life centred on yourself and into on focused on others, then Brooks says that means you'll have a commitment in one of the following four areas.

1 Vocation

Brooks draws a line between a career and a vocation. A career is a simple mental evaluation of what you can do that people will pay for6. A vocation is not about monetary value, it's about serving others and the ways you can enrich the lives of those you touch.

Your work doesn't have to be your vocation. Maybe your work supports you vocation, because not every passion needs to be turned into an income or the main thing that you do.

We think we want ease and comfort, and of course we do from time to time, but there is something inside us that longs for some calling that requires dedication and sacrifice. 7

One thing that stuck out to me was Brooks observation that we spend more time looking at the trivial features of a TV purchase than our careers or vocations8. You may spend weeks or months researching a TV until you've spent your few hundred dollars how you want to spend them, but when a job change comes you grab the ones that come along and keep sliding along in your life.

2. Marriage

The second area that Brooks says may have a strong commitment for Second Mountain people is their marriage. These types of marriages aren't big and flashy, because a strong marriage comes from the little things that happen day in day out to build it stronger.

If you want this type of solid marriage Brooks reminds us that it's very easy to focus on the issues with your partner and ignore the ways that you're not living up to your ideal9. He says that we should focus on our issues instead and the relationship will become stronger as we affect the only behaviour that we have true control over.

3. Philosophy and Faith

The third area that Brooks says may have a strong commitment for Second Mountain people is their Philosophy or Faith. He also takes time to caution us that most religions don't produce many truly good people10. Sure they go on about love, kindness, holiness, but when it comes down to loosing something they resort to tribalism and start defending from the out group.

You only see truly good people when they embody these characteristics with their being. That doesn't have to come from a religious background either. Anyone can live love, selflessness, or kindness.

4. Community

The final section of the book is all about how you can live for a community as you build a Second Mountain life. These are the people you see out there day in day out serving the people that live near them. Getting groceries during COVID-19 for those that can't on their own and don't have any other connections to turn to. These type of people live to help those in their community succeed.

Should You Read The Second Mountain by David Brooks

If you're feeling lost in life, like you're living for no real purpose and without focus then The Second Mountain could help you start on a pathway to finding that purpose outside yourself. I found the sections on marriage and community particularly interesting as they lead to a bunch of other ideas and resources look up because I'm interested in building strong communities and having a strong marriage.

It wasn't until I had looked back through the notes though that I really understood what a Second Mountain life was. Part of this is because his best definition of it comes at the end of the book. Once I had that in hand and looked back at the content I had already covered I saw the point he was driving at. On that point I felt like the book was a bit hand-wavy throughout and that you'd get more from the other resources mentioned, but I haven't read those yet so I can't say for sure.

If you're interested in building a strong life in one of his four areas, I'd certainly recommend reading them and using them as a jumping off point. I'm not sure I can recommend the whole book though.

Purchase The Second Mountain: Independent Bookstore | Amazon


  1. Page 296 

  2. page 296 

  3. Page XVII 

  4. Page 32 - 33 

  5. Page 90 

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  8. Page 144 

  9. Page 222