You went to a good school, graduated into a great job and built yourself a rewarding career.
You’ve earned serious money, status and power.
You’re living the dream and life is good.
But what if it could be exponentially better?
“Most of the time we aim too low,” says David Brooks, New York Times columnist and author of The Second Mountain. “We walk in shoes too small for us. We spend our days shooting for a little burst of approval or some small career victory.
“But there’s a joyful way of being that’s not just a little bit better than the way we are currently living; it’s a quantum leap better. It’s as if we’re all competing to get a little closer to a sunlamp. If we get up and live a different way, we can bathe in real sunshine.”
Brooks says there are two metaphorical mountains for us to climb.
Most of us are in a mad scramble up the first mountain. We’re decked out in “I’m free to be me” athleisure as we pursue happiness and self-love, build our personal brands, manage our reputations, curate our best lives on social media, keep score and take stock of how we measure up.
“The goals on the first mountain are the normal goals that our culture endorses – to be a success, to be well thought of, to get invited to the right social circles, and to experience personal happiness,” says Brooks. “It’s all the normal stuff: nice home, nice family, nice vacations, good food, good friends, and so on.”
Maybe we’ll reach the peak and love the view. But we may suffer existential dread as we wonder if there’s more than this. Or we could get tossed off the mountain after losing our job, good health or reputation.
Fortunately, there’s a second mountain for us to climb. On this mountain, we trade independence for interdependence and swap happiness for joy. Instead of living our best life, we’re dedicated to making life better for others. Choosing one or more commitments to a vocation, spouse or family, a philosophy or faith, and a community is our price of admission to the second mountain.
“A commitment is making a promise to something without expecting a reward,” says Brooks. “Adult life is about making promises to others, being faithful to those promises. The beautiful life is found in the mutual giving of unconditional gifts. When I meet people leading lives of deep commitment, this fact hits me: joy is real.”
On the first mountain, we have careers. On the second mountain, we dedicate ourselves to vocations.
A career is based on what we’re good at while a vocation is built on what we’ve been obsessively interested in for many years.
“In choosing a vocation, it’s precisely wrong to say that talent should trump interest,” says Brooks. “Interest multiples talent and is in most cases more important than talent. The crucial terrain to be explored in any vocation search is the terrain of your heart and soul, your long-term motivation. Knowledge is plentiful; motivation is scarce.”
Still searching for your vocation? Say yes to everything. “Say yes to every opportunity that comes along, because you never know what will lead to what,” says Brooks. “Have a bias toward action. Think of yourself as a fish that is hoping to get caught. Go out there among the fishhooks.”
If you’ve been blown off the first mountain or find yourself underwhelmed by the view, Brooks will help you find the fishhooks and the courage to climb your second mountain.
This review first ran in the Feb. 15 edition of The Hamilton Spectator. I serve as communications manager for McMaster’s Faculty of Science, live in Hamilton and have reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.