Ryan’s notes

The Second Mountain by David Brooks

★★★

After listening to a podcast interview with David Brooks (recommended by my roommate), I picked up his most recent book, The Second Mountain. In the interview, Brooks argues that commitment is the path to meaning. I'd been feeling a deficit of connection in my life so I was hoping this book might, as Brooks claimed in the interview, provide a blueprint for how to choose what to commit to and how to make these commitments well.

I've read David Brooks over the years and a few of his articles have stuck with me, especially The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake by David Brooks. Brooks can hanker for earlier times that I'm unfamiliar with (the 50s?) but I find his critique of modern American society to be dependably insightful, even if he whitewashes some of the past. I also admire how he's publicly changed his mind over the years.

Brooks writes The Second Mountain as he's struggling to put his life back together: he's recently divorced, his kids have moved out, and he's been outcast by a conservative party that now embraces Donald Trump. He writes the book partly for himself ("us writers work our stuff out in public and try to teach what we really need to learn"), but mostly he writes to push forward a new "moral ecology" of commitment that he sees as a necessary response to our overly individualized society.

In the first half of the book, Brooks does an extraordinary job articulating why so many of us end up feeling lost in life; what he describes maps perfectly to my experience and I fully embrace his diagnosis. The second half explains how to choose and make four important commitments, which he sees as the path to purpose. Sadly, I found the back half of the book to be as weak as the first half was strong. Brooks uses examples of extraordinarily committed and sometimes wildly famous people which made it hard for me to relate or see a path forward in my own life. He also abandons the concision and precision of his diagnosis, getting more vague and overly lofty such that his words are almost no guide at all.

Key points

Career and reputation building leave us unfulfilled. The imperfect metaphor of The Second Mountain is this: most of us climb a first mountain, one of career achievement and reputation building. At some point—due to failure, a tragedy, or a general feeling of discontent—we end up in the valley (this can be a mid-life or quarter-life "crisis"). Here, we realize that we need to commit ourselves to things outside of us: to family, community, or a cause. This is the second mountain. I think we're all familiar with a metaphor of this sort, and it may apply more or less well to your life, but let me tell you: I'm living it. I've spent the past decade working, and while I see my work as meaningful, I dedicated myself to it with a primary goal of enlarging myself. I am now in the valley looking up at this second mountain.

To find joy, we must look outside ourselves. Brooks defines happiness as the feeling that follows personal striving and achievement. He defines joy as a feeling of bliss that requires leaving the self behind. While I'm not sure I agree with his definition of happiness, the difference he identifies is the important part. The best feeling in the world is when I forget myself in the presence of something else (nature, beauty, love, care): the awe I feel when contemplating a tree, the bliss I feel being the big or little spoon, the certainty of purpose I feel when helping a friend. The big idea here is that if we want more joy in our lives, we must step outside of the self.

Our "moral ecology" of individualism is in need of evolution. Brooks uses the term "moral ecology" to describe the set of moral principles we collectively embrace and operate by. He argues that the World War ecology of "we're all in this together" cultivated collective institutions like big government, unions, churches, and the manufacturing war machine. At the same time, this moral ecology restricted women and denigrated minorities. Eventually, the movements of the 60s and 70s rejected its stifling conformity and brought about a new moral ecology of "I'm free to be myself." Brooks notes that this individualist ethic liberated those who had been oppressed, pushed forward the ideas that created Silicon Valley, and promoted creativity (and I'll add... good food!). He sees this transformation as both necessary and having gone too far: "I have become radicalized. I now think the rampant individualism of our current culture is a catastrophe. The emphasis on self—individual success, self-fulfillment, individual freedom, self-actualization—is a catastrophe." I look around me and see so many people, especially young people like me, without a clear sense of direction or community, putting forward personal brands and polarized political identities, living aesthetic lives and suffering comparison, all as we're faced with huge collective problems like the climate crisis, and I do feel that we need to reclaim some collective ethic. I grew up being taught basic right from wrong by my parents and what it looks like to be a good husband and father. But I have not lived in a world that reliably demonstrates, or holds in high esteem, what it looks like to be a good citizen, community member, teacher, or public servant. As Brooks notes, the commencement speeches of today tell us: "dream big", "you can do anything you set your mind to", "look inside yourself", and "do what you love", all of which provide minimal direction. David Foster Wallace once lamented, "This is a generation that has an inheritance of absolutely nothing as far as meaningful moral values, and it’s our job to make them up..." And as Brooks summarizes, our modern American expectation is that "your truth is to be found in your own way through your own story that you tell about yourself". I personally feel the mental and emotional strain too much.

Making (the right) commitments is the path to wholehearted living. Brooks references Kierkegaard's idea of an "aesthetic way of life," a life without constraint, full of ease and beauty, that ultimately feels empty. He talks about the difference between "freedom from" and "freedom to"—the idea that freedom is only worth anything if you give it up for something. For instance, if you want the freedom to write, you must chain yourself to a desk and forego other possibilities. I've written about this before in Freedom is choosing (to be less free). It seems right to me that making big commitments is fundamental to a wholehearted life. This is an idea echoed in How to Stop Living in Infinite Browsing Mode, Dedicated by Pete Davis, Willpower Doesn't Work by Benjamin Hardy, and countless other less modern works; the idea that we should dedicate ourselves to things larger than ourselves is one of the oldest cliches. Brooks identifies four major commitments most of us will make: to a partner and family, to a vocation, to a faith or philosophy, and to a community. This framework is as useful as any, though you could choose different categories (for instance, I'm not sure where friends fit in—we'll say community).

There is a good way to make the right commitments. I don't think Brooks explains how to make or keep the right commitments better than anyone else out there. The back half of the book offers plenty of commentary on marriage, the process of community building, the value of mentors, and the importance of on-the-ground experience. It regurgitates some of the best age-old advice for finding the vocation that delights your soul. But none of this has had any staying power for me. I will, however, return to this book in a year or two. Perhaps I'm just not ready.

Takeaways

I'd recommend at least the first half of The Second Mountain to anyone who is feeling empty or disconnected and struggling to understand why. If joy is to be found in being sufficiently committed, it's been useful for me to recognize that I'm minimally committed right now. The four commitments Brooks outlines will force you to take stock of your own life on these dimensions, as I've done here:

  • Partner & family: Until recently, I'd been struggling to date. Earlier this year, I put in a lot of time and energy to find a partner. It was demoralizing at times, but I eventually found someone I'm deeply excited about. Yay! Now, I'm focused on spending quality time, staying curious, being vulnerable, showing up, and turning towards.
  • Philosophy or faith: This may sound odd, but I've only started doing the hard work of identifying what I actually believe. I spent a decade gaming the school system to "succeed," learning little else but how to do this well, and another decade putting my head down and obsessively working to achieve. Now, I'm re-cultivating my intellectual curiosity by reading, reflecting on my life experience through writing, and asking bigger questions about how the world works and my responsibility in it. This will take time.
  • Community: I've built community in large part by hosting. This has been great for creating and maintaining relationships at a certain level. But it's also been a form of reputation building that I'm less interested in now. I'm enjoying more 1:1 time with people, which makes for deeper conversations and moments of vulnerability. Bay Area friendships can feel insecure at times with so many friends unwilling to commit to this place. But I think it's about time I do. One of the things I've fallen in love with over and over again is the nature and public green spaces in the Bay. I want to commit to this more fully, perhaps through volunteer trail, garden, or park work.
  • Vocation: For the better part of the last decade, I've done meaningful work that's part of a larger project. As purposeful as that's been, I've chosen to press pause for now, both to focus on these other commitments and to reevaluate whether software engineering can be a coherent part of my identity, or whether something else might feel more tangibly good to me. I plan to explore a few other more hands-on interests.

Notes & highlights

I have become radicalized. I now think the rampant individualism of our current culture is a catastrophe. The emphasis on self—individual success, self-fulfillment, individual freedom, self-actualization—is a catastrophe.

  • Reminds me of How to Stop Living in Infinite Browsing Mode, Dedicated by Pete Davis, and Inventing on Principle by Bret Victor.
  • Reminds me of resume virtues vs. eulogy virtues :: Virtues :: referenced in Grit by Angela Duckworth
  • The Road to Character is partly about your "core sin" and building yourself up in your weakest places... what is mine?
  • The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake by David Brooks was written a year after this book

...us writers work our stuff out in public and try to teach what we really need to learn... effort to write my way to a better life.

  • Joy vs. happiness

    • Happiness: involves personal striving, moment of contentment; fleeting
    • Joy: requires forgetting the self; nature, romance, friends sitting with each other; eduring; byproduct of commitment
    • Note to self: read "joy" in Consolations by David Whyte
  • References Willpower Doesn't Work by Benjamin Hardy: "A life of ease is not the pathway to growth and happiness. [Its'] how you get stuck and confused in life."

  • "moral ecology" — influences how you define your ultimate purpose

  • Enjoying all the references to others works, some of which I'm familiar with

  • Brooks sees pre civil war, WWI, 1968, and today as moments where existing moral ecology isn't serving us, we've taken a hatchet to it, and we'll need to pivot to something new. This is probably why he's throwing himself into this pursuit of creating a more collective society w/ WEAVE & such. His theory of change is that a small sub-culture creates a new lifestyle that is very attractive to many.

  • Sees ours as a "no harm, no foul" culture in which we feel we can live as long as we're doing no harm to others... no responsibility to others outside the self... something that's been attractive to me but has always felt... wrong? Attractive as an antidote to the Silicon Valley ethos of maximizing your impact by working on big problems.

  • "I'm free to be myself" description seems spot-on to me. But Brooks notes it has done a lot of good in liberating those who had been oppressed (including women), pushing ideas that created Silicon Valley and the information economy into being, creativity (and I'll add... good food!). Sees it as both necessary and in need of editing.

  • "Aesthetic way of life" (Kierkegaard) — possibilities to be experiences and not projects to be carried out. Each day is "fun" but it doesn't add up. This is how I've been putting together my life, often.

  • Commitment involves a thousand nos for a few yeses :: a Steve Jobs line

  • "Liquid modernity" as a term to mean a globalization of capitalism and the information economy

  • "Wholehearted" — a term I first came across in Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

  • We yearn to fuse with the good. Steinbeck, East of Eden "A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well--or ill?"

Listening to life means asking, What have I done well? What have I done poorly? What do I do when I'm not being paid or rewarded? Were there times I put on faces that others wanted me to wear, or I thought other people wanted me to wear?

  • David Foster Wallace: "This is a generation that has an inheritance of absolutely nothing as far as meaningful moral values."

You don't have to be in control. You don't have to impress the world... you've got the skills you earned on the first mountain and the wisdom you earned in the valley... "Preparation has now been made; now is the time for the venture of the work itself."

“When I look back at the past and think of all the time I squandered in error and idleness, lacking the knowledge I needed to live; when I think of how I sinned against my heart and my soul, then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift..." — Fyodor Dostoevsky

  • Thinking about my own reputation building pursuits... even chocolate parties and dinner parties, Strava performances...

  • Life is a "moral and emotional drama"

  • Individualism: you must love yourself before you can love others

    • or: you must see yourself loving others to know you are worthy of love
  • Commitment: "falling in love with something and then putting a structure of behavior around it for those moments when love falters"

  • Commitments give us identity, consistence, and coherence

  • Freedom from vs. freedom to: must chain yourself to something (e.g. place, piano, etc.) to really play

  • Character is not something you build sitting in a room thinking about right and wrong. Character emerges from our commitments.

  • I commit to ___. I can't not ___.

  • Starting to think differently about my Dad and his life. He dedicated himself in a way that was good. He doesn't need hobbies that lead to an aesthetic life but something else to dedicate himself to. His mom and dad are people that practiced eulogy virtues.

  • Relationships are the primary driver of change in peoples' lives.

  • I've fallen in love with...

    • nature in the Bay. Is there a way I can commit myself to it? Volunteer doing trail work, or garden work, or park work?
  • "What is my responsibility here?"

    • Meat eating?
    • Social media?
    • Climate?
    • ...?

In his essay “Schopenhauer as Educator,” Nietzsche wrote that 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.” What have you loved? What has dominated and uplifted your soul? Delighted it?

A lot of what mentors teach us is what excellence looks like. They way to acquire good taste in anything, from pictures to architecture, from literature to character, from wine to cigars, is always the same—be familiar with the best specimens of each. :: Know what good looks like

One of the things good writing mentors do is to teach you to not be afraid to write badly. Get the first draft out, even if it is awful. Your ego is not at stake. :: Writing

  • "Transformational choices" — the choice and subsequent experience will change who you are but in uncertain ways, and you must choose as your current self, estimating how your future self will feel about it all. (marriage, kids, career change, new city, etc.)

The habit of analysis has the tendency to wear away the feelings. — John Stuart Mill

  • What have I talked someone's ear off about? What couldn't I stop being mesmerized by?

If you work in an office... you're probably not going to be thrust face to face with gigantic social problems. [If you get into the world] your soul will burn with a yearning to make things right.

^ Boots on the ground. Where? I've almost always worked from the comfort of my desk!

  • "Educated, healthy people should feel obligated to solve big problems." One model is to find a problem and ask:

    • Is it sufficiently big?
    • Am I uniquely positioned to make this happen?
    • Am I passionate? Does this generate obsessive thinking?

Writing is really about structure... if you don't have the structure right, nothing will happen.

  • "epistemological modesty" — respect the "just prudence" of culture, the traditions that have stood the test of time... best articulation for conservatism I've come across.