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This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Second Mountain" by David Brooks. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Are you an individualist or a relationalist? What commitments have you made in life? What approach do you take to each one?

David Brooks contends that the Western individualist worldview breeds selfishness and deprives your life of greater meaning. Consequently, he argues that you should embrace relationalism—the worldview that prioritizes selflessness and service to others—to lead a deeply fulfilling life.

Continue reading for a comprehensive overview of David Brooks’s The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life.

Overview of David Brooks’s The Second Mountain

Western culture is steeped in individualism, the worldview that encourages you to pursue individual happiness and prizes personal freedom as the highest societal good. But, according to cultural commentator David Brooks, this individualist worldview breeds selfishness and deprives your life of greater meaning. Consequently, he argues that you should embrace relationalism—the worldview that prioritizes selflessness and service to others—to lead a deeply fulfilling life.

David Brooks’s The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, published in 2019, details his own experiences to explain why the relationalist approach to life is more satisfying than its individualist counterpart. Along the way, he outlines the four commitments that are crucial to relationalism—your vocation, marriage, community, and belief system—and provides actionable steps to making these commitments. In so doing, Brooks aims to provide guidance for leading a meaningful, selfless life. 

As the author of the New York Times bestseller The Road to Character, which emphasized cultivating virtue rather than worldly success, Brooks continues to refine his views on the good life in The Second Mountain. Yet, while The Road to Character focuses on self-sufficiency, The Second Mountain instead emphasizes the importance of dedicating yourself to others to find fulfillment.

We’ll first introduce Brooks’s distinction between individualism and relationalism while explaining his reasons for preferring relationalism. Then, we’ll proceed to the concrete commitments that define the relationalist approach to life. We’ll discuss why Brooks finds it important to commit to a vocation, spouse, community, and belief system, as well as how Brooks recommends making these commitments.

Two Approaches to Life: Individualism and Relationalism

To begin, we’ll dive deeper into the distinction between Brooks’s two mountains—which we’ll refer to as two approaches to life.

The Individualist Approach to Life

According to Brooks, the dominant approach to life in Western culture is individualist: It emphasizes the value of the individual, divorced from community, and views self-expression as life’s primary goal. Brooks argues that despite its prominence, the individualist approach leaves us unfulfilled since it doesn’t satisfy our longing to serve others.

Brooks explains that individualism arose as a rebellion against the community-first worldview that was dominant in the wake of two world wars and the Great Depression. Though the individualist view is multifaceted, Brooks lists several assumptions essential to it:

  • The ideal society secures the most freedom for its members.
  • Communities that aren’t chosen voluntarily—like one’s family and country—are less important because we didn’t freely choose them.
  • Worldly accomplishment is the primary gauge of success because our relationships with others aren’t as important.
  • We have to decide our values for ourselves, as we shouldn’t blindly accept the values of our community.

As these assumptions illustrate, the individualist approach claims to offer unfettered freedom—to choose our own beliefs, to focus on ourselves, and to live as we please. However, Brooks argues that the freedom that individualism prizes leads to deep dissatisfaction.

He explains that individualism’s freedom prompts young adults to take one of two paths. First, some adults dedicate themselves to worldly success—they focus on their careers, seeking prestigious jobs and promotions to find purpose. Such individuals, Brooks claims, are plagued by insecurity, as no amount of success feels like enough.

When the path of success proves unfulfilling, some people turn to the second path: They pursue exhilarating experiences, such as traveling to exotic destinations, hoping these experiences will satisfy them.

However, Brooks asserts that neither of these paths leaves us fulfilled, as they lack a greater purpose. But, according to Brooks, this dissatisfaction is valuable since it exposes the vanity of our ego—the identity that we convey to the world. In turn, Brooks claims that we become aware of our deeper yearnings—to form deep relationships and serve others well. So, the failure of individualism points us toward relationalism, which we’ll discuss in the next section.

The Relationalist Approach to Life

In light of individualism’s shortcomings, Brooks recommends an alternative approach: relationalism. While individualism values personal freedom and independence, relationalism values commitment and service. Consequently, Brooks argues that the relationalist approach provides meaning and fulfillment by satisfying our deep-seated desire for loving relationships.

First, Brooks clarifies that the relationalist approach is centered around commitment. In short, he defines commitment as a promise made out of love to something or someone, without expecting something in return. Moreover, Brooks clarifies that committing to something requires shifting your behavior to serve it, even if love wavers.

Although we’ll discuss the specific nature of these commitments in the following sections, Brooks claims that at a broader level, our commitments change us in four ways:

  • They mold our identity, as they become the center of our lives.
  • They give us a sense of purpose, as they tether us to a larger goal.
  • They give us genuine freedom, as they free us to fulfill our deepest desires.
  • They help us cultivate virtue, as they teach us to become self-sacrificial rather than self-centered.

So, individuals that abandon the individualist approach in favor of its relationalist counterpart find themselves transformed by their commitments—they cast off their egos, and embrace a lifestyle that’s other-centered rather than self-centered.

To fully embrace the relationalist approach, Brooks argues that we must make four specific commitments: to a vocation, a spouse, a community, and a belief system.

Commitment 1: Your Vocation

We’ll discuss Brooks’s distinction between a vocation and a career before proceeding to his strategies for finding your vocation.

What Is a Vocation?

According to Brooks, establishing your career is a key goal of individualism; you evaluate your talents, refine them through education, and choose the job that delivers the best return on investment. By contrast, a vocation isn’t found through a cost-benefit analysis. Rather, Brooks argues that vocations are found in response to an injustice that demands your attention.

Brooks observes that careers satisfy the desires of the ego. When you have a successful career, you enjoy financial well-being and the respect of your peers. So, it’s unsurprising that the individualist approach to life emphasizes career success.

Vocations, however, are different. Because they involve righting an injustice, vocations often involve serving those less fortunate than yourself. Consequently, they rarely deliver the prestige that careers do.

Given the diminished material benefits, it’s natural to ask why you should prefer a vocation to a career. According to Brooks, the answer is simple: Vocations are central to your identity, so choosing a career over a vocation would amount to forsaking your identity.

Since vocations are oriented around serving others, Brooks concludes that they’re a key part of the relationalist approach to life. While careers satisfy the superficial desires that individualism highlights, he claims that vocations satisfy the deeper desire to dedicate yourself to a righteous cause.

How to Find Your Vocation

If vocations provide the fulfillment that Brooks suggests, then it’s crucial to find yours. To do so, Brooks claims you have to find a cause that you care about so deeply that it provides a constant source of energy. According to Brooks, this obsession will point you toward your vocation.

First, however, Brooks considers an alternative process—the so-called rational approach—that involves weighing costs and benefits to decide which vocation to adopt.

Though the rational approach is intuitive, Brooks argues that it can’t help you find your vocation. After all, this approach only works if you can grasp your decision’s consequences ahead of time. But, because vocations transform you as a person, you can only grasp the consequences of choosing a vocation after the fact.

So, in lieu of a cost-benefit analysis, Brooks appeals to the Greek notion of a daemon. Put simply, a daemon is an enduring obsession that drives you. Your daemon, Brooks writes, reveals your deepest desire—the desire that provides lasting motivation. Consequently, your daemon guides you to your vocation.

Yet, Brooks observes that individualist culture numbs this obsession since it conflicts with your ego’s desires.

In turn, Brook provides several strategies for discovering your daemon. These include:

  • Say yes to as many opportunities as possible—the more opportunities you embrace, the more likely you are to find something you’re passionate about.
  • Surround yourself with people whom you admire—these people often kindle a burning desire to be like them.
  • Reflect on the issues that burden your conscience—these issues can point you toward a daemon waiting to be found.

Brooks claims that, by embracing these strategies, you’ll be more likely to discover your obsession—and, in turn, your vocation.

Commitment 2: Your Marriage

In this section, we’ll first examine Brooks’s distinction between the individualist and the relationalist conception of marriage. Next, we’ll cover his criteria for deciding whether to marry someone, followed by his arguments about the benefits of a relationalist marriage.

Individualist vs. Relationalist Views of Marriage

According to Brooks, individualism and relationalism endorse markedly different approaches to marriage. However, Brooks argues that only the relationalist approach to marriage satisfies our yearning for a deep connection with another person.

To begin, Brooks claims that individualism’s emphasis on personal growth bleeds into its approach to marriage—it treats marriage as a pact between two independent people, whose primary goal is to help their spouse reach self-actualization. In this respect, individualism views marriage as a mutually beneficial contract in which each party helps the other grow. 

However, Brooks argues that the individualist conception of marriage will inevitably disappoint you because marriage repeatedly undermines your personal needs. You won’t be able to concentrate on the personal growth that individualism exalts, leaving your expectations unmet.

By contrast, Brooks writes that relationalism endorses a more substantial view of marriage. In the relationalist approach, marriage is seen as a covenant that fuses two people together, creating a new unit altogether. Thus, relationalist marriage requires us to forsake our independence, placing the needs of this unit over our individual needs. 

This form of marriage, Brooks argues, requires total commitment: You fight tirelessly for your spouse, and they fight tirelessly for you. In turn, although you sacrifice the independence that individualism celebrates, you experience the deepest intimacy possible with another person. Since we all crave this intimacy, according to Brooks, the relationalist approach to marriage ultimately proves more satisfying than the individualist approach.

How to Decide Whether to Marry Someone

On a more practical level, Brooks claims that, before committing to marry someone, you should spend time reflecting on your decision. In particular, he argues that you should evaluate your partner along psychological, emotional, and ethical lines before marrying them.

You should do so, he writes, because rapturous love alone doesn’t guarantee the success of a marriage. On the contrary, Brooks observes that many married couples initially experience such love, only to eventually get divorced. So, it makes sense to rationally assess your partner to mitigate the risk of the marriage eventually failing.

First, Brooks argues that you should assess your partner’s personality to look for any underlying red flags; since personality traits are mostly stable for adults, any red flags are unlikely to disappear after marriage.

Though Brooks considers various personality traits, he specifically addresses attachment style—the way that you deal with commitment in relationships. People with anxious attachment styles, who constantly fear abandonment in relationships, have higher divorce rates, while those with secure attachment styles, who feel stable in relationships, have lower divorce rates. So, Brooks implies we should generally prefer to marry those with secure attachment styles.

Next, Brooks argues that you should carefully evaluate the nature of your feelings toward your partner. To do so, he distinguishes between three types of love: romantic love, friendship, and selfless charity. According to Brooks, all three forms of love are necessary to sustain a marriage.

Finally, Brooks concludes that it’s crucial to marry someone whose character you admire. Specifically, he argues that admiration of your partner will carry you through difficult times, like when your love feels stagnant. Moreover, because marriage is a promise, you should marry someone with integrity—someone who keeps their promises, rather than breaking them at the first sign of hardship.

How to Have a Successful Marriage

Brooks argues that if you do commit to marrying someone, you must grow in three areas to enjoy a thriving marriage: You must become more empathetic; you must learn to communicate more effectively; and you must practice recommitting to your spouse.

First, Brooks observes that all marriages occasionally go through periods of tension, in which both parties believe their needs aren’t being met. In unhappy marriages, these periods lead to reciprocal blame, with neither party accepting responsibility for their role in the strife. 

To have a successful marriage, however, you’ll have to learn empathy through these tense periods. You’ll learn to step back and understand your role in the conflict. This helps you avoid perpetuating cycles of frustration that cause marriages to deteriorate.

In a similar vein, Brooks argues that healthy marriages require learning how best to communicate with your spouse. To show as much, Brooks cites John and Julie Gottman’s research on communication within relationships. As Brooks relates, the Gottmans found that successful marriages require at least five conversational attempts for connection—what they call “toward bids”—for every one attempt to squash connection—what they call “against bids.” So, more generally, Brooks concludes that spouses must learn to communicate lovingly with each other.

Finally, Brooks argues that a happy marriage requires learning how to recommit to your spouse. According to Brooks, recommitment is necessary during two crises that most marriages experience. First, when you have children, you’ll be tempted to focus on the simple, rapturous love that you have for your children and downplay your more complex relationship with your spouse. And second, when you reach middle age, you’ll be tempted to blame your spouse for the general feeling of dissatisfaction and loneliness that many people experience.

Brooks claims that to weather these crises, you must buckle down and practice acts of commitment once more. Brooks argues that this recommitment creates a second, more permanent love that can’t be shaken.

Commitment 3: Your Community

In this section, we’ll discuss Brooks’s arguments for the importance of building community and some of the steps he offers for doing so.

Committing to Restoring Communities

According to Brooks, the prevailing individualism in Western culture is responsible for the erosion of community. In response, he argues that the relationalist approach to life requires committing to local communities because these communities help serve our neighbors. 

To demonstrate the importance of community, Brooks first discusses the consequences of the individualist belief in self-sufficiency. Specifically, he claims that this belief has led to widespread loneliness, as Westerners are afraid to ask for help from others.

Yet, robust local communities can mitigate this loneliness. In such communities, Brooks claims that rich relationships exist between neighbors, who live selflessly and are devoted to caring for one another. In turn, healthy communities prevent lonely individuals from falling through society’s cracks

Brooks offers various steps that we can take to foster such communities. First, he recommends creating an outlet for gathering the community together. Additionally, he claims you must be vulnerable at these events, sharing your struggles with your neighbors. Because vulnerability is a prerequisite for trust, Brooks argues that these moments of vulnerability are necessary for forming deep communities bound by trust.

Next, Brooks asserts you must convince your fellow community members to adopt a set of principles that ties the community together and sets the foundation for lasting progress. These principles include:

  • The community can solve its own problems since it understands these problems best.
  • The most vulnerable among us—the impoverished, the disabled, the elderly—are most important because we judge communities by the treatment of their lowest members.
  • We should aim for progress over decades, not just months, because the community that we start cultivating now will have an impact far into the future.

Finally, Brooks argues that to solidify the community that’s been formed so far, you need to implement new traditions that define the new community. By creating a feeling of cohesion, these new traditions reinforce the community that’s grown so far.

Commitment 4: Your Belief Systems

In this section, we’ll discuss two categories of ideas that Brooks finds worthy of commitment: intellectual ones and religious ones.

Embracing the Intellectual Life

The intellectual life, according to Brooks, involves the relentless pursuit of truth and moral development. Brooks suggests that we should commit to the intellectual life because it teaches us to pursue the highest desires—like truth, wisdom, and flourishing.

To show as much, Brooks outlines an array of virtues from the intellectual life that he says help elevate our desires. And though he lists more, we’ll focus on three key virtues: open-mindedness, objectivity, and intellectual courage.

First, Brooks observes that the intellectual life requires exposure to the varying moral worldviews that were prominent throughout history—including, for instance, the Greek moral system that prized honor and the Christian moral system that prized humility. In turn, intellectual commitment fosters open-mindedness and the ability to evaluate these varying moral systems.

Next, Brooks claims that intellectual commitment helps us perceive the world more objectively, rather than through the lens of our prejudices and biases. This consequently teaches us humility, as it forces us to recognize the biases that distort our thinking and discard them.

Finally, Brooks asserts that the intellectual life teaches us intellectual courage, the capacity for seeking out what is true rather than merely what is popular. Although this won’t satisfy the ego’s vain desire for approval and recognition, Brooks implies that it satisfies our deeper desire for truth and knowledge.

Embracing the Religious Life

In addition to intellectual commitment, Brooks discusses religious commitment, arguing that religious commitment is crucial for leading a selfless and fulfilling life

Historically, Brooks notes that religious commitment has been a source of internal peace amidst external hardship. He cites the experience of Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as an example.

Moreover, Brooks claims that religious beliefs provide guidance for leading a morally upstanding life. In short, he argues that religious stories reveal underlying moral truths that show us how we ought to live. He cites the Biblical story of Job as an example.

Christian commitment in particular, Brooks argues, squashes believers’ pride through its emphasis on unearned grace. Specifically, mainstream Protestant theology holds that the good works we perform cannot earn us God’s grace. Rather, God’s grace is given through our faith alone, not earned through our actions.

In his own case, Brooks writes that this doctrine hurt his pride, as he arrogantly believed that his actions were sufficient for securing his salvation. Because he had become proud of his worldly accomplishments, the notion that they weren’t enough was an affront to his identity. In turn, committing to this doctrine forced Brooks to abandon his pride and cultivate humility—in other words, it helped him become more virtuous.

Lastly, Brooks argues that religious faith teaches us the importance of long-term commitment, even when doubt infiltrates our minds. To show as much, Brooks cites the story of Mother Teresa, a Catholic saint who dedicated her life to caring for society’s most vulnerable. Although Mother Teresa was a devout Catholic, she suffered long bouts of doubt in which her faith felt hollow and her connection with God felt severed. Indeed, for 40 years she endured these doubts. 

Yet, although Mother Teresa’s belief wavered, her commitment didn’t: She continued to serve the poor, which she saw as an expression of her faith. And although few of us will reach the commitment of Mother Teresa, Brooks argues that her story carries a general point—religious commitment teaches us to be steadfast, even in the face of doubt.

How to Make Religious Commitment Easier

First, Brooks observes that religions are rife with rituals, such as communal liturgy, taking communion, and bowing in submission. These rituals, he claims, remind us of key truths. By performing rituals consistently, we’re better able to remain committed to our faith.

Next, Brooks argues that prayer fortifies our relationship with God since it brings us into conversation with him. In particular, he claims that prayer helps us overthrow our selfish desires and instead adopt the selfless desire to glorify God. So, he concludes that consistent prayer helps us establish a steadier religious commitment.

Finally, Brooks argues that a community of dedicated believers—those who have embraced a life of faith, serving the marginalized rather than pursuing worldly desires—shows us how to lead the religious life. These people provide the paradigm for religious commitment, and Brooks implies that by imitating them, we can also have such commitment.

David Brooks’s The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life

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  • The negative consequences of the West's focus on individualism
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  • The four commitments that constitute relationalist living

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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