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David Brooks - The Second Mountain

The pandemic with its stay-at-home orders and self-isolation has forced people into a world of loneliness. David Brooks, “The Second Mountain, The Quest for a Moral Life”, explores loneliness and describes it as the result of decades of people more self-focused than learning the skills of interdependence. These challenging times have people feeling powerless, stuck, and lonely–increasing interpersonal and external anger. So, the idea of exploring hyper-individualism and relationship at a time when we’re (at least physically) experiencing the former and trying to figure out the later in an entirely new situation is kind of poignant and pretty timely.


David Brooks, “The Second Mountain, The Quest for a Moral Life”, is a compelling book focused on the importance of relationships. The book is filled with a lot of great information, but my goal is to focus on relationships and the impact hyper-individualism has on families, companies, and organizations. “The Second Mountain” is a deeply moving book, and I recommend it.


Brooks writes of his concern about the increase of hyper-individualism over the last fifty years in American society. This increase in individualism does have some benefits as people feel more empowered and are willing to challenge the status quo. But I agree with Brooks that even with the benefits of hyper-individualism we, as a society, have become increasingly isolated. He writes that “thirty-five percent of Americans over forty-five are chronically lonely and only eight percent of Americans report having important conversations with their neighbors in a given year. In 1950, less than 10 percent of households were single-person households, now 30 percent are. The majority of children born to women under thirty are born into single-parent households."



Using mountains and valleys as a metaphor, Brooks says hyper-individualism leads us to the First Mountain. Society bought into the First Mountain, and it begins when we start school. Brooks writes, “When you are a student, life is station to station. There’s always the next assignment, the next test, the next admissions application to structure a student’s schedule and energies. Then from the most structured and supervised childhood in human history, you get spit out after graduation into the least structured young adulthood in human history." The next 5-10 years for many college graduates can be extremely challenging. Brooks says, “the average American has seven jobs throughout their twenties…A third of recent college graduates are unemployed, underemployed, or making less than $30,000 a year at any given moment…Ninety-six percent of eighteen-to twenty-four-year-olds agree with the statement ‘I am very sure that someday I will get to where I want to be in life,’ but these young people are marked by wandering, loneliness, detachment, doubt, underemployment, heartbreaks, and bad bosses, while their parents go slowly insane.”


Youthful people may get discouraged, but they still believe they will achieve the top of the mountain. Their experiences may lead them to have less trust in organizations, and these are today's new employees coming to the workplace with a hyper-individualism attitude. If we fast-forward 5-10-20-30 years, people who have spent their lives focused on getting to the top of the mountain, or who are close to the top, may find the view unsatisfying. They have hit what Brooks calls the valley.


The valley confronts people at any age, offers Brooks. It can happen “from eight to eighty-five and beyond”. It is a time marked by “bewilderment or suffering”. The view on the First Mountain becomes unsatisfying, and people have other reasons for wanting to stop climbing mountain one, the mountain our society endorses. Something happens to “their career, their family, or their reputation." They get off the mountain by “having something unexpected happen that knocks them crossways: the death of a child, a cancer scare, a struggle with addiction, some life-altering tragedy that was not part of the original plan." Some people struggle for the rest of their lives after these traumas and potentially become angry and bitter while others grow and learn from the trauma and start their climb on the Second Mountain.


Brooks calls people on the Second Mountain Weavers. These are individuals who want to do more for humankind. Weavers become more relationship-oriented and “feel that relationships are the drivers for change” and “that social isolation is a core problem that underlies a lot of other social problems”. Brooks began a project called Weave: The Social Fabric Project at the Aspen Institute. His goal is to shine attention on the people who are doing the grassroots work of community building and relationship repair.


Brooks contends folks who become community builders and drivers for change are driven by three layers of desire: emotional, spiritual, and moral. Their goal is “to live a meaningful life in a self-centered world." He shares stories about Weavers that are powerful and emotionally moving and finds them in all walks of life from business and teaching to the arts and the military. But because of his Weave endeavor, Brooks dwells mostly on non-profits, and they were the impetus for his book.


Relationship issues in companies are among the greatest challenges. Just because you are on the First Mountain and don’t like the view, that doesn’t mean you have to quit your job and start a non-profit. Do an honest and personal assessment of your company and whether it matches your personal philosophy when it comes to trust, communication, and ethics. Do you like working there? If not, why not? Look at your role in the organization and ask yourself “Am I doing everything I can so people trust me and like working with me? Or, am I hyper-individualistic? What am I doing to assist other people in making their job easier or more pleasant?”


Weavers feel relationships are the drivers for change. Weavers develop supportive listening skills and begin to embrace the power of discussion. They succeed in their ability to talk with people who challenge them by asking good and sincere questions. Weavers learn strategies in developing trust and expand their skill of humility. The humble business owner is a successful business owner. People of all ages love to work with and for humble people because there are no politics or egos involved; only solving issues. Weavers in any organization realize that everyone is the same, and there are no such words as “charity” or “mentor”. Everyone is equal.


To illustrate his point, Brooks cites a familiar quote from W.H. Auden, “Love your crooked neighbor (co-worker) with all your crooked heart." Organizational Weavers work to improve their trust in co-workers and confront their own cynicism becoming more team-oriented and more committed. This Weaver attitude improves communication in relationships, departments, and organizations.


An example of how the Weaver concept can work in business is the Business Development Guild in Phoenix, AZ, started by Joe McGovern, Sue Sylvester, and many others. The BD Guild offers a foundation where business development, operations, management, and administrative professionals can come together in unison. We believe that when we are aligned, amazing things can happen; better communication, long term client satisfaction, and increased revenue for everyone. Notice the focus on unison (relationships), alignment (trust and commitment), and better communication (community). The website asserts, “Through hosting unique and timely educational programs, producing a certification curriculum, and fostering high-level networking opportunities, the Association offers Business Development and Operational Professionals in the Commercial Built Environment the multiple avenues for professional development." Sue, Joe, and other Business Development people met 6 or 7 years ago and agreed that business developers felt misunderstood by their employers.


They saw a need for people in management and operations to understand what business development means and why business development is important. If you go to their website, you can see their incredible success. They now have Guilds in Southern California and Denver. This is the kind of success David Brooks discussed when writing about the Second Mountain. The Business Developers took a view on the mountain they were climbing and felt it was dark and cloudy. Instead of cynicism and frustration, they started on a Second Mountain with a new vision. The Business Development Guild preaches the power of relationship, increasing trust, developing deeper commitment, improving communication skills with good listening skills, and helping to develop a positive community and organization.


Brooks concludes “The Second Mountain” with his Relationalist Manifesto, 64 points for a healthy society. “There is another vision of a healthy society. It is through relationalism. It is by going deep into ourselves and finding there our illimitable ability to care, and then spreading outward in commitment to others,” he says. “In this manifesto, I try to make the case against hyper-individualism of the current moment, and for relationalism, a better way to live.”



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© 2020 by Sophie Gilbert