in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: March 4, 2022

Podcast #518: The Quest for a Moral Life

Do you ever feel like you’re spinning your existential wheels in life? That outwardly, you seem to be doing ok, but inwardly, you feel kind of empty? 

My guest today would say that you’ve got to move on from trekking up life’s first mountain, to begin a journey up its second. His name is David Brooks and he’s the author of The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. In that book, David makes the case that there are two mountains that we climb in life: The first is about the self — getting a college degree, starting a career, buying a home, and making your mark on the world. But at some point, that mountain starts to feel unfulfilling. That’s when we discover there’s a second mountain to ascend — a path of selflessness, relationships, and greater meaning. 

Today on the show, David tells us what he got wrong in his previous book, The Road to Character, and how The Second Mountain expands the vision of the good life. We then discuss why the first mountain of life gets more attention in the West and how the hyper individualism it encourages has led to an increase in loneliness, anxiety, and existential angst. David then walks us through how we shift course from the first mountain of achievement to the second mountain of meaning by making commitments to things outside of ourselves. We then discuss the four commitments he thinks bring us real meaning and significance, and how we can seek and find them.

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Brett McKay: Welcome to another addition to The Art of Manliness Podcast. Do you ever feel like you’re spinning your existential wheels in life? That outwardly you seem to be doing okay, but inwardly you feel kind of empty?

My guest today would say that you’ve got to move on from trekking up life’s first mountain to begin a journey up its second. His name is David Brooks, and he’s the author of The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. In that book, David makes the case that there are two mountains that we climb in life. The first is about the self, getting a college degree, starting your career, buying a home, and making a mark on the world. But at some point, that mountain starts to feel unfulfilling. That’s when we discover there’s a second mountain to ascend, a path of selflessness, relationships, and greater meaning.

Today on the show, David tells us what he got wrong in his previous book, The Road to Character and how The Second Mountain expands his vision of the good life. We then discuss why the first mountain of life gets more attention in the West, and how the hyper-individualism it encourages has led to an increase in loneliness, anxiety, and existential angst. David then walks us through how we shift courses from the first mountain of achievement to the second mountain of meaning by making commitments to things outside of ourselves. We then discuss the four commitments he thinks bring us real meaning and significance, and how we can seek and find them.

After the show is over, check out our show notes at David joins me now by phone.

David Brooks, welcome back to the show.

David Brooks: It’s good to be back with you.

Brett McKay: So last time we had you on was a few years ago to discuss your book The Road to Character. You’ve got a new book out, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. Is this book a continuation of your thoughts that you fleshed out in The Road to Character, or was it something different?

David Brooks: It’s bit of a correcting what went wrong with that, or what are the limitations of that one. So both books are sort of about how do we become better people. When I wrote that, I wrote it about some amazing people we still have a lot to learn from, people like Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall and Samuel Johnson and Dorothy Day. So I don’t renounce that other book, but when I was thinking about how people built their character, I think I was still stuck in an individualistic mindset. So to me, the way you build character is you identify your core sin, like you might have anger if you’re Dwight Eisenhower, and then you work on it every day.

So character building is about inner conflict. I think there’s some bit of character building that’s about that, it’s like you go to the gym, you work up your honesty muscle, your courage muscle. You get stronger at those things. The problem is, I don’t think most of us have the willpower to do that. So the question is how do we really develop the willpower to become better people? I think we do that by falling in love with something.

So for example, when my first kid was born, he didn’t know he had a really low Apgar score, we didn’t know whether he’d live or die that first night. I remember thinking, “Would it be worth it for his mom and I to have a lifetime of grief for him to live just 30 minutes?” If you’d asked me that before he was born, I would have said, “No way, why should two people suffer a lifetime of suffering for 30 minutes for a creature that doesn’t even know he exists?” But after the kid was born, I became aware of a level of commitment and love that I didn’t even imagine existed beforehand.

When you become aware of that level of commitment and love, you want to make promises to the kid. I’ll always be there for him. You start behaving a little less selfishly than you would have before. You might want to go out and play golf, but instead you care for the kid, push him around in the baby carriage. You start doing things for other people. Over time, I think you get a little less selfish.

So now I think character formation is really about keeping up with our commitments. We fall in love with something, we make a promise to it, and then we try to live up to the promises we make. So it’s much more relationship centered and less individualistic.

Brett McKay: Did you have any experiences, or was this just talking with people after you wrote The Road to Character, where you kind of realized that character formation is about relationships and about commitments and not just sort of this Nietzschean will to power ubermensch mission?

David Brooks: Yeah, I mean, you get some stuff in books, but you only get a little. Books name things that you’ve experienced. Somebody once said you can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but you can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom. You’ve sort of got to go through stuff.

I went through a period just at the time I was finishing Road to Character, but I didn’t really put it in the book, because I couldn’t understand what was happening to me. I just went through a bad period of life. We all go through periods in the valley, and some are not our fault, like a couple years ago my mother died and that was a bad period in the valley, but some are my fault. In 2013, I went through one that was at least partially my fault. My marriage had ended and my kids were going away to college. I had lost a lot of the friends that I used to have more in the conservative movement.

I realized I had weekday friends, like the kinds I could talk to about work, but I didn’t have that many weekend friends. I had sort of gotten to a place where work and the amount of work that I did had sort of numbed over both the heart, the desire for connection with another, and the soul, the desire of connection to be good. So there had been sort of a moral numbing and a relational numbing. So I was down in the valley for a year or two and learned a few things down there.

Brett McKay: So this idea of, “valley,” this goes back to this metaphor that structures the book. You make the case that life consists of two mountains. What’s the first mountain like? And then let’s talk about the second mountain after that.

David Brooks: The first mountain is the mountain society wants us to climb. You get out of school, and you want to have a good career, you want people to think well of you, and you want to carve out an identity and make a mark on the world. This is what our meritocracy tells us to want. “If I make enough money, if I have a good career, people will think well of me, and I’ll be happy.” I think that’s a lie. I think there’s certain lies embedded in our meritocracy. One is that career success leads to fulfillment. I can guarantee you that’s not true for most people. The second is, “I can make myself happy,” that happiness is an individual achievement if I just lose a few more pounds or get better at golf or something.

But if you talk to people on their deathbed, they say, “I was happiest when I was least self-sufficient, when I was most dependent on others.” That’s a living relationship. Then there are bunch of other lies that, “You’re not a soul to be saved, you’re a set of skills to be maximized.” The most pernicious lie of our culture is that people who have achieved a lot more and are a little smarter are somehow worth more than other people. So you fall for all these lies. They sort of lead you in the wrong direction. They lead you thinking too much about the desires of the ego, which are pretty simple desires, but bad, and not enough about the desires of the heart and the desires of the soul. So down in the valley, you sort of discover your better desires and try to align yourself with them.

Brett McKay: So basically, we have a culture of individualism. How did we get these assumptions in the West that individualism will bring happiness? What was the history of that, the social history of that?

David Brooks: Yeah, well it has always been individualistic, like Tocqueville talked about in the 1830s, but we’ve always had another ethos which balanced that. Sometimes that ethos was religion, which was more about community and more about service to some good. Sometimes it was just bohemianism, that you served art. There were a lot of different things that balanced it.

In the 1950s, we had a real belief in paying together. We had to get through the war, we had to get through, before that, The Great Depression. So there was a culture of, “We’re all in this together.” If you grew up, say, in Chicago, you didn’t say, “I’m from Chicago,” you said, “I’m from 59th and Pulaski,” because it was your little neighborhood that really defined your life. That had some wonderful elements, really strong communities, but it became stifling to people. People thought, “I’m just a soulless cog in this conformist society.” So they rebelled in the ’60s. They said, “I want to be free to be myself.”

Some of that started in the early ’60s and some in the late ’60s through Woodstock, but it was symbolized by a moment very early in my childhood, the first football game I really paid attention to was Super Bowl III. On one side of the field was a guy named Johnny Unitas from the Baltimore Colts. He was like a 1950s guy, very conformist, crew cuts, very unflashy. On the other side of the field, there was a guy named Joe Namath for the New York Jets. He was very flashy, long hair, $5000 fur coats. He wrote a memoir called I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow, Because I Get Better Looking Every Day.

That was the culture of, “Let’s rebel. Let’s be expressive, not reticent. It’s cooler to be young, not old.” So we created a much more individualistic culture, “I’m free to be myself.” That had a right wing version, which was the economic individuals in the 1980s. It had a left wing version, which was the lifestyle individuals of the ’60s and ’70s. But it was all individualism. When you have a culture really built on the self, self-satisfaction, self-sufficiency, self-happiness, you end up weakening the bonds between people, and that’s more or less what we’ve done.

Brett McKay: How is that manifesting itself in our culture today? What are you seeing, the downsides of it?

David Brooks: Yeah, we don’t just have as good connections as we do. So if you ask people … A generation ago, people entertained in their homes on average about 16 times a year, now it’s down to 8. Only 8% of Americans say they have important conversations with their neighbors. If you ask people over 45, 35% of people over 45 say they’re chronically lonely. If you look at the suicide rate, which is really a proxy for loneliness, it’s up 30% in the last 20 years. If you look at the teenage suicide rate, it’s up 70% in the last 8 years. If you ask people, “Do you trust your neighbors?” a generation ago, 60% of Americans said, “My neighbors are basically trustworthy,” now only 32% say that, and 19% are millennials. So we’ve become a much lonelier culture, much more distrustful culture, and a culture that’s much nastier to each other.

Brett McKay: Right, you talk about also in the book the rise of tribalism we’re seeing in our political discourse.

David Brooks: Yeah, tribalism seems like community, because it is a way of bonding with others, but to me, it’s the dark side of community. It’s not based on mutual affection for a town or something, it’s based on mutual hatred of some other. So it’s a scarcity mentality, it’s a zero sum mentality. It’s always about fighting, distrust, and war. That pretty much defines our politics and a lot else.

Brett McKay: Do you think social media and the internet has amplified all of these downsides?

David Brooks: I do. I mean, I think when we’re on social media, we’re not really communicating out of our depths. We’re either on Twitter, which is a lot of people saying, “I’m smarter than you are,” or sometimes on Instagram, which is a lot of people saying, “I’m more fabulous than you are.” It’s just a shallow form of communication. It’s not a deep form of communication. I think if you look at the teenage suicide rate increase, a lot of that has to be tied to the smart phone. It just correlates so perfectly with that. Not only just the actual technology, but the fact that it creates this mentality of, “I’m manipulating you to get a response. I’m competing to get a better response.” So it’s just a shallow form of communication.

I think the good news is I think we are figuring it out. We all know the upside of the social media and the technology, and I think people are now experimenting and trying to find ways so that they can get rid of the downside, limiting the time they spend on their phones or limiting what they do on their phones, or trying to turn the thing off one day a month. I have a friend who gets up and before he looks at any screen, he goes outside and just looks at the sky for a few minutes and has a few thoughts. It’s just a way of getting things in the right order.

Brett McKay: What’s interesting, you probably talk to people, or whenever newspapers interview young people, you can tell there’s this desire for meaning and significance, but then you see how people look for that. It seems like they go about it trying to find meaning and significance using that first mountain response. They don’t actually go to that second mountain, they figure, “Well I can just work really hard to find meaning,” and that doesn’t work.

David Brooks: Right, like it’s a homework assignment, yeah. No, because that’s the language which we’re raised. You know, you start at 15 or 16 and you get put in the college admissions process. So you’re raised in an ethos of, “Well I have to earn it. It’s all about the work, doing my homework, working out.” Then the thing that I think is most treacherous, or at least most treacherous for me, is you get this productivity mindset. So much of our day is taken up by email and stuff like that, so the little clock in your head says, “Onto the next project. Onto the next project.” So you never actually sit down and have time for real relationships, which do take incredible patience and time. I’ve found at my worst, I value productivity over people, which is an illusion.

But I would say among my students, I teach college, they say, “We’re so hungry.” They’re very open that, “We are so hungry for some sort of spiritual nourishment, but we’re not sure we have the vocabulary, we’re not sure we’ve been given the path.” I do think that’s the fault of my generation, frankly. We haven’t passed along how to do the hard things, like have a good character, have good relationships. Often on the most important subjects of life, we really don’t know what to say.

Brett McKay: Well you mentioned the valley that you went through to get onto the second mountain. Does everyone have to go through that valley, like a dark time in their life when they realize that they weren’t necessarily on the wrong mountain, but it’s not all the mountains of life?

David Brooks: Yeah, I don’t think they have to. I know a lot of people, my wife included, who she started on her second mountain … The first mountain is about building up your ego and acquiring things. The second mountain is about contributing things and giving things back. First mountain, you’re just trying to earn a good reputation. The second mountain, you’re just trying to pour forth and you get joy from the happiness you bring to others.

A lot of people are just good somehow just all the way through. They were born in an environment and in a family that emphasized the right values that put relationships before self. They’re the lucky ones to grow up in a nurturing family, a nurturing culture. But I will say, I don’t know anybody in life who hasn’t gone through hard times of one sort or another.

I was with a 94 year old guy not too long ago who said, “You know, when I look back on my life, I realize my whole life is defined by how I reacted to my moments of adversity.” I do think that’s true. When you ask people, “What made you … ” If I asked you, “What was the event that really made you who you are?” Most people point to a moment of struggle and how they reacted to it.

So I would point to two things, and one is good and one is bad. I went a great summer camp from age 5 to age 23 with the same group of people every summer for two months. That was a great relationship, because it surrounded me in friendships I still have today. So that was one thing that made me who I am and gave me a viewpoint. Then the second was this valley I went through in 2013. That was a hard thing to get through.

Brett McKay: Yeah. You give the examples of different valleys people can go through. It could be a divorce, it could be a sickness, it could be a job loss, but it could also be your first mountain in life, everything’s on lockdown, but you just feel that existential angst or that soul sickness that you think there’s something more. Then it knocks you off, and then you find that second mountain.

David Brooks: Yup. There’s a great concept that was popular in the Middle Ages, but we sort of don’t talk about it today even though it’s very common, called acedia, and that’s the loss of desire. Some people, they were just climbing and they were hungry to get to the top, and then somehow they just can’t care anymore, the passion is gone. Then they’re sleepwalking.

I had a friend who was being interviewed for a job and he turned around at the end and asked the interviewer a question. The question was, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” The woman burst out crying, because if she wasn’t afraid, she wouldn’t be doing HR at that company, but she doesn’t know what to do with her life, and so she’s just trudging through a life she doesn’t actually enjoy, that doesn’t arouse her high desires. I think there are people like that and there are people who feel, “I don’t quite know what to do. I’m kind of stuck here.” That’s a version of a valley.

Another valley is everything is going well, but you get hit by something that wasn’t a part of the original plan. You get a cancer scare, you lose a loved one. When you’re suffering over grief or something like that, the desires of the first mountain, the desires of the ego, they just don’t seem that important anymore, and you have trouble mobilizing your whole life around it.

Brett McKay: So you argue the second mountain is all about commitments. It’s the committed life. This goes contrary to what our individual culture tells us will bring us happiness. So how does binding ourself through commitments give life meaning and bring us joy?

David Brooks: The two mountain metaphor is really about two different value systems. One value system is the individualistic one and the second one is the one where we make promises to each other. It’s in my view we’re not going to go back to the 1950s. I defer to their organization, I defer to authority.

We’re not going back to that culture, but we could build a culture around commitment making, that our life is really defined by the commitments we make. So most of us make commitments to several of four things, or maybe all four things. To spouse and family, to a community, to a vocation, and to a philosophy or faith. My argument is that the fulfillment of our lives depends on how well we make and choose those commitments.

So a lot of the book is just asking basic questions, like, “How do you choose your marriage partner? How do you figure out who to marry? Then once you’ve married them, how do you figure out how to behave so you make the marriage a full marriage. How do you choose your vocation? How do you know what job is the right life fulfilling career for you? It seems like that how do you come to faith, how do you find a philosophy, how do you serve your town?” So these are all just very practical questions of how you lead life that’s about a really committed, a really buried life, where you’ve chained yourself down to something you really care about and you dedicate yourself to that thing year after year.

Brett McKay: What’s interesting is you highlight in the book as you commit yourself to something bigger than yourself, you can actually … that’s how you find yourself. I think oftentimes in America we think, “Well I’m going to go off … I’m going to drive in a van, sleep in van. I’m going to find myself that way,” but really, no, it’s submitting yourself to something larger is how you can develop an identity.

David Brooks: Yeah. Everybody says you should serve a cause larger than yourself, that cliché is always around, but nobody tells you exactly how. You’ve got to realize you’ve got to chain yourself down.

So there are two definitions of freedom that are out in the world. One is freedom as absence of restraint, I can do whatever I want. Then freedom as freedom of capacity. To have the freedom to play piano, you have to chain yourself down and practice so you can really play. A lot of your life is determined by what sort of definition of freedom you have unconsciously in your head.

So I’m a writer, so I pay attention to how other writers work. One of the things they do is they tend to have very rigid routines. They get up at nine. I think at least Toni Morrison used to go to a hotel room she kept. In the hotel room, there were only four things. There was a typewriter, a bible, a desk, and a bottle of brandy. She just locked herself in the room and wrote all morning. That commitment to writing seemed like a restraint, and it was a restraint, but it really set her free to do what she was meant to do.

Brett McKay: Well let’s talk about some of the commitments you talk about in the book. The first one is vocation. I think we’ve all heard that word before, but I think we often confuse our careers for vocation. In other words, we call our career our vocation, but our career is not necessarily a vocation.

David Brooks: Yeah, a career is something you look at the skills you have and you look in the marketplace and you say, “Well how can I get the most return on my skills?” So I’m good at math, somebody needs to do accounting, so I’m going to become an accountant. So that’s a career. It doesn’t really involve your heart and soul, necessarily, it’s how you trade your skills for money.

But some people are called … in a vocation, you’re not a choice, you’re called. You find something incredibly beautiful. I read about this guy E.O. Wilson. When he was seven, he was out on the beach. For the first time in his life, he got to see the ocean. He saw jellyfish and animals he had never imagined. He saw stingrays. He was called by the beauty, was entranced by what he found. His whole life has been about becoming a naturalist. Read an interview with a painter. She was asked, “Why did you become a painter?” She said, “I just loved the smell of paint.” My daughter, when she was five, she went into an ice hockey rink. She just felt at home at a rink, and now she teaches hockey out in California.

It’s more a sense that there’s some beauty out there that calls you to do what you were meant to do in your life. It could be accounting. I know a guy, he finds beauty in spreadsheets, just in the mathematical elegance of the numbers bring in the right place. But it’s not really a choice, it’s more submitting to something outside of you that just seems entrancingly beautiful.

Brett McKay: Your calling might not necessarily be the way you make your living. You might have a day job, but then in the afternoon or the evening, you work on your calling.

David Brooks: Yeah. There’s a great quote in the book that says, “Sometimes I’ve been paid for my work and sometimes I haven’t been paid for my work, but I’m always doing my work.” I think that’s a nice distinction. I know some people who are just great at hospitality. Sometimes they might do that as a job in the hotel business, but oftentimes they do it by organizing barbecues. I have a friend that says that she’s an aggressive friend. She’s aggressively friendly. That means in the friend group, she’s the one organizing everything, she’s the one putting together the giving circle or putting together the regular dinners that people to have. She just gets great pleasure from cooking and hosting people. You can do that as a career, or you can do that just for fun, but it’s still your vocation. If you ask somebody, “Who are you right down … What’s your identity?” Part of my identity is being a writer. Sometimes I get paid for it, sometimes I don’t, but it’s what I am.

Brett McKay: Right, I guess the way you figure this out is you know it, you feel it. Like E.O. Wilson, you just feel entranced by the animals. Look for that thing, and that’s going to lead you to what your vocation possibly is.

David Brooks: Yeah, Nietzsche said, “Right down the four most beautiful moments of your life, and then see if you can draw a thematic line through them.” That’s how you discover what he called, “The law of your very nature.” Sometimes you get to the point of the double negative. “I can’t not do this. This is who I am. I’m a teacher.”

Often we stumble into the things we do because something happens to us. Sometimes it’s a very bad thing, like we’re in a town … I know a woman, she was a healthcare executive in New Orleans. She got shot in the face by two boys 10 and 11 years old who had to shoot somebody as part of their gang initiation ritual. She remembered … She recovered, and she remembered the look on their face just before they shot her. It was a look of pure terror. She realized they were really terrified, too. They were put in a situation where to be in a gang and have friends, they had to go shoot some random person. She said, “Well I was collateral damage, but they’re the real victims.” So she realized at that moment her calling was to deal with boys and girls who were in gangs. So she quit her job as a health care executive and now works with gang members and works for the city of New Orleans.

Sometimes you’re just called by bad circumstances, but you get to the point where you say, “I can’t not do this, so I’m going to do it.”

Brett McKay: I think you talk about Viktor Frankl asking that question, “What’s my responsibility here? What is life asking me to do right now?”

David Brooks: Yeah. In commencements, we give a lot of garbage advice. One of the piece of garbage advice we give is, “You should ask, ‘What do I want from life?'” That’s too vague a question. You never come up with an answer. The better question Frankl says is, “What is life asking of me?” So what’s the bring problem that my generation or I am called to deal with? What problem am I uniquely suited to deal with?”

I gave a commencement this year and I said, “Listen to me, if you’re graduating from college now, the big problem your generation faces is the social fragmentation, the political division, the lack of connection. Some generations are called to fight wars or battle depressions, but your generation is called to build really strong relationships with one another. That’s a pretty good calling. That’s a pretty good responsibility to have. It’s hard to do, but it’s better than some of the alternatives that earlier generations are [inaudible 00:25:10].

Brett McKay: So the next commitment is marriage. It’s not just marriage, you say we need to commit ourselves to maximum marriage. What do you mean by maximum marriage?

David Brooks: Yeah, there’s a style of marriage that’s prevalent today that sociologist calls, “the minimal marriage, the self-expressive marriage.” That’s two people, we care for each other and we both have our individual projects in life that we’re going to do. We’re going to get married and we’re going to help each other on our individual projects from time to time, but our life is still mostly about the individual projects. I’m not sure marriage can survive that. I think marriage is tough and you have to be all-in.

Tim Keller, a pastor in New York, says, “When you’re in marriage … You get into marriage, you’re about two years in, you realize that the person you married who you felt was completely perfect and completely wonderful, is actually kind of selfish. As you’re making this realization about her, she’s making it about you. So you have a decision to make. You can either have a truce marriage, in which case you won’t talk about each other’s flaws, and you’ll just have a superficial marriage. Or you can decide you’re going to deal with the flaws, but you’re going to realize that she seems kind of selfish, but actually my own selfishness is the core problem here. I’m going to be alert to my own selfishness. My own selfishness is the only selfishness I can control.”

Keller says, “When you have two people who see their own selfishness as the core problem in the marriage and who are working on it, then you have the makings of a great marriage.” But that requires you to totally throw yourself into it to defeat the ego to serve the marriage. That’s a tough thing to do, but that is the essential moral challenge of marriage.

Brett McKay: Do you have, based on your research and your writing and talking to people, any advice for people who aren’t married but want to get married to find that marriage partner who also wants a maximum marriage?

David Brooks: Yeah, the first thing I always tell my students is, “Marriage is a 50 year conversation.” You have to be able to talk to the person forever. So you better have very pure communication. It should be the sort of person that you just love talking to on the phone for hour upon hour.

But then there has obviously been a ton of research on how to make this decision, and it falls into three buckets. The first is the psychological bucket. What traits does the other person have? The shorthand answer is go for kindness and avoid neuroticism. Kindness doesn’t seem particularly exciting, sometimes we’re attracted to the bad boys or the bad girls, but it’s really useful in a marriage. Neurotics, people are making drama out of everything. The research suggests those people never change, they never stop making drama. So kindness is really valuable.

Then there’s the passion lens, which is what kind of love do you have for this person? The Greeks used to say there are three different kinds of love. There’s philia, which is friendship. There’s eros, which is real passion, lust, and that kind of thing. Then there’s agape, the desire to give your selfless love away to the person. If you just have philia and maybe some lust, then you have a relationship, but you don’t have a marriage. If you just have agape, you really want to give yourself to this person, but you don’t have lust, then you just have sort of admiration. It’s best to have all three kinds of loves.

Then the final lens is the moral lens, which is love is going to come and go, but admiration is pretty stable. Do you admire the person? Do they do things that you find morally admirable? A marriage can survive a lot of things, but one thing it cannot survive is disrespect and contempt, so pick someone you really admire.

Then the one other good piece of advice I was given was when we think about marrying someone, we ask a lot of questions about the other person, “Are they the right person?” We don’t ask enough questions about ourselves, which is really, “Am I ready for this? Am I ready to lead a very different kind of life,” because until you get married, you can live with the illusion that you’re easy to live with, but when you get married, somebody is watching you, and you become aware of exactly all the ways you’re crazy and selfish. So you’ve got to be willing to be changed.

Brett McKay: I imagine … you’ve been married for a while, keeping that idea, or being willing to change, keeping that up will help strengthen your marriage as the years go on.

David Brooks: Yeah, some of it is just practical stuff. In the book, I take a lot of the best bits of advice I’ve read from others and I just pass them along. One of things I read was sometimes when you’re in a relationship, they say never go to bed mad, but sometimes you’re just tired, so you just go to bed. Go to bed, tomorrow you’ll make waffles together, things will seem better. Another bit of advice I got for women in marriage was if you’re feeling the urge to bitch about him to somebody, bitch to his mom and not to yours, because his mom will forgive him, but yours never will. So these are just little practical things. Commitments are lived out every day. So they’ve just got to be practically committed, it’s not just theory.

Brett McKay: So the third commitment is to philosophy and faith. You make the case that reading the great books of Western civilization, or just studying Western civilization, can be a way to commit yourself to the intellectual life. How so? How can that transform you?

David Brooks: Yeah, so I happened to go to college where they taught the great books, the University of Chicago. So we read Tolstoy and Aristotle and Plato. The thing about the geniuses of those times is … in some ways they were very different, but in some ways they know us better than we know ourselves. So they really broke things down. “How do you become a virtuous person? How do you do forgiveness? How do you experience grace?” Even George Eliot or Jane Austen, “How do you think through the marriage decision?” George Eliot wrote a lot about that. So they are very practical advice.

Then they also touch you on a level that’s deeper than … I write for the newspaper, but newspaper don’t really touch you on the level of your soul or your heart. But if you hear Mozart’s … if you heard Ode to Joy, if you see Chartres Cathedral, if you’ve read Tolstoy, you’ve been touched on a much deeper level.

I think one of the things they do is they educate the emotions. So we all have some crude emotions, but when you’ve been touched by art, your emotions get much more refined. Here’s one trivial example. I once saw Taylor Swift interviewed on 60 Minutes. The interviewer said, “You know, you write a lot of sad songs.” She said, “Well I’d say there are about 17 different kinds of sadness.” She said, “There’s your boyfriends breaks up with you sadness,” and she played a little tune, “Your mom is mad at you sadness,” she played another tune, “You’ve lost your dog sadness,” she played another. She is an expert on sadness. If you go through life, you want to go through life with a repertoire of emotions so you can feel the right kind of sadness and a different kind of sadness, and you can understand your own feelings a little better. That’s what I think happens with the great books.

Brett McKay: You can do this together with other people. I mean, one of the most significant things, meaningful things I’ve done in my life in the past few years, we have a men’s group here in town in Tulsa where we’ve been reading the great books. We started the Iliad, we’re at Shakespeare now. It’s been great meeting with these guys once a month to discuss these ideas.

David Brooks: Yeah. One of the phrases I pass along is, “There’s no such thing as thinking for yourself. Even the language we think in is a creation of the group.” When you get together and just debate these issues, that to me is one of the great pleasures of life, just you’re in the moment and you each are building on each other’s thoughts. That’s one of the great gifts of friendship. I’m in a group like that, and we’re sort of sensitive to nobody should talk too much. A lot of my book is just things we discuss together as a group of guys reading a bunch of books that have made us a little less shallow than we otherwise would be.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about the commitment to faith and religion, because that’s a hard sell in a culture that’s becoming increasingly secular. I think the number of people who describe themselves as, “none,” when it comes to religious affiliations is the highest it’s ever been. How are you defining spirituality in this book? Are you advocating for something like spiritual but not religious, or are you talking about religion as well?

David Brooks: I lean toward religion. I get being a, “none,” since I spent most of my life as a, “none,” not believing in God even though I was around a lot of organized religions. But I guess at least for me over time, my categories, which were pretty atheistic, became inadequate to reality as I experienced it.

So there were just moments of time that seemed mystical, that seemed like there was a presence that couldn’t be explained by just material causes. Often that presence was in other people. Like I’m a journalist, I cover other peoples’ lives, and I just couldn’t care about the stories I write about if people were just sacks of genetic material being blown around by evolutionary forces. I see them as creatures with souls that have something in them that is of infinite value and dignity, something in them that gives them moral responsibility to either behave well or behave badly.

So the people I write about have souls. We all have souls. You don’t even have to believe in God to believe that there’s some invisible piece of yourself that has no size, weight, color, or weight, but that gives you infinite value and dignity that slavery is wrong, because it cuts over another person’s soul. The soul yearns to lead a good life, which I think we all want to lead a good life. We all want to lead a meaningful, purposeful life. So once you get that sense that other people have souls and that every second of every day, their souls are either getting little more holy or a little more degraded, their souls are getting sick, their souls are yearning, then it’s a short step, or at least it was for me, to believe, “Well maybe the material world is not the only world. There’s something else as well.” So in the book, I just try to describe the very boring, gradual process towards faith.

Brett McKay: What does that commitment to faith look like, for you at least?

David Brooks: Well partly it’s, “Faith is change,” one of the writers I quote says. Some people when they talk about God, they say, “I prayed, and God told me to move to Arizona instead of Nevada.” I respect people feel they have that contact with God. I can’t tell you I’ve ever felt it that specifically. To me, it’s seeking the beauty of certain things. There are certain stories in the bible that are just morally very beautiful. I’d like to pinion my life more on the beauty that are in some of these stories rather than the ugliness in the world.

So I have a sense of what grace is, just this joyous love that you can’t earn. I’d rather pin my life toward that than pin toward going to the casino and hitting the jackpot. I don’t know, it’s an aesthetic sense of what is truly, morally beautiful. I make a distinction in the book between happiness and joy. Happiness happens when you get a promotion, your team wins the Super Bowl. It’s the expansion of self. Joy happens when the barrier between you and something you really care about disappears. So there’s joy when you’re with your kids and you’re just playing. Sometimes there’s joy in work, where you totally lose yourself in your work and you experience flow. Sometimes there’s joy with someone you love and you’re just so delirious to be together. Sometimes there’s joy in nature. You feel part of the natural surroundings, you become one with the forest as you’re hiking through it.

One of the messages in the book is happiness is good, but joy is better. The ultimate joy is transcendent joy, when you’ve surrendered yourself to some pure good. You don’t even think about yourself anymore, you’re doing something just because you think it’s morally beautiful.

Brett McKay: I imagine the faith you’re talking about, too, the examples you gave, it was all about leading back to other people. Even the faith you’re talking about is not sort of this personal salvation, it’s a faith that leads me towards action that transcends myself and wants me to love others and love my group, love my family, whatever that is.

David Brooks: Yeah, I had a camp counselor who then became a friend who was an Episcopal priest. He was just a holy child almost. He lived until about 60. He saw some really hard things. He worked in Honduras among the poor, he worked with women who suffered domestic violence, but he spoke in this enthusiastic … He would always interrupt his sentences with whistles, and pops, and laughs. He just didn’t think about himself. He was just grateful for every person he met. He treated every person he met as sort of a miracle. So he really did live the life of selfless love. I’ve run into such people who were just aglow with joy maybe once a month or so. I get to work … I’ve got this project at the Aspen Institute, and I get to work with Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist. That guy is just happy all the time. He just delights in his work, he delights in the people he meets. He’s filled with gratitude. He’s got as much fame and money as he could ever handle, and so he’s going around the world playing in order to bring angry people together and out of anger. I’m sure it’s hard to be traveling around the world all that time, but he’s serving a cause he really believes in. He’s just happy, he just laughs a lot.

Brett McKay: It’s amazing that all these individuals, you can tell they’re outside of their head. They’re not neurotic, they’re not constantly thinking about themselves. Whenever you see that, you’re like, “I want that, too. I’m tired of journaling about my terrible thoughts. I just don’t even want to have to think about it anymore.”

David Brooks: Yeah. One of the things I learned … I described this in the moments in the valley … is people go out in the wilderness. If you’re the sort of person who’s spent a lot of life trying to be popular and wanting to be liked and performing for others, out in the wilderness, the rocks don’t care. So there’s nobody left to perform for. Then if you get called to do a task, and maybe you called to be a community worker in something. Maybe you’re called … you love a company you’re starting up and you think it’ll really do some good in the world. You’re so busy caring about the commitment you’ve made, you yourself seem much less important. I’ve always thought that you can’t replace one thing with nothing, you have to replace it with a better a thing. So finding a better love, something you can love more than you love yourself is just the way to do that.

Brett McKay: Well let’s talk about the last commitment, which is to community. You mentioned earlier that you think that rebuilding community is probably the great challenge of my generation. For you, what does an ideal community look like to you?

David Brooks: There was a book by a woman named Jane Jacobs, which was written somewhere around 1962, called The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She lived in Greenwich Village in New York in a little community, a little neighborhood there, which was then a middle class neighborhood. Now it’s really rich, but back then it was middle class. She was looking at her street from her second story window, and she realized that her street was like a ballet. That early in the day, the people picking up the trash would come by, then the people taking their kids off to school would come by, then the shopkeepers would open their shops. It was all this movement on the block. There was always something happening, teenagers hanging out, people heading off to the bars. She said, “All this movement is just like a ballet. We’re all sort of moving around each other and keeping an eye on each other.”

At one point, she’s looking out her window and she sees a guy tugging on a nine year old girl, pulling to where the girl clearly does not want to go. Jane Jacobs wonders, “Am I watching a kidnapping?” She’s about to go down and intervene, then she says, “Oh wait,” and she sees that the fruit vendor has stepped out of his store, the locksmith has come of his store, two other people have come out. She says the guy didn’t realize, but he was surrounded. There were just eyes on the street. We’re all watching each other, we’re all taking care of each other. In turned out to be only a dad pulling on his nine year old daughter to do something, but that’s, to me, what a community is. It’s a ballet, a collection of people who are moving together organically and dynamically, but keeping an eye on each other and helping each other out when that has to happen.

I’m afraid what’s happened in our society is we don’t have a lot of those dense places where people live on the street and really can look at each other. We’re locked in the privacy of our own homes. I don’t know about your neighborhood, but in my neighborhood, if you went out to somebody’s home unannounced at 8:30 PM at night and knocked on the door just to hang out, that would be considered an amazing violation of privacy. So we’ve put privacy above community and sometime work above community. So as a result, the social capital is much lower.

What I admire are people who go out of their way to build community. Sometimes they do it by organizing annual dinners, or a book club, or there’s a zillion ways of … You can have a whiskey club. That’s a fun way to have a community. Community should be fun and not just a chore.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s definitely a skill that has to be relearned, because I think a lot of, particularly young people, they don’t know how to do that stuff. Here’s a pretty great example. My mom, my parents still live in the neighborhood that I grew up in when I was a kid. When I was a kid, there was a very active mothers association. So there was Christmas parties, Easter parties, 4th of July parades, Halloween parties. Then after all the kids my age graduated and left home, that stuff stopped. It wasn’t there for 25 years. So they’re all grandmas now, my mom and all her friends in the neighborhood decided, “We’ve got to get this going again,” so they started the moms organization again, these grandmas, and they’re teaching these young millennial moms how to organize an Easter party or an Easter parade. They’re loving it. These young people are like, “We don’t know how to do this. We’re so grateful that you’re showing us how to do this.”

David Brooks: That is great. I’ve never heard of anything quite like that, but that is fantastic. There are just tricks people can do to build community. I have a friend, he was in college. He’s probably 34 now. He said, “I’ve got a really good group of friends here in college. I’m terrified I’m going to lose them as we drift apart in life.” One of his professors said, “Well start a giving circle. All of you put money into a pot every year, and every year get together for four days and decide where you’re going to donate that money.” The charity is sort of the pretext to get together, but the reality is they’re now, I don’t know, 13 years out of college, and every year they get together. They’re walking through life together. So you’ve got to invent something. There’s got to be some technology of convening that will pull you into community, but it’s just a question of finding what your best technology is.

Brett McKay: Does a person need to have all four commitments in their life to have a meaningful life, or they can just have one or two, or there’s going to be one in one part of your life, and another part in your other life?

David Brooks: Yeah, I mean a lot of people never get married, and they live very fulfilled lives, so I would not say you have to have all four, and sometimes are in different phases. Some people really serve their communities, they work at the Y or do something later in life, and sometimes, especially if you have small kids, that swallows up your life, so that’s a commitment that swallows up a lot of time. But I do think being committed to something all the way through. To me, the best definition of a commitment is falling in love with something and then building a structure or a behavior around it for those moments when love falters, because we all have moments we’re feeling dry, we don’t want to go to church or we don’t really care about the mentoring program we’re in. But if you build habits around that thing and you just go by the habits, it’ll carry you through those moments. I always say, “Jews love their God, but they keep Kosher just in case.” The structure of Kosher law sort of pulls them through the moments when they don’t feel the presence of God and they’re just going about their way. It’s about instilling habits.

Brett McKay: You always talk about this in the book, create an environment where those habits are easier to follow through on. So have a community where you’ve got that social pressure where it’s just the normal thing to do, and you’re going to do it because you’re with those group of friends that are doing the same thing.

David Brooks: Yeah, I mean, this is sort of the model of Al-Anon or anything else, probably even in your book club, would you really read the book? But if you’ve got to go talk about it with your friends, then, “Well I’ll show up and read the book.” I think people who are dealing with addiction find the same thing that they’re really doing it because they care about those people, they don’t want to let them down, and they want to set a good model for the people they’re in group with. We’re just such contagious creatures that if six people around you gain weight, the odds that you’re going to gain weight are extremely high. If they start smoking, you’ll probably start smoking. If they stop drinking, you’ll probably stop drinking. We think we’re not connected creatures, but we’re extremely connected to each other.

Brett McKay: Plato says, “We’re mimetic animals.”

David Brooks: Right, exactly.

Brett McKay: Mimesis, we copy others. Well David, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

David Brooks: Well they can go to the Amazon webpage to get the book. Then the community stuff, I’ve got an organization at the Aspen project called Weave the Social Fabric Project. They can go to There they can learn about some of the most amazing people I’ve met over the last few years how really are building community on the ground level and leading, really, lives that I would love to copy.

Brett McKay: Well David Brooks, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

David Brooks: Thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest today was David Brooks. He’s the author of the book The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, it’s available on and bookstores everywhere. Check out our show notes at where you can links to resources where you can delve into deeper into this topic.

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