Book: The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life

Author: David Brooks

Reviewed by: Jonathan Addleton, former U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia and current Rector/President of Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan

Jonathan Addleton was born in Pakistan to missionary parents from Macon, Ga., where they live today.

I read The Second Mountain by best-selling author and New York Times columnist David Brooks on the long journey from the U.S. to Pakistan in September to start a new life as Rector/President of Forman Christian College in Lahore, almost certainly the final and possibly the biggest professional challenge of my career.

The opening paragraph was immediately appealing: 

Every once in a while, I meet a person who radiates joy . . . they live for others, and not for themselves. They’ve made unshakeable commitments to family, a cause, a community, or a faith. They know why they were put on this earth and derive a deep satisfaction from doing what they have been called to do.”

Who wouldn’t want to be such a person? Who hasn’t wanted to live a life that truly matters? 

For Brooks, the key to such a life is rooted in an exploration into the lives of others, especially those who have attained this ideal. Of course, even the most brilliant lives are flawed. But despite these failures such lives inspire others, in turn helping to move the world toward a better place.

According to Brooks, people viewed as successful in a conventional sense are typically groomed to scale that first mountain, the one reflecting what society says they should value most in terms of the “right” school, neighborhood and career. However, this external success all too often masks an internal failure, one that aches for fulfillment of a different and more enduring kind.

It is at this point where Brooks claims a second mountain emerges — one that inspires a deeper and more satisfying journey, rooted in spiritual ideals rather than material success. For Brooks, the self-centered nature of contemporary society is a stumbling block, standing in the way of relationships that last, whether they involve faith, family, community or vocation.

I started this book in Atlanta and finished it somewhere over Iran, en route from Boston to Doha and finally Lahore. Somehow Brooks manages to avoid the “preachy” tone typically found in books that include the phrase “moral life” in their subtitle. 

On the contrary, he doesn’t sermonize, avoiding the overly simplistic approach of books usually found in either the “self-help” shelf or “remaindered” pile.

What Brooks does manage to do is present a series of compelling stories involving remarkable people. Most are anonymous and unsung and yet they live brilliant lives, not necessarily in a conventional sense but in terms of the fulfillment they exude, the difference they make, and the mark they leave behind.

I don’t finish most long flights inspired or spiritually refreshed, ready to take on new challenges. Yet this thought-provoking reflection on things that truly matter captured my imagination, preparing me to scale a more challenging second mountain, a climb that draws on hard-earned personal experience and is centered on service. 

Or, to summarize one of Brooks’ central points in even fewer words, drawing instead on Forman’s remarkable motto that reflects wisdom of a more ancient kind: “By love, serve one another.”

Editor’s notes: Global Atlanta will receive a 10 percent commission on any purchase of this book through the links on this page. also contributes 10 percent of the purchase price of each book to independent booksellers around the United States.

Each year, Global Atlanta asks influential readers and community leaders to review the most impactful book they read during the course of the year. This endeavor has continued annually since 2010. 

See last year’s full list of books on BookShop here, and all 2020 reader picks here. 

All books were chosen and reviews written independently, with only mild editing from our staff.