Work / Life Balance

Rethinking the “Second Mountain”

Rethinking the Second Mountain David Brooks book volunteering service

Do you view your future as divided into two stages, your career and, later, a retirement period doing what you’re really meant to do? Many people think in these terms.

New York Times columnist David Brooks was among them, as he explains in his bestselling book, “The Second Mountain.” For most of his life, Brooks was occupied with summiting what he calls the “first mountain,” striving for professional success and plenty of money. By almost any measure, he excelled in his climb. But when gazing out from the peak, he faced a persistent and sobering thought — that despite all he’d achieved, he didn’t like himself very much and found life rather empty.

It was then that Brooks began to scale his “second mountain,” one centered on service. It is a path, he argues, that anyone can follow. When you’ve done all you can for yourself, it’s time to consider what you can do for others.

When Vistage Master Chair Jerry Cahn read the book, he thought the two mountains concept had merit but took exception to dividing life into such discrete segments. As he explains, most people are best off if they keep their second mountain in mind from the start, because it makes the entirety of life more meaningful.

Scaling two peaks at once

To Jerry, climbing the first mountain means building the infrastructure that makes a fulfilling life possible: financial stability, relationships, and security. It takes focus and sacrifice to climb that mountain, but the second mountain — full of passion and true purpose — should not be neglected during the ascent.

“Life is about tradeoffs,” Jerry says. You might throw the majority of your energy into securing your infrastructure so you can sooner devote all your time to your passion. Or you might choose to steadily apply a small slice of your available resources to the second mountain over time — an approach he compares to a tithe.

The latter was Jerry’s style. Along his journey, he worked in nonprofits, the legislature, media and communications, and now Vistage, heading a peer advisory group of CEOs and executives. Through it all, he was scaling both mountains at once, supporting himself while also contributing to the greater good.

And though Jerry has continually pursued his goal to be of service, he is adamant about one thing — there’s always a chance to reprioritize, no matter where in life you are.

Rethinking Retirement

In 1889, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck invented retirement. He set the age at 70, knowing that the average life expectancy at the time was more like 50. He promised an opportunity for older people to enjoy their later years without work, but few Germans would actually experience the pleasure.

A similar thing happened in the U.S. The 1935 Social Security Act set the goalpost for retirement at 65. Back then, the average life expectancy was about 60. Many Americans today, of course, are living far longer, leaving decades during which most people want to remain productive, relevant, and engaged.

For this reason, Jerry believes the word “retirement” is outdated. “The key isn’t retiring,” he says. “The key is to stay curious, learn, innovate, and pursue the passions and purposes you value.”

“We need to pay attention to the accomplishments of people like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who worked on the U.S. Supreme Court until 87″ he adds. “And Alan Patricof, who is still helping fund companies at age 88.”

Rather than asking, “When do I retire?”, Jerry says people need to consider how their future will unfold through many transitions, with new careers, relationships, and experiences.

Jerry gives an example. One of his Vistage members received an offer on his business that would enable him to retire young. Selling was attractive, as he felt he’d accomplished all he could in his current role, but he wasn’t ready to completely hang it up.

The member tapped his Vistage network and found an exciting opportunity at another company. In retrospect, he realizes that what he’d been missing was a new challenge.

A big part of Jerry’s mission today is delivering his message, encouraging us to live intentionally and optimize every stage of adult life. To this end, he founded an interactional community platform, Age Brilliantly, and leads a CEO workshop, “Exit Your Business to Launch Your Future Self.”

The Third Mountain

Beyond the essential infrastructure, beyond commitment to purpose and passion, Jerry thinks there is a third mountain: Legacy.

Jerry has always been driven to make the world a better place. He considers this to be his destiny, and it lies behind every career and business choice. “It’s never about the outcome,” he says. “It’s about the impact.”

One way to establish a legacy is by being what Jerry terms a “SharExer.” He uses his trademarked term to describe people who share their accumulated wisdom to benefit others. Jerry has found Vistage to be full of SharExers.

Whether you’re tackling the first mountain, the second, the third, or all of them at once, Jerry has some advice. “Look at other people’s needs and ask yourself, How do I take the talents that I have and enjoy using, as well the ones I can acquire, and apply them to the purpose that I’d like to leave in the world?”

Related Resources

7 hard truths about leaving the C-suite

5 fun, fulfilling and not-so-common hobbies for retiring CEOs

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About the Author: Vistage Staff

Vistage facilitates confidential peer advisory groups for CEOs and other senior leaders, focusing on solving challenges, accelerating growth and improving business performance. Over 27,000 high-caliber execu…

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