Two books specifically made me confront my success—and my very existence.
When I was a kid growing up in West Virginia, the only thing I ever wanted to do was to work in network television. I came to New York City as a12-year-old boy, stood outside the TODAY show windows, and like so many others in this business, I was totally hooked.
In the twenty years since then, I’ve been incredibly lucky. I’ve worked with some amazing journalists, mentors, and producers at PBS, ABC News and, most recently, NBC News. That 12-year-old boy couldn’t possibly imagine what he’d be doing twenty years later—and he probably wouldn’t understand what I did a couple weeks ago.
I packed up my office in 30 Rock and walked out the doors. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my job. I loved the people with whom I worked, I felt challenged, and I made decent money. Yet somehow, deep down, I felt totally unfulfilled.
“Just face it,” one of my former colleagues said to me once, “successful people like us will always be unhappy. It’s just who we are.” I refused to believe that. I knew I had to make a change.
To be fair, I’ve been thinking of making this change for a while. But it was two books I read in as many months that motivated me to take actually the leap. One made me confront my ego, one made me confront my mortality.
In April, David Brooks released his new book, The Second Mountain. I’ve always been a fan of Brooks’ columns in the Times and his weekly segment on the PBS Newshour. He’s transformed himself over the past couple of years from merely a conservative commentator to a pro-am social/moral philosopher.
In The Second Mountain, he writes that most of us spend a lot of our lives climbing “the first mountain.” We want money, or status, or fame, or power — and we think that’s what will make us happy. But spoiler alert: it doesn’t. He writes:
We have a season when we chase the shallow things in life. We are not fulfilled. Then comes hardship, which exposes the heart and soul. The heart and soul teach us that we cannot give ourselves what we desire most. Fulfillment and joy are on the far side of service. Only then are we really able to love. Only then are we able to begin the second journey.
I realized that’s what I had been doing. I thought that the next promotion, the next raise, the next big project or award was going to make me happy. It didn’t.
The second journey, to Brooks, is finding and climbing the second mountain. On the second mountain, you’re not doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for others. You’re not always going to be happy and it won’t be easy, but true, lasting joy, he writes, is found in service to other people.
Granted, journalism is a public service. While I considered myself more a producer than reporter, I have committed acts of journalism. But at my core, I wasn’t truly driven by service, I was driven by ego. It’s also true not everybody quits their jobs to start climbing that “second mountain.” Some people double down and find new meaning in what they’re already doing. But I felt I needed a reset, and I needed to do it sooner than later.
I felt that way, in part, because of what I read after Brooks. I had decided earlier this spring to read some of the classics I was supposed to read in school but didn’t, starting with Homer’s Iliad.
If you skipped it in school like I did, here’s a quick refresher: The Greeks’ best fighter, Achilles, won’t fight because his commander took from him a woman he “won” in battle (no, Homer wasn’t particularly woke). As he pouts, his fellow Greeks are getting slaughtered by the Trojans. Only when his best friend is killed in battle by the Trojan commander, Hector, does Achilles relent. Saddened and enraged, Achilles charges into battle to avenge his friend’s death by killing Hector.
This story, by the way, is about 3,000 years old. What’s interesting to me is that both the audience and the characters in the story knew how it was going to end. They knew who was going to live and who was going to die. They knew both Hector and Achilles would ultimately die, the Greeks would sack the city of Troy, and everyone would have a really, really difficult time getting home, if they even got home at all (I’m now on The Odyssey).
A central theme to the story is how the characters wrestled with fate, free will, and the intervention of otherworldly power. Just how much choice did Achilles have in not fighting? We already know how the story will end — just as we already know how all of our stories will end. As wrote one commenter, “Life is a struggle each person will ultimately lose; the question is how one acts with that knowledge.”
One of the books I actually did read in school was Tom Stoppard’s absurdist masterpiece Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It’s the story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They ultimately die in Hamlet, and Stoppard’s play follows them as they wait to die. Rosencrantz opines on his situation about halfway through:
Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment, in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on for ever. It must have been shattering — stamped into one’s memory. And yet I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all. What does one make of that? We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the words for it, before we know there are words, out we come, bloodied and squalling with the knowledge that for all compasses in the world, there’s only one direction, and time its only measure.
As I get older, I disagree with Rosencrantz. For the lucky, the actualization of our own mortality is not a moment or an intuition, but water steadily, slowly dripping into our psyche. For the unlucky, it’s a roaring flood, the breaking of an earthen dam we’ve constructed to protect us from eternal truth, ripped open by a diagnosis, a car crash, an ambulance. “Life is a struggle each person will ultimately lose; the question is how one acts with that knowledge.”
I am one of the lucky (so far). I just knew I couldn’t go on living so unhappily. I knew I couldn’t go on simply living my life for myself: the new promotion, the next raise, the next award. The things I had thought would bring me happiness and meaning in this life did not. And like Achilles, like Hector, like Rosencrantz, and like Guildenstern, we already know how this story will end. Momento mori.
I’m not sure exactly what will fill the pages of my story before its ending. I’m not exactly sure what’s next. But am I sure that I’m going to try and climb that second mountain before my time runs out.
PS: For the love of God people if you’re going to buy one of these books, please support your local, independent bookstore. You can find one near you using this tool.