The Two Mountains: Why Your Purpose Will Change

featured image that says the two mountains

Storytime: when Iron Man built his first suit (and I’m talking in the cinematic universe here), he did so because he needed to survive. When he returned from that ordeal and build his second suit, he did so to satisfy his curiosity, create something new and different, to protect himself, and — let’s be honest — because he wanted attention. That’s why he told the world who he was at the end of the first Iron Man movie.

But eventually, as we followed Iron Man into his sequels and the Avengers films, we saw a subtle change occur over time. He became less obsessed with himself and more obsessed with protecting the earth, protecting those he loves, and even having children.

He had moved from a more self-centered ideology to one focused on others.

This story is exactly relevant to today’s topic. Today we are talking about the two mountains, a parable for two of the forms that our purpose makes in our lives.

I’m pulling most of my information here from two books: Falling Upward by Richard Rohr, and The Two Mountains by David Brooks, both of which are excellent books about finding our purpose.

Richard Rohr refers to this concept as the “two tasks”, and David Brooks as the “two mountains”. For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to them as the two mountains from here on out.

In this article, you will learn:

  • What the two mountains are
  • How we climb the first mountain
  • The chasm between the two mountains
  • How we climb the second mountain
  • How this mirrors our personal hero’s journey

What Are the Two Tasks or Two Mountains?

Richard Rohr says “There is much evidence on several levels that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold. The first task we take for granted as the very purpose of life, which does not mean we do it well.”

The basic idea between the first and second mountains, is that we actually have two purposes over the course of our life.

The first mountain is personal, it’s about building ourselves up and defining the ego.

The second mountain is selfless, it is about giving back to others and losing our ego in the service of a higher cause.

David Brooks puts it this way: “The first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second mountain is about shedding the ego and losing the self. If the first mountain is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution. If the first mountain is elitist—moving up—the second mountain is egalitarian—planting yourself amid those in need, and walking arm in arm with them.”

But both of these mountains are essential, even the more selfish first mountain, so let’s take a look at why that is.

The First Mountain

Our first task or mountain is all about our personal happiness and success. It’s all about us, we are the stars of the show.

Richard Rohr likens this to building a strong container for our identity, then filling that container with said identity.

What does this include?

It can include building our skills, finding our talents, pursuing our passions, finding a vocation to make money, etc.

And this is not a bad thing! As Richard Rohr points out, “You ironically need a very strong ego structure to let go of your ego.” Building this container, climbing the first mountain, is an essential part of our journey.

In fact, climbing this mountain gets us closer to the second mountain. During our quest to climb the first mountain, we are likely to build skills and gain knowledge that will help us in climbing the second. For example, the discipline that we learned in our vocation could be an essential value when choosing to focus outward.

But, as often happens, we get to the top of this mountain and we are left unfulfilled. We thought we knew what we wanted, but it turns out that was just a stepping stone toward what we really needed.

The Chasm

Between the two mountains is a chasm, and this is one of the essential concepts of Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward.

That is why the second mountain is a separate mountain, not just an extension of the first. We have to go down before we can go up.

In essence, a small part of us needs to die in order for us to be reborn again. There is this concept of “necessary suffering” that acts like a forge’s fire. It is painful, but it is preparing us for something greater. Without any pressure, you would never get any diamonds.

This can take many forms: the loss of a job, the loss of money, the loss of a reputation, or even the lost of a loved one. Whatever the case, we are put in a position where we have to give into hopelessness or create positive change.

It is usually at this chasm, or through the course of multiple little chasms, that we begin to see the bigger picture. We begin to see that there is another mountain that we need to climb.

The Second Mountain

Where the first mountain was all about ourselves, the second is all about others. Where the first mountain was all about happiness, the second is all about joy. It is a greater law, a higher law that we must take.

As Richard Rohr points out, the second task is the act of emptying your container that you built on mountain one, and filling it with this higher purpose.

The second mountain can also take many forms. We could be teachers, leaders, philanthropists, etc. We could start a nonprofit, or we could simply spend more time with our family.

The point is that through the second task or mountain, we gain new perspective, we begin to see what is truly meaningful in our lives.

This is why I emphasize giving back to the world as a key component of finding your purpose. Without it, we are completely ignoring the second mountain, and it will come rushing up to meet us in the future, probably at an inopportune time.

The second mountain requires discipline, it requires restraint. But this is a good thing. Because while climbing the second mountain we are choosing to substitute “freedom from” in order to have “freedom to”. Practicing piano for hours and hours may seem like a burden, but it gives you the freedom to play a variety of songs very well.

It is the same with every area of our life.

How This Mirrors the Hero’s Journey

One of the unique things about the hero’s journey is that it so clearly matches our own life’s journey. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons why the hero’s journey story has been so popular, from ancient myths, to Star Wars, to the Iron Man example that I listed above.

Let’s look at how the two mountains fit into the hero’s journey cycle.

  • Step 1: the hero starts in the ordinary world, a place of comfort.
  • Step 2: the hero receives a call to leave home on an adventure. At this point it’s not to solve any big problem, but just to go outside of their comfort zone.
  • Step 3: the hero climbs their first mountain, the first round of obstacles in the pursuit of their goal.
  • Step 4: the hero discovers what their true problem is when they are wounded in some way (literally or figuratively), which causes them to take a step back and learn. This is the equivalent of the chasm.
  • Step 5: thanks to their experiences, particularly those of the chasm or the underworld, the hero climbs the second mountain, achieving the goal and receiving the “boon” that they can then bring back to the place where they started, thus giving back to their community and making it a little better than it was to start.

I’m sure you can see the parallels here: we think we know what we want, and we may even achieve what we want, but the journey makes it clear that it was not what we really wanted. Instead, we needed to aspire to something greater, a.k.a. the second mountain.

The Two Mountains: Final Thoughts

So, which mountain are you on?

Personally, though I like to think I am taking careful consideration of the second mountain, I’m pretty sure I’m still on the first. I’ll admit to being focused on improving my career and learning everything I can. And this is, of course, a good thing.

But I look forward to the time when I can truly lose myself in the service of others, not because it will result in more coaching clients, speaking opportunities, or sales of my books, but because it is what I feel is right. I’m working on that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a few chasms were in my future.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this concept in the comments below.