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Giving back after getting a lot will not be enough in 2020

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The season of giving has moved on to the season of resolutions. For some well-known intellectuals, that means resolving to give more, especially after lifetimes of getting. But we must be careful about focusing too much on the self, even while preaching selflessness.

THE season of giving has moved on to the season of resolutions. For some well-known intellectuals, that means resolving to give more, especially after lifetimes of getting. But we must be careful about focusing too much on the self, even while preaching selflessness.

In his recent book The Second Mountain, David Brooks writes that we need to move beyond what he describes as the first mountain of life, which people think "they were meant to climb". In his view, "we all have to perform certain life tasks: establish an identity, separate from our parents, cultivate our talents, build a secure ego and try to make a mark". He writes that beyond this "vision of prominence, pleasure and success" is a second mountain, bigger than self-gratification. Climbing it requires us to let go of the ego, and find purpose in helping others.

Arthur Brooks, former head of the American Enterprise Institute (and no relation to Mr David Brooks), has another take on what people can and should try to achieve in the second part of their lives. In an article entitled Your Work Peak Is Earlier Than You Think, he focuses on the unhappiness that many highly successful people feel as they age, lose their abilities and slide into self-perceived irrelevance.

Mr Arthur Brooks' solution is to move into a phase of life, usually starting around age 50, in which "we purposefully focus less on professional ambition, and become more and more devoted to spirituality, service and wisdom". For him, teaching is the answer.

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As an academic for most of my career, I can see why. I always drew the greatest satisfaction from my ability to help students chart their life paths and revel in their accomplishments. Moreover, as an ambitious career professional now in my early 60s, I understand the restless uncertainty and mulling over mortality that drives Mr David Brooks' search for a second mountain.

But what about those who chose that path from the beginning? There are many people who never saw their life purpose as pursuing a personal goal or "ego ideal". Many women and men choose - as a result of personality, socialisation, faith or some other force - to devote their life to the welfare of others. Moreover, for millions of people trying hard to feed, clothe, educate and care for their families, neither the ambition of the first mountain nor the meaning of the second are luxuries that they can afford. They have little time to spare wondering about the true meaning of success or the best way to avoid irrelevance in later life.

For those who do have the luxury of choice, entrepreneur Peter Sims suggests that there is a simple way to avoid becoming an "insecure overachiever" who ends up dissatisfied. He calls for a focus on "generative friendships and relationships" as a path out of a culture of relentless "upward comparison". Connection to others, rather than comparison with them, submerges ego by locating identity in the bonds among people rather than in an individual.

But perhaps there is even a simpler solution: we should stop focusing on ourselves at all. One of the greatest, and often least practised, Christian values is humility - in the Hebrew prophet Micah's words, "act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God". If we understand "God" more broadly, the passage urges subordination of self to something larger than any of us. Today, that could be saving the planet, overhauling capitalism or restoring sense and genuine deliberation to our politics.

The goal here is not self-gratification of any sort, whether through professional achievement or service to others. It is actually to achieve an important common good. In 2020, and the decade to come, the search for individual meaning must be less important than mass results. FT

  • The writer is CEO of the New America think-tank and an FT contributing editor