The Power of the Second Act
Second acts are the mark of a life well lived. While available to all, they are only truly possible for those who are willing to open their minds and hearts. The payoff is extraordinary.
Building an enduring company at scale is hard regardless of macroeconomic conditions. By one estimate, startups historically have a .00006% of reaching $1 billion of value. Over 50% of the Fortune 500 companies in 2000 are no longer around today. What accounts for the very small percentage of companies that achieve true break out performance and sustain it over time? Senior leadership, strategy, and culture all undoubtedly matter. But it is a company’s ability to figure out and successfully execute against its second act – a meaningful new product, market, technology, or business model – that makes the most difference. While successful first acts are no easy feat, it is the rare business that repeats a successful first act. Indeed, it is during the second act when companies generate most of their value for customers and investors.
The concept of a second act also applies to human beings. The psychologist Carl Jung referred to two distinct phases of life – the morning and the afternoon. We spend the morning years of our life building up and defending ego until, if we’re fortunate, we discover a second act, the afternoon years, where we are invited to dismantle the ego and fulfill our true purpose. More recently, in his book The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, David Brooks describes a moment in life where one survives a deep valley and begins the ascent up the “second mountain” of life. Whereas the first mountain is focused on the preservation of self, ego, and identity, the second shifts its attention to the service of others. Another columnist and author Arthur Brooks (no relation to David) writes in his new book From Strength to Strength of the “second curve” – when we move from the fluid intelligence of our younger years to the crystallized intelligence of our remaining years of life. It is on the second curve where we can truly serve and have impact.
The start of my second act occurred about a decade ago. It coincided with a meaningful career change, a spiritual awakening, and a major developmental shift in worldview and values. I had been living a good life for sure. But this second act propelled me into an extraordinary phase of life, one marked by less ego, more love and kindness, and significantly greater freedom to act. It has been a remarkable phase of possibility, growth, and purpose.
Like companies, individual second acts don’t come easily. They are usually preceded by a critical moment that exposes deep cracks in the foundation upon which you have been standing for most of your life. A serious illness, the loss of a treasured relationship, a battle with addiction, or a professional failure. The late leadership expert Warren Bennis referred to these events as crucible moments. Moments where your true self is forged.
While second acts often arise after personal crisis, they don’t need to. Nor do they have to happen suddenly. They can happen gradually, almost imperceptibly. In many cases, they can be catalyzed by exposure to new experiences that radically disrupt belief systems. Second acts are usually characterized by a shift from the black and white to the grey. From rigidity and certainty to the capacity to appreciate nuance, complexity, and paradox. I was reminded of this fact while reading an extraordinary account this week by the columnist Bret Stephens, “Climate Change Is Real. Markets, Not Governments, Offer the Cure.” A long-time conservative writer for the Wall Street Journal, Stephens now writes for the New York Times. Although some, if not many, will undoubtedly disagree, my reading of the column shows a man beginning his second act. One that started with an invitation from someone on the other side of the ideological spectrum that was met with the courage, humility, and intellectual honesty of a man who was willing to truly examine his own deeply held convictions and put that examination on public display.
Second acts are the mark of a life well lived. They happen, if they do at all, when they are meant to. And the timing of their occurrence is different for each person. While available to all, they are only truly possible for those who are willing to open their minds and hearts. The payoff is extraordinary.
One of the best articles written by Arthur Brooks is his 2019 Atlantic piece, “Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner than You Think.” It’s worth re-reading for anyone regardless of stage of life.
Maria Popova included a piece this week in The Marginalian on Nick Cave’s new book, Faith, Hope and Carnage. I loved the theme of optimism and hope. This excerpt particularly grabbed me: “In a way my work has become an explicit rejection of cynicism and negativity. I simply have no time for it. I mean that quite literally, and from a personal perspective. No time for censure or relentless condemnation. No time for the whole cycle of perpetual blame. Others can do that sort of thing. I haven’t the stomach for it, or the time. Life is too damn short, in my opinion, not to be awed.”
I loved this blog from Ravi Gupta of Sequoia about the importance of winning teams.