BusinessWeek called Po Bronson's first novel, Bombadiers, "perhaps the most entertaining depiction of greed and dishonesty on Wall Street ever to see print." Reviewing his follow-up, The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest, the New York Times cited Bronson's "savage cynicism" and "infectious enthusiasm for entrepreneurial genius."
Meanwhile, Bronson was also making quite a name for himself as a journalist, reporting on the Internet boom of the late nineties for Wired, Fast Company, and the Wall Street Journal. In 1999, shortly before the bubble burst, he published The Nudist on the Late Shift, hailed by the Village Voice Literary Supplement as "the most complete and empathetic portrait of the Valley so far." Five years down the road, we can safely remove the "so far." Harper's editor Lewis Lapham was moved to call Bronson "a genuine voice of a new generation, the bard of Silicon Valley."
"The book was out and it was selling," the author reflects. "It was doing well, at the bottom of some bestseller lists, and people were saying, 'We want you to write more,' but I just wanted to get out."
Bronson promptly left Silicon Valley, but the workplace remains a primary concern. In What Should I Do with My Life? he investigates the career paths of ordinary—and extraordinary—people across America. Culled from more than nine hundred interviews, here he presents forty-eight personal stories that examine the difficult decisions and sacrifices we make to find fulfilling work.
How do people find their calling? What inspires us to seek one in the first place? A teenager in a refugee camp receives a letter from the Dalai Lama explaining that he is the reincarnation of a great spiritual leader. A model turns her back on the runway and finds happiness in the corporate office of a hardware store. A corporate lawyer turns to long-haul trucking to be closer to his son.
Nine new chapters appear in the paperback edition. "For me, this book began as a conversation," Bronson explains. "I published it, and the conversation didn't end; it intensified. So I've been having this conversation, trying to share the stories and what I've learned."
Dave: You note in the introduction that What Should I Do with My Life? is "a far different book than I originally envisioned." What had you imagined it would be?
Po Bronson: It's hard even to remember exactly, but I had written three books before. Each was set in the workplace. I had developed my chops at taking the experience of work and making it dramatic, making it energetic, making it worth reading about. That was my original conception: I would paint a wide spectrum of what these different occupations are like. A reader could go at them like a box of chocolates: you hang around the box afraid to try anything because you might end up with something you don't like, so you watch other people nibble at them—at these vocations. You hope that if they like one that you'll like it, too.
It turned out that was just facetious. People's experiences of their actual daily work didn't define them at all compared to what they had overcome to get there. We're united and defined more by what we have to overcome than the particular things we do.
I spent some time in the book talking in depth about a charter school teacher in Boston and a cop in El Monte, California, east of East Los Angeles. It was absolutely clear that those experiences were rooted in each person's psychology and personality; theirs wasn't the experience you would have if you did the same thing.
So that was the first shift: It became about people's journeys and transformations, their migrations. It was not about x-raying the box of chocolates. So you're not supposed to read it and think, This guy likes being a trucker. What's that like? Maybe I'd like to do that. It's more about understanding how to use hardship, or understanding that the responsibilities of family are important to you. These issues are more universal. It became about journeys, not destinations.
Dave: Most of the obstacles these people face will be familiar in some way. Even if readers haven't dealt with them directly, maybe they know a friend or family member that has.
Entry level jobs, for instance: it's very common that people are reluctant to start over. Someone identifies an appealing line of work, a possible career change, but they're not willing to take a pay cut and start in a position of less responsibility. In so many cases, patience was integral to achieving satisfaction.
Bronson: And we haven't celebrated patience enough in recent years. We celebrate bullheadedness, a can-do hubris in which individuals are larger than organizations and can build things in short periods of time. I, myself, romanticize those types of people and what they accomplish, even though I don't necessarily like them or agree with them.
One of the things I was trying to do with the language of this book was to break down the stereotypes—or the crutches—that people employ to tell their story. They resumé-ize their story according to preexisting stereotypes: the self-made man, the person who did it all overnight, gifts of God intervening?
By telling these stories in a way that revealed all the idiosyncratic details of each person's journey, in which you witness their luck, their ghosts, and their pain, I tried to show that just learning to tell your own story in a more honest way unlocks access and allows you to discern wisdom from your own experiences that you've been denying yourself by summarizing your story according to predefined stereotypes.
When I was working with these people, I would find myself curiously reflecting upon my own choices and my own past. I chose people that had this effect on me because my dream was that the book would have that same effect on a reader. They wouldn't read this book and suddenly know what they wanted to do; it was a more literary notion. I believe in the power of language, and I hoped that access to these stories would make readers think about the changes they'd made in their own life. They would start to see their own stories in a different light.
A lot of the messages we get tell us that our individual lives really aren't that interesting. We're not celebrities; we're not famous; we're not worthy. I wanted to elevate ordinary people to the level of worthiness and in doing so resurrect their stories.
Dave: The book's success seems to indicate that your point comes across.
Bronson: I've had thousands of people write me, and it's a constant theme. In the paperback, I include letters from people all over the world. People start reading the book and maybe they start crying and they can't understand exactly why. It's a feeling like My life actually counts. Something can happen to me and my life can matter in a way that didn't feel possible before.
I was very conscious that I didn't want to include people who were well known. I didn't want friends of mine. I didn't want anyone who had ever talked to a journalist before because I didn't want people who knew how to spin their story. That seems to be part of why people respond to it. They might pick it up thinking that they're going to figure out what do with their life, but really what they get instead is a sense that their life story is worth telling. Ordinary human drama is worth talking about.
Dave: You come back again and again to the notion that this question —what should I do with my life?—transcends class and race and age. Your subjects reflect that. They're in all sorts of different lines of work and at different stages of their lives.
Bronson: The book reflects that pretty well. It's not all-encompassing. It's still skewed and biased by the nature of my personal outreach. I'm not a sociologist. I didn't make sure that every single grid portion is checked. I wish I could be that, but I'm not wired that way.
I began this project for the people in my life I'd seen trying to answer this question. Primarily, these were the educated, professional people I'd been writing about in the previous books. In my own work experience, going way back, being an assembly line worker, a janitor, and working in restaurants, I saw some people for whom the question mattered and others for whom it didn't matter at all, but I didn't think back on those people until later in the research when I started to discover that in fact all these great stories were coming to me from people I never imagined I'd be putting in the book. I'd never imagined they cared, that it mattered to them.
Early on, I didn't want to be shot down by people saying, "Oh, that's just an American question." If I bumped into a Swedish woman at a wedding and she asked what I was working on, I might hedge and say, "Oh, I know it's an American question. This career-obsessed society?" And she'd say, "Are you kidding? It's all my friends and I talk about."
We all want a meaningful life. It's a basic philosophical question: what makes life meaningful? I think that makes it a great thing to write about, but we don't in everyday life sit around like philosophers thinking, What makes life meaningful? We're confronted with these questions because we just got laid off or we just got divorced or you just found out you have cancer. Suddenly you're confronted with What should I do with my life? That plot-driving you've-got-to-survive immediacy so often piggybacks on this philosophical question.
Dave: The book's first profile might be the oddest one. A young man receives a letter from the Dalai Lama saying that he's the reincarnation of a great spiritual leader. That letter sets his life course.
You interviewed more than nine hundred people, and only about five percent of are in the book. Do some profiles resonate with you more than the rest? Do people tend to ask about particular stories?
Bronson: It's a little bit of a Rorschach test. I was on NPR last week, and the producer was really interested in the story of the Toner Queen of Chicago. Almost no media person ever asks about her. Readers do, but not media people.
For me, this book began as a conversation. I published it, and the conversation didn't end; it intensified. So I've been having this conversation, trying to share the stories and what I've learned. I've had to retell some stories more than others because people want to hear about them. Others mean a lot to me because they really helped me personally. I'll give you an example of each.
A chapter that helps me explain the book is one that is often written up, the story of the banker who became a catfish farmer. People remember that one. I'll come to a reading, and people will say, "That was great, but I can't just quit my job and pursue my dream of being a catfish farmer." And I'm like, "Which chapter did you just read?!" The guy didn't say, "Take this job and shove it." He had spent several years in an incredibly unethical business situation in which he was knowingly screwing clients until he finally protested to his bosses and resigned over it. That made him taboo in the industry. Nobody would hire him. The only thing that came along was to manage this catfish farm, which wasn't remotely his dream. This was a guy who didn't like being an outdoorsman; he just wanted to practice business.
Dave: And the catfish farm was a family business, right?
Bronson: Right. His in-laws were looking for someone.
He took his skills to the third poorest county in the poorest state in the country, and he turned that dead-end situation into something he really loved. He became part of the community, building Eldercare facilities and getting the local farms to work together, processing their fish and ginning their cotton and fertilizing their crops. He didn't get what he loved. He learned to love what he got.
It's exactly that distinction between getting what you love and loving what you get. A lot of people will read the book and voices will come out. They'll think, I guess I'm supposed to follow that voice. I'll quit my job and be a guitarist. Well, sometimes you do need to listen to that voice, but I think people are misreading the stories if that's the only message they get.
Dave: And a story that matters a lot to you personally...
Bronson:: Anthony Anderson, the diver who loved to read. Anthony is a guy who always fought back. He was a hothead. He was angry. Or he ran away—he ran away from his family in high school. He had this dream of diving and came to the Pacific Northwest, where he went to dive school, but he couldn't get hired because of his attitude, primarily. Partly because of how I was raised, I too learned that fight-or-flight instinct.
People often think that meaningful work begins with what you're good at, where your talents are, but also I think there's value in being forced to learn something that doesn't come naturally. Diving slowly taught Anthony how to cope. When you're diving, you're on a fifteen-by-twenty-foot barge with twelve people in twelve-hour shifts. Or for four-hour shifts, you're a hundred fifty feet underwater, surviving off an oxygen tube with a ten thousand degree blowtorch in one hand. You can't run from your problems in these situations; there's nowhere to run. And if you fight, everything's going to go wrong. You have to learn to cope.
I get in situations in my life where I feel like I can't handle it, it's too much pressure for me, my family situation is a lot or work bubbles up and becomes too pressing, and I think about Anthony, watching him descend into the water. He learned to cope and not run from his problems, not fight back. That helps me deal with my own challenges. I often find myself picturing him to help me.
Dave: And you're still interviewing people?
Bronson: A little bit. I would like the book to mature over time. In the paperback, I've added nine stories. There's no finale to this. A lot of books, what you write is the word; the word is gospel; it's codified. I felt the other way around with this: it was very hard to end.
I didn't think I could end the book in a way as if to claim that the question had been answered. I didn't feel that way. I wanted to keep it open. So I'm still talking to some people, but I'm working on another book now.
Dave: And that book is about family, right?
Dave: It seems like a natural transition. Questions about family drive many of the stories in What Should I Do with My Life? For the next book, you're talking specifically about which aspects of family?
Bronson: It goes back to a big question: What's a meaningful life?
However people define it—whether it's a family they're creating or the family they come from or their surrogate family—families are a big part of what makes life meaningful, but they're a huge source of anguish and stress, too.
Here it's January. Random House timed this book with New Year's and New Year's resolutions, a time when people are thinking about How am I going to embrace truth and meaning in my life? But as I'm saying, the way it really comes up is that it's Friday, January 2nd, and you're on your bus to work; you've been off for a week. You find yourself wondering, Crap. Is this all there is? Meanwhile, you've been with your family all that week, and you're on that bus shaking your head thinking, Will they ever change?
Family crises drive so many of these plots in our life. They interject themselves. Geraldine Agee has to fly to Carolina and rescue her crazy mother from poverty; you discover that your husband is having an affair just like your dad was having an affair; or you finally broke free from that arranged marriage your parents made in India, then you come here and find out that you're really no better at choosing than your parents were. The stories go on and on. These are enormous, never ending sagas.
My methodology is just to listen to lots of stories and slowly tease out common threads. I have four hundred fifty files open, with a principal character, a couple secondary characters, and the overall family. Out of that have been emerging themes, such as the prevalence of people bringing different cultures into their marriages. That's just one of many themes reoccurring.
I don't even try to describe what I'm doing in specifics on my web site. I say, I'm interested in people's family stories. I'm not going to tell you anything more than that. If you want to share with me, share. Slowly themes start to emerge; they build up.
Dave: Most of the people you wrote about in The Nudist on the Late Shift led solitary lives centered entirely around work. Their jobs left very little time and energy for anything else.
Bronson: No family at all.
Dave: Looking back on that book and the world it describes—the Silicon Valley during the Internet boom—what do you think of it now? So much changed so quickly.
Bronson: I wanted to chronicle those times. My inspirations for the project were Upton Sinclair chronicling the migration of the oil boom in California, John Steinbeck chronicling times during the Great Depression when people moved out to California, and Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem in which she chronicled the early era of the hippies coming to San Francisco. That was my call. I was a writer living in California, and there was a migration going on. Who were the people showing up and doing this?
I was interested in social mobility and the question of whether it really exists, whether you can remake yourself. In that sense, I felt like I captured that place and time extremely well, and managed to capture its weirdness without being distracted by money, never writing about stock prices or anything like that.
At the same time, I did drink some of the Kool Aid, sure. I was enthusiastic about it. I didn't think it was going to last forever, but I still thought it was cool.
The book was published in June or July of 1999, and it was the last thing I ever wrote about Silicon Valley. There were signs everywhere of it starting to stink. By the end of the summer, my nose was telling me these parties were full of poseurs, people playing games? The revelations came in that period of time between when I gave the book to Random House and when it was published. Stock prices were still going up, it was exciting for another year, but I was running from it. I had grown sick of the people inhabiting these fictions. I went to Hollywood to write because, ironically, it was more pure in Hollywood than in Silicon Valley. The people were more honest in Hollywood. They were more real, and they're not by any means very real.
So the book was out and it was selling, it was doing well, at the bottom of some bestseller lists, and people were saying, "We want you to write more," but I just wanted to get out.
I'd wanted to capture the exuberance. I regret that some people read the book and got on planes and in cars and came to California. They wrote me. I felt responsible because I did what a media person does in capturing the exuberance, but I think I failed to do what a basic human being does, which is to say What do I really think? What I really thought was, I want to be a writer. I would do anything not to be in that world. In the book, I never said that. And I think that instinct led me to the next book.
Dave: In the introduction to The Nudist on the Late Shift, you write, "I'm inexperienced as a journalist and I'm no good at asking tough questions."
Bronson: I'm really not very good at it. I watch journalists on TV doing their interviews and they have to ask the Congressman that dirty question time and again, but I give people a lot of rope and work my way around to the point.
When writing Nudist on the Late Shift, I did not say to people, "Come on. Your company can't possibly be worth $300 million! That's ridiculous. Explain that to me." That wasn't what I did. Some journalists did that; they're good at it. That wasn't what I was good at. I just spent a lot of time with people and eventually their stories came out.
Dave: You do include personal commentary all throughout What Should I Do With My Life? You're not an absent narrator. The chapter I've found myself telling people about most often is the one where the guy tells you that he's going to feel like you're using him if you don't give him feedback and advice.
Bronson: Tim Bratcher.
Dave: He was so self-abusive. I found myself wanting to slap him.
Bronson: And you do.
In real life, we interact, we judge, we offer advice, and we encourage all the time. Normally, journalists cut all that out—when they adopt a writing pose, they put a clinical tone or objectivity upon it—but in the interest of honesty, I wanted to leave in there the fact that I was sometimes interacting with these people on a different level, in some cases even forming friendships.
Tim Bratcher was a lawyer who felt he was in a toxic situation in Silicon Valley. He didn't know what to do. He really needed to leave—it was so obvious—but he couldn't resist the desire to stay and prove to the people who'd fired him that they were wrong about him. It was just like, Give up trying to impress those jerks, Tim. Just go. But you don't get to say that when you're a journalist. So there I am, it's so clear to me, and he wants me to say it, but I can't say it because that's not what a journalist is supposed to do.
I saw Tim early on in the process. It was clear to me that he wanted my take on what he should do. He wanted the benefit of my interviews. He teased out of me, in a way, the fiction that I'd been telling myself: that I couldn't give him my opinion because I was a journalist and it might be too influential; I might affect the situation. He wanted me not to be a journalist; he wanted me to be a person.
I love Nudist on the Late Shift. Probably from a language point of view it's my favorite —it's more playful—but I end up spending a lot of time trying to sound smart, showing off what I can do as a writer, being the anthropologist-writer. In What Should I Do with My Life? I learned to drop pretenses and be real with people, be a person and treat them as real people. I got a lot more out of it because I learned to do that.
It's opened my eyes now. I can see both sides of it in a way that I never could before: the writer's side and the subject's. It's been a journey towards saying, Just treat people as people. If I were to write a magazine piece or something for a newspaper, I would be right back to that journalistic voice. Those are the rules. You play by the rules. But in a book, those aren't the rules, and it was nice to be able to let that guard down.
Dave: From your interactions with readers, what do you think we should be talking about right now? What would they want to hear? If we weren't just going to volley back and forth.
Bronson: I kind of like just volleying back and forth, but I guess I come here and I look forward to the chance not to be asked, "So if I have five hobbies and they all seem interesting to me, how do I know which one to do?" No disrespect, and I'll talk about that at the bookstore tonight—I'll be asked a similar question and I'll give my most sincere answer—but I'm more comfortable talking from the point of view of a writer and a journalist, not of an expert on people's callings.
Dave: Have you read anything exciting lately?
Bronson: I read four books when I was in Mexico, right before my tour started. I read a book called Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson, which is coming out in June from Random House. It's about a story people might have heard, but it's an incredible book—sort of Into Thin Air meets The Perfect Storm. In 1991, two deep-sea exploration divers discovered a lost Nazi sub sixteen miles off the coast of New Jersey. Deep-sea diving is actually very harrowing—a lot of people die in the book—but it's more of an intellectual journey about trying to identify which submarine it was and to find the relatives of those men who died and let them know what had happened.
I read a book by a woman named Samina Ali called Madras on Rainy Days. Samina was raised in Minnesota and at eighteen she was sent back to India and married off. Then she came back to America and, as it was, it turned out that her husband was gay. Her novel is a family drama about being a woman who is forced into an arranged marriage, but it defies a lot of stereotypes about what you think might happen. The husband isn't as mad as she expected when he finds out that she's actually had sex before; and it turns out that his family is very loving, in a way that her family never was. It goes places you don't think it will.
I read Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. It was shocking to me. I had bought my girlfriend, now my wife, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, kind of as a joke. She read it, then she bought me this—again, as a joke. It wasn't funny at all; it was very serious. It was extremely depressing to read the actual lies and how they're propagated in the media. I accept as a given that every journalist wants to tell the truth —they might not get everything right, but they're trying to—so to see journalists just making up lies and distorting things, it made me rethink politics and how it has to be played. It made me think that we need to fight more. It was revealing to me in a way I was not remotely expecting.
And I read a book called Sex, Time, and Power by Leonard Schlain, an evolutionary biologist. It was sort of mind blowing to me. He tracks how women evolved slightly different than men. It explains a lot about sexuality that I hadn't understood before. Why I feel things, why I think things, the origin of families?when humans learned forty thousand years ago that a baby is a function of its particular father and mother. It's a really interesting book.
I read all over the spectrum. The holidays are a nice time to read.
Po Bronson visited Powell's City of Books on January 15, 2004. Squeezing this interview into a very tight schedule, he managed to consume a quick dinner (two slices of pizza from the Whole Foods on 12th) in the few minutes between our conversation and his reading.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State