Though he'd just published his third bestseller (The Nudist on the Late Shift) Po Bronson remained uneasy. "The book was out and it was selling," he reflected. "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." For his next project, Bronson decided to find out what made work meaningful, and how people found their calling. Dave, Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
“Brimming with stories of sacrifice, courage, commitment and, sometimes, failure, the book will support anyone pondering a major life choice or risk without force-feeding them pat solutions.”
What should I do with my life?
It’s a question many of us have pondered with frequency. Author Po Bronson was asking himself that very question when he decided to write this book—an inspiring exploration of how people transform their lives and a template for how we can answer this question for ourselves.
Bronson traveled the country in search of individuals who have struggled to find their calling, their true nature—people who made mistakes before getting it right. He encountered people of all ages and all professions—a total of fifty-five fascinating individuals trying to answer questions such as: Is a career supposed to feel like a destiny? How do I tell the difference between a curiosity and a passion? Should I make money first, to fund my dream? If I have a child, will my frustration over my work go away? Should I accept my lot, make peace with my ambition, and stop stressing out? Why do I feel guilty for thinking about this?
From their efforts to answer these questions, the universal truths in this book emerge. Each story in these pages informs the next, and the result is a journey that unfolds with cumulative power. Reading this book is like listening in on an intimate conversation among people you care about and admire. Even if you know what you should do with your life, you will find wisdom and guidance in these stories of people who found meaningful answers by daring to be honest with themselves.
-the Pittsburgh lawyer who decided to become a trucker so he could savor the moment and be closer to his son.
-the toner-cartridge queen of Chicago, who realized that her relationships with men kept sabotaging her career choices.
-the Cuban immigrant who overcame the strong dis-approval of her parents and quit her high-paying job to pursue social-service work in Miami.
-the chemistry professor who realized, quite late in life, that he would rather practice law.
-the mother torn between an Olympic career and her adolescent daughter.
-the seventeen-year-old boy who received a letter from the Dalai Lama and was called to a life of spiritual leadership.
-the creator of St. Elmo’s Fire, who wasn’t sure he could quit his successful Hollywood life for the deeper artistic life he had always wanted to pursue.
-the author himself. Po Bronson has worked as a bus-boy, cook, janitor, sports-medicine intern, bus-lift assembly-line technician, aerobics instructor, litigation consultant, greeting-card designer, bond salesman, political-newsletter editor, high school teacher, and book publisher. Since then, he has written three books: Bombardiers, The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest, and The Nudist on the Late Shift. But none of those experiences compared to what he learned by writing this book.
“We all have passions if we choose to see them,” he writes. “Most of us don’t get epiphanies. We don’t get clarity. Our purpose doesn’t arrive neatly packaged as destiny. We only get a whisper. A blank, nonspecific urge. That’s how it starts.”
With humor, empathy, and insight, Po Bronson probes the depths of people who learned how to hear the whisper, who overcame fear and confusion to find a larger truth about their lives. A meditation, a journey, and a triumph of story-telling, What Should I Do with My Life? is a life-changing book by a writer who brilliantly tackles the big questions.
"[An] elevated career guide....Brimming with stories of sacrifice, courage, commitment and, sometimes, failure, the book will support anyone pondering a major life choice or risk without force-feeding them pat solutions." Publishers Weekly
"Throughout the book, Bronson explores the many fears and misconceptions arising from the search for a career." Booklist
"Beautifully written....Bronson masterfully blends narrative and interpretation, coaxing his subjects to life in telling, resonant anecdotes. This is holistic writing of unique, encouraging power." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"This new title matches a worthwhile premise...with a tone refreshingly free of either sap or cynicism....What [Bronson] finds is equally useful to middle-age folks and fresh college grads." Cleveland Plain Dealer (Year's Best Books)
"Bronson's freewheeling analysis and earnest assertions of respect for his subjects fail to engage, resulting in messy pastiche of oral history, sociology, and self-help. Well-researched, engaging stories struggling under the weight of cloying commentary." Kirkus Reviews
"The discussions of mistakes, lessons, and hard-fought decisions on the iffy road to occupational fulfillment will be valuable for teens." School Library Journal
The bestselling author of Bombardiers and The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest traveled the world in search of people who had found meaningful answers to one of life's greatest questions: "What should I do with my life?" Along the way, his own life was changed by conversations with these individuals, who, by daring to be honest with themselves, have found new direction and understanding in their lives.
In What Should I Do with My Life? Po Bronson tells the inspirational true stories of people who have found the most meaningful answers to that great question. With humor, empathy, and insight, Bronson writes of remarkable individuals from young to old, from those just starting out to those in a second career who have overcome fear and confusion to find a larger truth about their lives and, in doing so, have been transformed by the experience. What Should I Do with My Life? struck a powerful, resonant chord on publication, causing a multitude of people to rethink their vocations and priorities and start on the path to finding their true place in the world.
Although all three of his books have been critically acclaimed bestsellers, author Po Bronson began work on What Should I Do with My Life? because he was asking himself that very question. For answers, he crossed the landscape of America to find people who have struggled to unearth their true calling people of all ages, classes, and professions who have found fulfillment: those who fought with the seduction of money, intensity, and novelty and overcame their allure; those who broke away from the chorus to learn the sound of their own voice.
About the Author
Po Bronson is on the board of directors of Consortium Book Sales & Distribution and the editorial board of Zoetrope: All Story magazine. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Wired. He graduated from Stanford with a B.A. in Economics and San Francisco State with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. He lives in San Francisco.
Reading Group Guide
A READING GROUP GUIDE
(Prepared by Random House editors in consultation with the author)
FOR BOOK CLUBS AND OTHERS
SEEKING FURTHER PROVOCATION
(A User's Guide, if you will)
Now that you've read What Should I Do With My Life, we highly recommend discussing it with your friends, family, or book group. We suggest the following questions as fodder for those discussions.
Strategies & Macro Influences
Finding Your Story
1. Po chose to weave in fragments of his life when his memories were triggered by the stories of others. How did this enhance or detract from your experience of reading the book? Did his doing so encourage you to think about your own memories, or did it get in the way?
2. Journalists are supposed to be impartial. Theyre not supposed to overtly care for the people they write about. In rejecting that method, Po seemed to be suggesting that caring for others is necessary for a meaningful life. Do you agree? What would Po have gained or missed if he had adopted a journalists customary detachment?
3. Most of the stories have positive outcomes, but the subjects have to endure a painful period to get there, and theyre still tinged with regret and uncertainty afterwards. Did you find the overall picture rosy or sad? Did you expect otherwise?
4. Po chose to include several stories of people who are still struggling, or who have found only part of their solution. He also chose ordinary people, rather than famous ones. Why do you think he made these choices? How does it influence the overall tone of the book?
5. Was part of your enjoyment the fantasy of being welcomed into the intimate lives of strangers? Was part of your enjoyment the sense that theres someone out there who would be willing to listen to your life story? How important to your enjoyment was getting concrete wisdom from the stories?
6. Po recorded the stories of over 900 people. That suggests he wanted to be encompassing and representative of everyone, but he freely admits that his research was biased heavily towards the kind of person he used to be (and the kind of people he used to write about). Does this influence the legitimacy of his conclusions? In what ways has your perspective also been limited by where you come from?
7. Po categorized the stories in a way that highlighted the psychological issues we have in common. He rejected methods of categorization that would have sorted people by profession, age, or class. Thus, the story of an electrician is followed by a political appointee, and the story of a mother is followed by a trucker, etc. What is the author trying to say about the way people usually identify themselves?
8. Po clearly chose not to write a How-To guidebook. But he seems torn between two ambitions his desire to be a serious chronicler, which dictated recording the stories straight, and his desire to help readers, which lead him to distill helpful insights. When did he cross over too far, in either direction? Do you work in a field where wanting to help others means you are taken less seriously?
STRATEGIES & MACRO INFLUENCES
9. Did you think any of these people should have stayed put, rather than leave their old life behind? Whose choices did you question or criticize? For instance, did you question Carl Kurlanders decision to write Louie Andersons autobiography, rather than his own? Did you accept or reject Mark Kraschels appreciation for Muslim culture? Did you respect Katt Clarks decision to set aside her Olympic dreams for her daughter a second time?
10. Many of these people left professions where they would have made a lot of money, and in some cases did. What message do you extract from this that its necessary to resist the temptation of money, and the sooner the better, to avoid being locked in by golden handcuffs? Or does their example suggest that its possible to follow in their path, aiming for money now and postponing your calling until later?
11. Katherine James, Warren Brown, Debbie Brient and Jennifer Scott were among the many who believed they were being steered towards the right decision. Do you believe in destiny, or a guiding hand? If so, what should one do when the universe seems to be making it very, very hard to succeed? is that a sign youre going in the wrong direction?
12. Po concludes that a calling isnt something you know, in the absence of experience, its something you grow into. Many of the people in this book werent able to figure out where they really belonged until the second half of their life. How should this influence the way we counsel students, who want to find their answer now, not later?
13. Every industry has a culture. And every culture is driven by a value system. Po urges us to recognize how these value systems have shaped us, for better or worse. What is the culture of the industry in which you work? What does it value in a person, and what doesnt it value?
14. How have you and your spouse (or partner) helped each other in your pursuit? How have you hindered each other? Have you chosen partners because they helped you succeed? Po confesses that he used the support of his first wife like a crutch that he didnt take sole responsibility for his own situation. Do you agree that generous support can lead to neglect of responsibilities?
15. Roughly half the people in the book are parents. The other half arent at least yet (either because theyve delayed doing so, or they havent found their partner). Did you read their story differently if they had children? Did you relate to them differently?
16. When youve had to counsel friends or family who are facing an agonizing decision, how have you balanced the need to be supportive against the need to be realistic? To what extent is your counseling strategy reflective of your own successes and failures?
17. Po says that were all struggling to transcend the way our class defines us. He seems to be saying that the inequity between classes is a wound in our collective psyche. Do you think its that relevant does it really affect our individual enjoyment of life?
18. At LSU, Mike Blandinos Buddhism taught him to find his answers in his state of being, not doing. In Indiana, Barry Brown was influenced by the sermons of an old-time Calvinist. Mike Jenzeh was guided by Isaiah 58 of the Old Testament. At the Unity Church in Bandon, John Butler taught that what we consider our strengths are limiting beliefs compensating for our biases and weaknesses. At St. Agathas in Los Angeles, Father Joe preached that helping others is the way to serve God. How does your religion affect your pursuit of this question? Do you agree with your churchs teaching?
FINDING YOUR STORY
19. What have you been called to, over the course of your life? Have you listened to those calls? Which have you acted upon, and which have you chosen not to?
20. Write a one-page memory of a time during your childhood or teen years that you managed to succeed at something that you were afraid of trying or convinced you would fail at.
21. In the first section, Po portrays various ways of arriving at "a sense of rightness," such as analyzing your skills, or watching for synchronicity, or wanting to help others who have suffered similar tragedies and losses. Po also says were as likely to simply stumble into a place that feels right as arrive there by reasoned planning. Which of these ways have you used when telling your story to others? Could you tell your story using the other methods?
22. Po concludes that its in hard times that were forced to overcome the fears and doubts that normally give us pause. To what extent have the changes in your life been self-selected, during good times, or been forced upon you, during hard ones? When youve suffered hardship, has it altered what you consider important? Has hardship changed your life, or have you fought to get back to "normal"?
23. Po warns against editing out important pieces of our story in order to make our story more presentable to others. "Embrace your luck, pain and ghosts," he suggests in one chapter; in another he writes, "look backward even more than forward, and chase away preconceptions of what our story is supposed to sound like." He contrasts the Resume Version with the Work-In-Progress Version. How do you describe yourself in a public situation? How do you do so differently in a private situation? What failures do you rarely bring up? Do you agree that we should be more revealing of our "real story" in public situations?
24. In the chapter "The Brain Candy Generation," Po says the true search is for what you believe in what kind of world you want to live in. In what ways are you making the world a better place even if its just one quality interaction at a time?
25. Po tells Tom Scott that happiness is too easy a test; rather, we should ask what will be fulfilling. Leela de Souza found that fulfillment when she stopped asking what would make her happy, and instead asked "to what could she devote her life?" Mike Jenzehs life improved when he gave up that it was all about himself. Yet these stories are balanced by the likes of Warren Brown, who stopped suppressing what made him happy, and Kurt Slauson, who had been denying himself permission to enjoy his life. Have the most fulfilling periods of your life also been happy ones? Is happiness essential?
26. Bart Handford tells Po the parable of the three bricklayers building a cathedral, suggesting that even menial work can be meaningful if its contributing to something you believe in. Have your most meaningful accomplishments required a lot of menial work?
27. Po suggests that temptations can come in many forms: in the form of money, respect, love, and convenience. Write a one page memory about a time in your adult life that you resisted one of these temptations.
28. In the chapter "The Ungrateful Soldier," Po recounts C.S. Lewiss assertion that belonging to an Inner Ring is a powerful, wayward desire. Po asks Tim Bratcher whos sitting at that table whos in his Inner Ring. Are there ways youve used status as a surrogate for individual expression? What elusive ring do you long to belong to? Are there people in your life (or in your past) that you dont respect, yet are still trying to prove wrong?
29. Both Stephen Lyons and Chi Tschang tell Po that if you can develop into a person of good character, your chances of succeeding in life improve dramatically. What do they mean by "character"? Whats an example from your own life of good or bad character?