Synopses & Reviews
Po Bronson traveled the world in search of people who have found meaningful answers to life's greatest questions. 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. Each story addresses an essential question: Is it supposed to feel like 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 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? With humor, empathy, and insight, Bronson's stories will inspire listeners to overcome fear and confusion to find a larger truth about their lives.
"[Bronson] offers profiles of individuals searching for meaning in what they do for a living, drawn from interviews and personal observations....Throughout the book, Bronson explores the many fears and misconceptions arising from the search for a career." Vanessa Bush, Booklist
"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
"Beautifully written ... Free of religiosity and cant, the book also is remarkably spiritual.... 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 the question of how we each find our personal mission in life 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, "Years Best Books"
"Exhilarating and comforting, even to someone who doesn't want to change [his or her] life
The tales are marvelous, in all their confusion and raggedness. Bronson has an unerring sense of the story that isn't the cliché." Detroit Free Press
"A remarkable social document, raised to the level of literature by Bronson's own deep level of involvement, his candour and compassion." Evening Standard (U.K.)
"A galvanizing read for a new year and the perfect career guide for all those iconoclasts who never even met with their high school guidance counselors." Elle
this book fascinates because of the broad spectrum of testimonies." Financial Times (U.K.)
"A fascinating social document, and a kind of superior self-help book
very readable." Guardian (U.K.)
"It's unimaginable that one could read this book without ending up thinking critically about [one's] own life work." The Seattle Times
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.
About the Author
Po Bronson is the author of Bombardiers, The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest, and The Nudist on the Late Shift. He is on the board of directors of Consortium Book Sales & Distribution and the editorial board of Zoetrope: All Story magazine, and 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 from 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?
A Talk with
WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH MY LIFE?
The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question
You went searching for the answer to quite a broad and difficult question. Why?
The short answer: because writers are supposed to tackle the broad, difficult questions.
But stating the question so bluntly (as in the title) often makes me queasy. In reality, I had asked myself this exact question when I switched careers and became a writer (and again when I became a father). After my last book, which profiled several people wrapped up in the internet boom, I watched as the bubble burst. I recognized this question–always prevalent–would become a huge issue for so many people. Many people I knew or would meet were suddenly faced with this question, whether they chose to ask it or not. My writer’s instinct kicked in and I went from there.
You met more than 900 people. How did you find them all?
I simply told everyone who asked what I was working on. The word spread, often in a six-degrees-of-separation zigzag that I couldn’t retrace. That I found so many was an indicator of how pregnant this question was in our society. I’d asked a question that people wanted to talk about.
The phone would ring, and I’d answer it, and suddenly I was a confidante.
“How’d you find me?” I might ask later.
“From your friend Heidi in Olathe, Kansas.”
I didn’t know any Heidis in Olathe Kansas.
Nor did I know Dr. DeStrange, some guy in Seattle who sent a kid in Baton Rouge my way.
In the middle of the night, confused and frustrated people typed “What is the meaning of my life?” into the Google search engine, sort of as a joke, not expecting it to have an answer. But Google lead them to descriptions of my book in progress, and soon their life was intertwined with mine.
They came to me. Gifts from the ether.
Out of these connections, how did you choose the 55 stories to include in the book?
I let my muse be my filter. I didn’t expect to be comprehensive, but I tried for diversity of ages, classes, and professions. I chose people who had dramatic stories and who I could empathize with. I tried not to repeat myself. Importantly, I didn’t chose stories to serve as example of certain predetermined arguments. What their stories “meant” often didn’t come clear until the writing, until the third or fourth attempt to tell it. The meaning surfaced from the stories; I did not force it upon them.
Were you surprised by some of the trends and answers you uncovered?
Constantly. Here’s a few that ran counter to my expectations:
1. Studs Terkel found people content to stay put. I found people dizzy from change and upheaval. Of the 900 I talked to, only one had had the same employer his adult life. It’s a different world out there.
2. I used to advocate the adrenaline rush, the brain candy. But now I recognize it for just that–candy. A synthetic substitute for other kinds of gratification that can be ultimately more rewarding and enduring.
3. I was surprised how many immigrants and working class people considered this question important to them, not just the educated and well-to-do.
4. I assumed a large fraction of people would have no clue where they belonged. It turned out most had good instincts, but had been scared away from following them by fears and misconceptions about how the world works. Time and again, in story after story, subjects were their own worst enemy. The gravitational pull of old habits began to take effect.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I could go on and on, but remember, each person I met had a different answer to this question. The one thing I discovered in nearly every person I met–those who had succeeded in reaching their goals and those who had not–is that they were better off for asking the question. Not just putting it out there, but actually having the guts to at least start looking for an answer.
In today’s economic climate, how realistic is it for people to just up and change their careers? Don't a significant portion of people in this country suffer from paycheck to paycheck, afraid to leave because even a bad job is better than no job?
It’s simply wrong to assume that it is in good times, when opportunity is aplenty, that people change their life. They’re free to, but they don’t. They don’t make hard choices because they don’t have to. It’s when the money has dried up that people are often forced to find something else that gives their life meaning.
Of all the people I interviewed, almost all of their transformations began in hard times like these upon us now — they suffered layoffs, bankruptcies, hospitalizations, family crises, et cetera. Those hard times helped them realize what really mattered; the hard times reset their moral compass and helped them make tough choices. The economy is not made up of two groups, those who stay put and those who seek. It’s a lie that people can choose to stay put for long — time and again, we are all forced to make changes — we graduated, get downsized, our spouse gets a job in a new city and we tag along. It’s up to us whether these inevitable changes will lead to somewhere we can be content, or simply lead us in circles, back to the same discontent we started with.
I apologize in advance for the rudeness of this next question, but what do you feel makes you qualified to write about this subject?
I wasn’t an expert. I had no credentials as a counselor or academic. I’m a writer and a journalist and, as a journalist, I set out to cover a story. As I researched my subjects–exhaustive research, as it turns out. I went to see everyone in person, wherever they might be–I approached them as merely “one of them.” I had asked this question myself and been humbled by it. I approached this project as if I knew nothing and was continuously humbled by what some of these people had endured and the wisdom they seemed to radiate.
Yet, I made sure that I employed my tools as a writer to tell their stories. I believe I have been emotionally and intellectually honest in every story I told.
After four books–two novels and two nonfiction–how has your writing voice changed over the last eight years and how did this growth affect the writing of this book?
I began as a satirist, my comedy bleak and black. I was strictly on the attack. In the final scene of my first novel, two bond salesmen quit their jobs and drive off to a better, saner life. Fade out. But what was the better, saner life? I could put no words to it and was terrified of ever having to spell it out. I recognized it would require a different language and tone - from decimation to affirmation, from irony to ministry, from misanthrope to philanthrope.
With this book, I have finally crossed that bridge. So many complete strangers let me into their lives and trusted me with their life stories. The kindness of that gift stirred me. Through them, I have finally given voice to that question I left unanswered four books ago.
A journalist is supposed to remain neutral and not interfere when reporting, but there are times in WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH MY LIFE? when you break that fourth wall. Can you comment on this?
Numerous times people asked me for advice, and several times they directly asked me for help. Occasionally, when pressed, I obliged. In one case I actually got the subject a new life–by selling him a book distribution company I’d been involved with.
It felt creatively appropriate to do this. The book’s point-of-view is “don’t be a bystander in life.” Don’t let opportunities to get involved pass you by. Be lead by your heart. Let yourself care. So to maintain the normal distance of a journalist would have felt contrary to the message of the book. Same with the choice to tell my own story in the book–which I know is a controversial choice. It was important to trade intimacies, not to have it be one-sided. I had to reveal myself as they did to me.
What do you hope that readers will take away from this book?
I hope they’ll enjoy reading it and while doing so, it will naturally help them contemplate the story of their life. Maybe the stories they read, the lives they enter on the page, will disarm a few fears, freeing them to invite more truth into their life. It will offer solace when their journey demands sacrifice, introspection, and courage.
Finally, with the publication of WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH MY LIFE?, a dialogue that you began will start being discussed in a larger arena. Where do you hope that this “conversation” will go?
People don’t have to agree with me; I hope that, by either fostering agreement or provoking disagreement, it helps people find their story.
From the Hardcover edition.