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What Should I Do With My Life? The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question by Po Bronson


Rating: (Recommended)


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When Po Bronson wondered what work he should do next, he decided to go out and ask other people how they decided, and that led to his latest book, What Should I Do with My Life? This is a great question, that can have many different answers during the course of a lifetime. The true stories that Bronson presents allow readers to pause and listen to possible answers to that ultimate question. Sometimes in the pausing, the answers seem clearer.

Here’s an excerpt of Bronson’s closing remarks:



I don't think of the people in this book as the best stories out there. Rather, they're the ones that came into my life. Once I heard a story, I was willing to get on a plane, and I was willing to be honest. In order to know people personally, I might have gone to great lengths, but I didn't go to great lengths to discover them.

If some of the stories are amazing, it suggests to me that amazing stories must be everywhere. If the stories are inspiring, then inspiring stories are everywhere. If the stories are ordinary—which is how I think of them—then many ordinary people, everywhere, are daring to be true to themselves.

I began this book with nothing more than a glimmer. I was sitting in my office, staring into space, unable to write, when I asked myself: What was on people's minds? A lot were wondering what to do with their lives. That big, obvious, threatening, looming question. Unconsciously, I got up and knocked on my friend Ethan Watters's door, threw myself down on his minisofa, and asked him what he thought of the idea. "How would you do it?" he asked, naturally. I didn't know. I had one instinct: writing about my own friends would be cheating. I needed to sample real people from around the country. "How would you find them?" he asked. I didn't know. I secured votes of confidence from my agent and my ex-editor (who had left publishing, but I trusted his opinion, and it turned out he came back to books two months later). I set to work, trying to figure it out. I didn't know where I was headed, but this seemed like what I needed, to plunge into the unknown, guided only by my muse.

I didn't know that I would meet so many wonderful people. I never expected how honest they would be with me. I didn't know that I would learn so much from them. I didn't know that this book would become a vehicle for me to express a new voice. I didn't know that my desire for this book would survive my son's birth, or the catastrophe of September 11, or our parents' falling ill. All that unfolded for me later, like a reward for trusting my instincts.

Here's my point: usually, all we get is a glimmer. A story we read or someone we briefly met. A curiosity. A meek voice inside, whispering. It's up to us to hammer out the rest. The rewards of pursuing it are only for those who are willing to listen attentively, only for those people who really care.

It's not for everyone. If we are the victim of an injustice, it is up to us to find a meaningful way to channel our anger. If we suffer a terrible crisis, only we can transform this suffering into a launching pad for a new life.

These are the turning points from which we get to construct our own story, if we choose to do so. It won't be easy, and it won't be quick. Finding what we should do is one of life's great dramas. It can be an endless process of discovery, one to be appreciated and respected for its difficulty.

There will always be those who say it's impractical. I respect that we have to be practical in our approach, and we have to live up to our responsibilities. But it's not impractical or vain. The reason is, people who love what they do are much more productive than those who are doing it for the paycheck. If we can find work we care about, our productivity will explode. Our value will increase radically. We will be the source of good ideas. And we will be rewarded.

I studied economics in college, so let me address the question of whether this is practical from a macroeconomic point of view.

While writing this book, I was invited by Michael Dell, of Dell Computer, to be on a panel at a gathering of the Business Council, a group of over one hundred CEOs from some of the biggest companies in the country. Together, they pretty much are the economy. Or a huge chunk of it. It was an honor to be invited to address them. My panel would last an hour, and I was one of five participants, so I would probably only get one shot to deliver a coherent message. I might never again speak to such an influential crowd. This was my chance. If you had a few minutes to address the leaders of the economy, what would you say?

We had a great lead-in. Before our panel, the podium was turned over to Dr. Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard and a noted economist. He reviewed some frightening demographics for any CEOs in the audience who were bullish on the economy. He asked the question, "Where will the economic growth come from, if at all?" In the preceding twenty years, we've had the wind at our backs. The number of prime-age workers (ages twenty-five to fifty-four) increased by 54 percent. The percentage with a college degree increased by 50 percent. In other words, the economy has grown since 1980 largely because the number of people participating in the economy has grown.

Looking ahead to the next twenty years, during which many baby boomers are expected to retire, we can expect no growth in the number of workers. The percentage that are minorities and immigrants will increase by 50 percent, and there will be no change in the fraction with a college degree. In other words, unless these trends are changed—or unless there are unforeseen boosts in productivity per worker—the economy won't grow much, if at all.

In other words, audience, if you sell John Deere tractors, there will not be people with lawns to mow. If you sell Boeing airplanes, there won't be people to fly in their seats. If you sell Tide soap, there won't be people who need their clothes washed.

It was a pretty intense moment as this sank in.

Could the most powerful CEOs in America change something about that? That's what this conference was for. The entire next day's schedule was devoted to education reform. The notion was, it would be up to the educational system to transform the unproductive and uneducated into productive consumers.

The question our panel was asked to address is, "What do employees want?" What would it take to get more commitment out of them, more ideas out of them, more value out of them? The panelists chipped in with their ideas about benefits, flex time, day care, free M&Ms on Wednesdays, stock options, small companies versus large ones, cubicles versus private offices, and various methods of showing standout individuals a little extra appreciation. At this point, the conversation was passed to me.

I leaned forward in my seat. "What do people really want?"

They want to find work they're passionate about. Offering benefits and incentives are mere compromises. Educating people is important but not enough—far too many of our most educated people are operating at quarter-speed, unsure of their place in the world, contributing too little to the productive engine of modern civilization, still feeling like observers, like they haven't come close to living up to their potential. Our guidance needs to be better. We need to encourage people to find their sweet spot.

Productivity explodes when people love what they do. We're sitting on a huge potential boom in productivity, which we could tap into if we got all the square pegs in the square holes and round pegs in round holes. It's not something we can measure with statistics, but it's a huge economic issue.

It's a great natural resource that we're ignoring.

The tone in the room shifted. To my surprise, people agreed with rne.

The value in their companies came from the employees who were passionate about being there. The extra effort came from them. The new ideas came from them. I didn't tell this audience anything they didn't know. I only reminded them of it.

In other words, with the wind now at our faces, it's impractical to settle for less than a life we love.

How are we to think of the search for a calling? We have to go looking for it,  and yet what we're looking for is inside us.  Is there a metaphor that properly characterizes this search?

Lately, I've closed my eyes. I imagine I'm in a dream. It's one of those dreams in which I toss and turn for a while. It's dark out. It's night. I'm walking in a neighborhood. There are a lot of stray dogs moving through the shadows. Some seem to be following me. It's making me nervous. In this neighborhood are some of the houses from the Seattle neighborhood I grew up in, but others I don't recognize. This confusion triggers a great urgency. I have to get home! Where is my house? I like houses a certain way. I think I know what my house will look like, but my vision is a little blurry.

I approach certain houses, but it feels like Halloween night—a lot of these houses scare me. Dogs are barking. That light in the window scares me. I don't recognize that car. That's not my house. I'm getting spooked.

I can't walk all night. It's going to get cold. I keep walking. I'm sure I'm never going to find it. Maybe I should just go to a friend's house. Maybe I can find an empty garage where I can get some sleep. Why does it seem like everyone has a house but me?

Now I'm walking with Carl Kurlander in Squirrel Hill. Now I'm walking with Chi Tschang through Jamaica Plain. Now I'm walking in the snow with Nicole Heinrich through Logan Square. Now I'm walking with Ashley Merryman through Culver City. Now I'm walking in the rain with Ana Miyares through Little Havana. They're looking for their houses, too. But look at all these different types of houses people live in! I used to be afraid of houses like these! It's okay now. I want to find my house, but I'm not going to stay there forever. It doesn't have to be permanent. I'll stay there as long as one stays in a house. I think back on all those houses I was so sure weren't mine—was I just afraid because they were unfamiliar? Was I afraid of the barking? Maybe that dog was barking to tell me to come home. Maybe my wife left that light on in the window so I would be able to find it. Damn! Should I go back? This is not a dream I can go backward in. So I tell myself, there's another one out there. And I vow that I will not be scared of what it looks like. I'm sure I have lots of fears, but I won't let them paralyze me. I'll get rid of my prejudices. So when I come across it—and I know I will, eventually—this time I'll be ready. And I'll walk in the front door. And I'll feel at home.

"Why am I here?" asked the first-year MBA at Harvard, who was frightened by the debt he was saddling himself with by attending grad school only to please his mother.

"What should I do?" asked the doctor at a prestigious academic hospital, after she had lost faith in universities when falsely accused of manipulating research data by a former lab assistant with a grudge.

"Where is my place?" asked the engineer who faced emigration back to Taiwan after being laid off by a friend.

"Should I go?" asked the woman who heard a voice telling her to go to Mexico.

"What should I do now?" asked the advertising salesman who took four months off to spend with his brother, who died of a brain tumor.

These were not questions I could hide from. These were not dramas existing only on the page. I'm clumsy at ministering, but I have been, at times, pulled into that role. I prefer not to generalize, so I couch my advice in a person's story. That person is me. I used to have all these notions that I no longer have—thanks to hearing stories from people like them.

I used to think certain jobs were "cool," and more likely to inspire passion, Now I know passion is rooted in deeply felt experiences, which can happen anywhere. I used to think life presented a five-page menu of choices. Now I think the choice is in whether to be honest, to ourselves and others, and the rest is more of an uncovering, a peeling away of layers, discovering talents we assumed we didn't have. I used to treasure the innocence of first love. Now I treasure the hard-fought. I used to want to change the world. Now I'm open to letting it change me.

I spent months proceeding slowly through the stories in What Should I Do with My Life. I wanted to pause and think about what the stories had to say to me. In some ways, the transformation that can come from peeling away layers brings revelations that can be startling, and may need time to reconcile with that familiar companion, self-image. Stop and listen for the glimmers that may change your life.

Steve Hopkins, May 27, 2003


ă 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the June 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Should I Do with My Life.htm


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