I didn't really want to pick up this book - the title sounded too 'self-help
'. I didn't want to touch it. Self-help bothers me because it takes a complex problem and offers a cookie-cutter solution. This is simply not realistic - every person's problem is unique and selling them a solution in 150+ page paperback is selling them false hope. Many of the same people that hate religious fundamentalism also hate self-help - I'm with
Luckily, this book does not offer one solution. It instead takes the reader through story after story - over 50 of them. It gives a window into people's lives and how they answered the question in the title. The author, Po Bronson, is pragmatic in his approach - showing both the winners and losers. He does not regress to 'magic-thinking' that there is this employment euphoria out there that every person should constantly quest for. What he does say is this: it is not good to despair in an unfulfilling job and people should take steps to get out if they are unsatisfied. It will definitely not happen overnight, but moving towards an ultimate satisfying goal is a good idea.
"Wow!" well... not really, but... "Thanks Bronson, for articulating the situation clearly." He also shows many examples of how people have built the bridge between their current reality and their dreams.
Some other ideas in his book:
"Society needs more people lit by passion and fewer simply able to do what they're told."*
He shows this by telling the story of Warren Brown, a lawyer who changed his life by founding a shop in Washington called Cakelove. Bronson finds that having a great deal of potential is paired with a great responsibility to live up to it. Most people are afraid to try their hardest because it leaves them open to criticism - and no one wants to be laughed at. This does not sound like a very good reason to turn your back on your aspirations. Another thing that gets in the way of ambition is putting money first:
"Why not get rich, then do your dream?...I'm talking about the garden-variety fantasy - put your dream in a lock-box, go out and make Fuck You money, then come back to the lockbox and pick up where you left off. I've met plenty who tried, but none who succeeded".**
Bronson warns against getting financially secure first, then pursuing dreams. I know many people who have this in plan, including myself. Surprisingly, in his interviews with hundreds of people, he has never found one success at this common dream. He concludes that convenience and tranquility are the enemy of the strength that it takes to pursue your true ambition. He also writes about people trying to find their place in the world:
"I don't want to burn through my experiences like some trash novel that's gone from my mind as soon as it's finished. I want my experiences to add up. I want them to be useful, and to come together. I don't really know how they fit together, but I think about it all the time. They have to add up more."***
This quote is from Phil Caplan, a man who used to be Staff Secretary for Bill Clinton and is now working for an investment bank. Many of us don't know how to cobble together the bits and pieces of disparate career success to make a whole. Bronson writes about many people who have patched together experiences from diverse career paths to make an interesting new future. For example, he writes about a business man, who became a doctor, who now uses his combined skills to bring a new psychiatric treatment to market.
Bronson shares his own experiences in the book - from being in a suffocated back office analyzing excel spreadsheets, to a successful bond salesman, to his long road to becoming a published author. The book has more credibility because he has struggled and seen and done many different things himself.
In summary, this was a pretty good read - it is not authoritative-single-minded self-help at all. It exposes readers to dozens of the stories so they can take from them what they want and reach their own conclusions. It is fun to read and it made me feel assured that many others struggle with this question. I'm glad I picked up this book despite my doubts and would recommend it to anyone who is looking to find their next steps in life.
What Should I Do with My Life: The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question, Po Bronson, Random House, 2003, New York, New York, USA. All references taken from this edition.
Permission from author to use quotes requested March 27, 2005.
Permission granted March 28, 2005 - Po says: "By all means you have my permission to use the quotes."