Chez Shaffner

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Book Review: What Should I Do With My Life?

This week, I finally read What Should I Do With My Life? by Po Bronson. I have wanted to read it for years, but never got around to it for some reason.

I think I was afraid.

When this book came out in 2002, I was asking the question almost every day. Three years into my career, it was time to figure out the next scene in my story. I had taken the GMAT and done well, but I could not weave a coherent narrative to justify business school. Two years away from work was what appealed to me, but that makes for a lousy essay.

Always looking to keep my options open, I spent four hours at the University of Massachusetts, #2 Dixon-Ticonderoga in hand, filling bubbles for the LSAT. According to the GPA-LSAT grids, most Tier I law schools would admit me if I applied. Many of my college friends are lawyers, and the law is marginally interesting. But it held no appeal for me, no matter how many different ways I tried to talk myself into it.

That year, I began to write again. Only a few lousy short stories, but I found it enjoyable and thought it might become more than a hobby someday. Once upon a time, writing had been my life’s ambition, but I had set it aside. Perhaps an MFA was the answer. I aced the GREs, but since I have never studied writing, I could not garner the recommendations I needed, and my writing was not yet polished enough. I tacked rejection letters to my wall.

Meanwhile, I climbed the ladder at a boutique IT consulting company. I was skilled at solving problems and making software fulfill clients’ requirements. Sometimes I loved my job, but I never thought it was what I would spend my life doing (I reserve the right to change my mind).

The truth was, I had no idea where I might find my answer. Most of my Harvard classmates seem by now to have found their calling, and I sometimes feel there must be something wrong with me. Old friends seemed to react that way when I announced I quit my job with no replacement as yet in sight. Since they have settled into careers in law, dentistry, medicine, or investment banking, the notion of flying without a net does not compute.

In Po Bronson’s detailed study, he offers more than fifty stories of people who looked for (and found, for the most part) their calling.

Bronson culled these fifty from conversations with more than 900 candidates. On the one hand, this fact adds credibility to the analysis; on the other hand, it suggests the likely case that hundreds of his subjects failed to progress toward an answer to the question, and were therefore unsuitable for the final product. To be fair, he could not document them all; the book runs to 430 pages already.

Bronson has a lively writing style, relaxed and conversational, yet journalistic. He is a participatory journalist, building relationships with his subjects, and in some ways influencing their progress. At various points he adopts the roles of strategist, therapist, and trusted friend. His own life story fits into the narrative, too, since he fled a life of bond sales to become a writer. (He has suffered other crises of direction along the way). Early on, I eyed these autobiographical interludes with skepticism, but they add an extra element: he is not looking at this problem from the outside, but understands the plight.

The book is strongest when he lets the stories speak for themselves, weakest when he begins to preach or interpret. His cheap armchair psychology is too much for me; when he compared a man’s dedication to his job to longing for his absent mother, I nearly vomited. Thankfully, such over-reaching moments are infrequent.

Many of the stories are indeed remarkable. More than once, I stopped to say "she did WHAT?" Fortunately, remarkable tales are balanced with more mundane ones. In addition, Bronson structures the stories in thematic pods. Although it is not relevant to me, I especially enjoyed the section regarding the importance of location. Too many people overlook the importance of location.

The best thing about the structure is that in considering five or six like-motivated subjects, the reader can draw his own lessons about why some succeeded and others failed.

I am not alone in my muddle. I especially take these words to heart:

    "Failure’s hard, but success is far more dangerous. If you’re successful at the wrong thing, the mix of praise and money and opportunity can lock you in forever. It is so, so much harder to leave a good thing." (p 143)

I recommend this book to anyone who has ever wondered aloud what they want to be when they grow up. You will not find a blueprint to your success--in fact, several of Bronson’s subjects fail--but it will make you think.

With that, I'm off to work on my novel.

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