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*****= An all-time favorite
****  = Outstanding
***    = Above average
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*        = Good, with reservations


*****What Should I Do With My Life?

The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question

by Po Bronson

Reviewed February 17, 2003.
Random House, New York, 2002.  370 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (170 BRO).
A Sonderbooks’ Stand-out of 2003:  #3, Biographical Nonfiction

I’m giving this book five stars not so much because I think it’s great literature as because I think it will resonate in my mind for a long time to come.  I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  I’m a person with a Master’s in Math who always wanted to write children’s books.  I disliked teaching calculus, and am now working at a library and finding great satisfaction writing book reviews.  Is it any wonder that I find kinship with other people whose life isn’t following a straight-line plan and who wonder about their life’s calling?

This book is a collection of stories of more than fifty people who struggled with the question “What should I do with my life?”  Po Bronson traveled all over the country and spent time with these and many more people and wrote down the ones that most spoke to him.  He also weaves in his own story and his own thoughts on the subject.  I found it a fascinating book, because I do think that’s one of life’s great questions.  The book triggered thoughts on many different areas.

I found a review of this book in a recent issue of The New York Times, and was surprised to find that the reviewer blasted the book, saying in effect that these whiny people should just grit their teeth and get to work and stop agonizing over the meaning of life.  Perhaps that reviewer has always been sure of his own mission in life, but I think that anyone who has ever wondered about that topic will find this book fascinating.

My one complaint about the book is all the foul language peppered throughout.  I thought that was totally unnecessary and detracted from the serious message of the book.  However, I did think that the content was worth overlooking this flaw.

The introduction to the book has a list of side questions that came up.  I liked this list:
“Is it supposed to feel like destiny?  If not, is (experience-derived) self-created ‘meaning’ legitimate?
“Should I accept my lot, make peace with my ambition, and stop stressing out?
“Why do I feel guilty for thinking about this?
“Should I make money first, to fund my dreams?
“How do I tell the difference between a curiosity and a passion?
“How do I weigh making myself a better person against external achievements?
“When do I need to change my situation, and when is it me that needs to change?
“What should I tell my parents, who worry about me?
“If I have a child, will my frustration over my work go away?
“What will it feel like when I get there?  (How will I know I’m there?)”

My husband once mentioned that he thinks that part of the appeal of the Harry Potter books is that Harry is a “chosen” child.  Since then, I’ve noticed that this is the basic idea behind multitudes of excellent children’s books.  A child discovers that he or she has amazing abilities.  A powerful adult discovers the child’s astounding potential and undertakes to train him and guide him in the use of his new powers.  There’s no ambiguity, no wondering what to do with his life, no equally great talents in other areas giving him a multitude of choices.  (Incidentally, Ursula K. LeGuin has written a story in Tales of Earthsea where the main character does decide to pursue a different talent, but that’s the only story I’ve ever read that doesn’t follow the usual “chosen” fantasy.)  And isn’t that what we all yearn for?  A clear path, a knowledge that we are special, help and training that culminate in incredible expertise.

Having already thought through these ideas in literature, I found it intriguing that Po Bronson opened his book with someone whose real life seemed to follow this script.  A Buddhist, at seventeen years old, Choeaor Dondup got a letter from the Dalai Lama telling him that he was the reincarnation of a great monk.  It seems to be the “chosen” fantasy in real life.  However, as Po Bronson tells the story, Choeaor Dondup, or Za Rinpoche, as he is now called, still has to figure out how best to direct his life.  “His purpose was given to him, but he’d had to go find it anyway.”

Since the book started with the story of a Buddhist, I started to think that the whole question would be totally different from a Christian perspective.  As I read on, I decided that it’s actually a bit more difficult question for Christian young people.  They aren’t just trying to figure out what they should do with their lives for their own benefit, they also want to please God.  Any natural talent or ability is seen as a God-given gift.  A subtle message is given that if you end up not using that talent, you will be squandering a God-given gift.

My husband and I have often discussed how we both ended up majoring in the subject area where we had gotten awards in high school.  Even if there were other areas we liked or were good at, the reinforcement of having won awards was enough to push us in one direction.  I remember discovering that my husband had gotten the same SAT Math score as I did and thinking deep down that it was somehow unfair that that score hadn’t made him think that he was supposed to go into Math.

You can see that What Should I Do With My Life? sent my thinking off on all sorts of related tangents.  It’s the sort of book I think I’d like to read again several times over the years, because I’m sure that different subtopics will strike me and set me thinking.  With the wide variety of people presented, many different facets of the search for meaning sparkle out.

The book did make me wish I could afford to travel the country and write my own version of the same book.  I would include some women and men who have chosen not to work outside the home in order to nurture their families.  Po Bronson did include some people who had happily given things up for their families, but no one for whom the family is their calling--It all still related to the world of work outside the home.  I’d also explore more ideas about the seasons of life.  Rather than having to spend your life doing one thing, I’ve come to believe that, especially for women, there are often seasons in life, each with a different focus.  I think that, just because you found a meaningful pursuit now, doesn’t mean that you weren’t pursuing a valid purpose before you found this one.

Of all the questions at the start, I think the only one Po Bronson decidedly answered was “Should I make money first, to fund my dream?”  He said that of all the people he interviewed, no one who set out to make money first was ever able to give up the lucrative job when they intended to.  He did meet people who gave up high-paying jobs to find more meaning, but it was never the people who planned at the start to work making big money for only a few years.  I must admit that that bit comforted me about the full-time teaching job I once applied for, figuring that I’d work full-time for a year or two, pay off our debts with the additional money, and then go back to part-time work.  At the time, I ended up relieved that I didn’t get the job, and this book made me more so.

As for the other questions, Po Bronson doesn’t answer them, but he does explore them.  He presents situations to the reader so that you can come up with your own answers.  I found the exploration completely intriguing.

Reviews of other books by Po Bronson:
Why Do I Love These People?
Top Dog

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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