Po Bronson Asks What He Should Do With His Life, Now

January 16th, 2009

What Should I Do with My Life, Now?
By Po Bronson

Six years ago, the tech economy had crashed, the economy was stalled, and 9-11 had radically altered the nation's mood. The New Year came around, always a time of introspection and goal-setting. At that very moment, my article [1], and my book [2] by the same name, “What Should I Do With My Life?,” were simultaneously published, triggering an enormous response: the vast majority were inspired to challenge their thinking, while at the same time there was a healthy push-back to the article's thesis.

Six years later, the economy is even more so at a dead stall, and the article (and book) are again being looked to for guidance. So the question is, with the benefit of six more years of perspective, what else can I add?

Generally, when people simply see the phrase “What Should I Do With My Life?” in print, it conjures a notion of deep introspection that is implicitly economically-self-indulgent — the guy who quits his job for no reason other than a bout of career-ennui, who lays around on the couch wondering where he belongs, or even more indulgently, spends his precious savings traveling abroad to find his purpose, while his friends and family muttered, “how pathetic — you were lucky to have a job. Any job.”

But the article itself flipped that connotation inside-out. It argued that with the economy in a tailspin, it was unsound economic theory to have millions of drone workers shuffling to work every day doing jobs at quarter-speed they didn't care about, so they weren't very productive at, and certainly didn't add value at. The economy would never get kick-started if our workforce was uninspired and didn't innovate. So the article — really a manifesto — suggested that the way to get business going again was for its basic building blocks — the workers — to do something they were really good at, or were inspired by, or cared about, where they would work extra hard, and innovate their way out of this black hole. Now it was not a permission slip to quit your job, nor a doctor's note to take a year off (I've never taken more than two weeks off in 23 years), but it did suggest the economy might be better off, long-term, if the square pegs found their square holes and the round pegs found their round holes, rather than everyone just wondering where the next big thing would be and gravitate to it like moths.

Note that the article offered no economic or statistical evidence to back this suggestion up; it was pure theory, with a few individual case studies that proved nothing, merely illustrated the concept. But there was a scene in the book, near its very end, which is worth summarizing. Michael Dell had invited me down to its annual meeting of The Business Council, and I was put on a panel with several other CEOs, which was moderated by the tremendous journalist Michael Lewis. The topic of our panel was, “What Do Employees Want?” And the CEOs took their turn describing all the benefits they gave their employees, and how they gave out free M&Ms on Wednesdays, and appeased them with stock options and free parking spaces. When I spoke, I thought everyone would laugh at me, snickering “How indulgent! How naïve!” Because my point was essentially a variation on the theme of this Fast Company article — employees don't want M&Ms, they want to love what they do. Highly-motivated people are the productive engine of modern civilization. But rather than laugh at me, the tone in the ballroom changed dramatically, and the roomful of CEOs stood up, one by one, to agree with me: the value in their companies came from the employees who were motivated to be there, and one passionate employees was worth ten dispassionate ones.

Anyway, over the last six years, that self-indulgent, pathetic, slackerish, pie-in-the-sky connotation to the question “What Should I Do With My Life?” still triggers a number of misunderstandings and fallacies, which fog their thinking and basically lead people astray. So let me bust through a short list of the top fallacies that I think people project onto this dilemma.

1. First, most people are not the architects of their own change. Extremely few are quitting as a result of career ennui. Rather, most people struggling with this question were pushed into it, forced into it, because they were laid off — or because they couldn't make ends meet on their paycheck, or their job never allows them to see their children, or because their new boss (post-merger) is an absolute asshole who doesn't value them — and they need to find a new career simply because there are no jobs anymore in the field they developed their expertise in. They are not naïve idealists, they are people simply trying to get by.

2. I hear all the time, “I'd love to quit my job to follow my purpose, but I've got responsibilities!” This artificial distinction is misleading. Your responsibilities are not keeping you from your purpose, they are part of your purpose, often the very most important part. Envisioning your responsibilities as being outside the circle of “purpose” will lead you to make bad decisions about your life.

3. Pervasive in our society the last six years was what I call, “The Modern Dream Machine Industry.” Media companies made a killing selling content to consumers (#1 example: The Secret) that used the term “passion” loosely and vaguely, and made false claims that a dream life was right around the corner if you just dusted off your fantasies and pursued them. This was what I condemn “selling transformation irresponsibly.” My book unfortunately, by some, was lumped into that — but it couldn't have been more different and more antithetical. My book was not a fantasy; it examined the lives of a thousand real people, and told the story of fifty — it asked how real people did it, and told their story honestly. For those who want it boiled down to Seven Simple Steps? Step One: stop pretending we're all on the same staircase.

4. The Fallacy of Intrinsic Fit. There is this notion around calling that you should love the mere act of what you do every day so much that by virtue of it just being Monday morning and you're at your job, the act of doing it causes neurotransmitters of joy to drip on your brain all day. That is not how real people do it. All jobs have shit work. All jobs have things you hate about them. But real people feel fulfilled by the overall purpose of their organization that the shitty parts are worth putting up with. It's not what you do, it's what you're working towards.

5. There's an old parable about the three bricklayers. They're laying bricks all morning, and when they finally get a break, one guy asks the other two, “Why are you doing this job?” The first guy says, “I'm doing it for the wages.” The second guy says, “I'm doing it for my wife and kids.” The third guy looks up at what they've been constructing all morning, which is a church — a place to get in touch with one's highest self — and says, “I'm helping to build a cathedral.” Now, most people hear this parable, and they think the third guy has the right answer, and the first two guys have the wrong answer. That's the simplistic lesson that most people jump to, led their by their mythic notions of calling. But that is not the lesson of the parable. In fact, all three men have a sense of purpose — have a “cathedral,” if you will. The third guy has the Cathedral of Spirituality. Good for him. But the second guy has his too. The Cathedral of Family. And the third guy has the Cathedral of Self-sufficiency. Those are all good purposes. Those are all right answers. The real lesson of the parable is, notice what no man answered. Not one of the three said, “I just love laying bricks.” Doing something for the sheer love of it is not what real people mean when they say their work provides a sense of purpose. That is not how the construct a sense of meaning and rightness. Looking for it, in that form, is incredibly illusory.

6. There is no one-perfect-thing each of us is meant to do on this planet. Give me a break. Where'd that myth come from? If someone repeats it, throw a glass of water on them. For each of us, there are dozens, hundreds of careers, any one of which could provide you a sense of meaning and goodness. You don't have to find “The One,” you just have to find any one. The biggest mistake is being seduced by the myth that you're looking for the right answer, as if there is only one answer. It's just so damn easy to look upon someone else and jealously think, “Wow, he sure got lucky.” Real people did not have great opportunities fall in their lap. Mostly, crappy opportunities come along, and in the meantime, you make the best of them. But that skill and habit, of making the best of your situation, is essential training. Because one day, a good opportunity will come along. And if you make the best of it — if you're good at making the best of things — you will turn it into a great situation. A “calling” is not something you know, the moment you see it. For real people, in the real world, a sense of “calling” is something you grow into, over the course of your life, by having an impact on your organization and the community around you. In this way, it provides a sense of belonging and relevance. Or in the terminology of engineers, one enters a phase of “positive feedback experience” that makes you feel good about being where you are.

7. Don't tell me you don't know what you want from your life. Don't ever say that, don't ever fool yourself into that stupor. Of course you know what you want — you know the feeling you desire — fulfillment, connection, responsibility, and some excitement. The real problem is figuring out how to get it — how to find a path that doesn't suffocate those natural feelings in you. Which is hard. Of course it's hard. It's supposed to be hard. If it weren't hard, you wouldn't learn anything along the way, and thus you would never get there. If you don't know how to make the best of a bad situation, you will never get there. If you are not willing to put up with some shit work, you will never recognize that a good opportunity is staring you in the face. If you are not willing to be humble and repeatedly be a beginner in new areas and learn the details faster than the next guy, you are not capable of transformation.

Well, hope that clears it all up for people.