Po Bronson’s What Should I Do with My Life?

Despite the fact that he has been a bestselling author for more than a decade, I only recently came across the work of author Po Bronson for this research on narrative explorations of Career.   Insightful as his work is, I am actually really glad to have only stumbled across his work now, as having recently begun to do storytelling myself, I found that I was in a better position to truly appreciate his choices as a storyteller in his book What Should I Do With My Life? The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question.  He calls this a piece of “social documentary” because its genre is not easily described: part autobiography, part social-commentary, part self-help book, it is most compellingly a collection of stories that illuminate the shared wisdom in our collective struggles to figure out “what it is all about?” After interviewing nine hundred people, he chose seventy to interview in depth, of which, he presents fifty in this work, weaving in as well pieces of his own stories, one of the many ways that he steps into his own narrative here.

Choice to interact with his own book / layer in his own story

He admits to “committing the cardinal sin of journalism” by stepping into lives he is supposed to only be observing.  Although he tries not to, he feels called to offer advice, and in one case, offers a job to someone whose searching was the subject of the book.  He admits: “I felt funny about it.  It’s okay if our writing changes people’s minds, but not if our actions do.  It’s like tampering with a crime scene before the police photographers show up”

but then declares:

“But I’d rather help than watch.  I’d rather have a heart than a mind. I’d rather expose too much than too little.  I’d rather say hello to strangers that be afraid of them.  I would rather know all of this about myself than have more money than I need.  I’d rather have something to love than a way to impress you”

His choice of genre

It may not surprise you to learn that he had the idea for this work because he was at a bit of a crossroads professionally and personally, but what spoke to me here was his honestly in admitting that as a writer, he realized he had used the support of his ex wife as a writing crutch.  Also that previous success in a very different genre had won him an audience that was likely perceive this work as too “touch-y feel-y,” but that now he had found a very different voice and  needed only to find the courage to listen, to trust it!

“Finding your calling is not ‘the answer’ says Po.  Callings are vehicles that help us let our real selves out; callings speed up the process.  You can find your calling, or you can find your people, or you can find an evironment that nurtures you – they all lead to the same place.  Many people get there without ever finding their calling.  Head in that direction.  Seek, adjust.  Seek, learn.  We grow into our true selves, our whole selves, overcoming our fears and the limits that once trapped us” (433).

Throughout, I found myself humbled by his vulnerability and empathy for himself, including and especially this willingness to share his own process as a storyteller.  I was also struck by what he was able to illuminate for me and help me to recognize about some of the influences of my own environment which I had stopped seeing long ago, despite calling myself an analyst of culture.   J

What he taught me about DC

When Po talks with Bart Hanford, a former Clinton White House staffer, about his professional struggles, Bart confesses:  “I’ve got to get over my inferiority complex”

To which Po responds: “Or use common sense to tune it out.  You worked for the White House, for god’s sake.  That’s pretty impressive.”

“it is?”


“The honor of it is easy to forget in a town like this.  From the moment I came to Washington, I have been surrounded by the smartest people from the best schools and they seem to know something I don’t know, like they’ve all been taught a secret language.  And they have – the language of applications.  They’ve all been through it before. “

I hadn’t really thought before how so many of the people who are here, are here because they applied to be here (for work, for school, for a grant), they talked their way into being here, and if they did not have it before they came, they get it while they are here.  I chuckled in spite of myself when Bronson observed at another point in the book “the culture of DC turns everyone into expert spinmeisters.”  What I had stopped recognizing were the ways this city and this country has taught me to be always wanting more – a job with more responsibility, more prestige, more challenge – without thinking why.  Sometimes the courage to trust your voice and uncover your true calling is as simple as finding the courage to own that you do enough, have enough and are enough.   I am inspired by him and by these stories that he so expertly renders to strive for simplicity.

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