Posted by: counselorcarmella | February 23, 2012

Book Review: What Should I Do With My Life by Po Bronson

I’ll be honest.  Career Counseling was not my favorite class in graduate school.  I don’t consider myself a career counselor by any means but  the topic  does come up a lot with clients. I work with  teenagers who are planning for college and  deciding about majors.  I work with college students getting ready for their first “real” jobs. I work with  established professionals trying to cope with  work stress or a work environment that isn’t a good fit for them.  Sometimes, they’re thinking about simply changing where they work.  Some are considering  changing careers entirely.  Others wonder if they should follow their  passion  or go for what’s practical and whether or not they could really be successful at something just because they’re interested in it.
I think a lot of people want a magic formula for settling any and all career concerns. As with most things, there isn’t one. So many decisions are  our educated best guesses and there’s no way of knowing how  a certain situation will work out until  we’re in that situation. I try and help clients sort out their  thoughts and feelings around these decisions, consider what they’re thinking about from different angles,  and to pinpoint why they’re  leaning in one particular direction or another.  I want to try and make sure, as much as possible, that they’re being realistic and  making choices based on  good information and a true sense of  enthusiasm for a particular type of work.
There are all kinds of ways to try and clarify these issues. I  like some of the  specific ideas and  suggestions I recently read in this article from PsychCentral. 
Tartakovsky, M. (2012). How to Find a Fulfilling Career Path. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 26, 2012, from
I also highly recommend the book “What Should I Do With My Life” by  Po Bronson. This book was published in 2002 and  contains the author’s interviews with 55 ordinary people who struggled with decisions about their careers. Most of them  are in their late 20s or 30s, but  some are older.  Most have college degrees, but not all of them do.  Some came to  America from other countries while others left  America to live elsewhere. Bronson also includes his own  story and the lessons he learned while writing this book. 
Bronson talks about how previous generations may have largely viewed work as what you did to have stability and support a family.  He doesn’t judge previous ways of doing things or say that its wrong to  take a strictly practical approach.  What he does  clearly believe is that people should  not have to spend years doing something they hate just because its stable or the money is good.  There are always options and no one should feel trapped in work situations that are miserable.  He seems to be saying, through  the stories he profiles,  that anyone can find a way to  improve their professional situation so that it is more in line with their values and  interests if they  truly want to take on the challenge.  For some people, this may  mean smaller less extreme adjustments; for others it will mean  huge changes. 
This is not a “how to” book where you can  clarify your  career decisions in  five easy steps.  The author doesn’t claim  to be an expert on the  subject he’s writing about. This is a book that invites the reader to  learn  and gain perspective from other people’s journeys. Its full of  ideas to  ponder over, contemplate, and perhaps consider making personal use of. This  is also not a book about  what its like to work in certain fields, though   some of that is talked about as  those included tell their stories.
The whole point of the book is to describe how a range of people in various  circumstances figured out what would bring them a sense of fulfillment and  purpose professionally and how they went about that “figuring it out” process. There is a lot of honesty about emotional turmoil, soul searching, people falling on their faces at times, and  the clear point that it can take  real determination and courage to be honest with ourselves and make changes we know we need to make sometimes.
“What Should I Do With My Life” is, in my opinion, a very good book.  Its not a short book, but the chapters themselves are short and  easy to read. It entertained me and made me think.  I really appreciate how Bronson approaches the  subject matter.  He is an excellent story teller, but  is also good at getting  certain points across in a conversational way. His writing style is  honest and accessible, as opposed to being stuffy or academic.  He uses humor at times and is open about his own  life.  This makes it seem like he is  trying to figure things out along the way just as his readers and those he  profiles are.  He doesn’t give advice or  “shoulds” about what to do.  He answers questions by describing other people’s experiences and did this  when interviewing  those profiled, as well. He is simply  relaying a range of stories around an overall topic in order to encourage thought.  He seems to be seeking to validate and honor how important  choices about our professional lives can be and to be making the point that  many people struggle with  this subject.  
Bronson spent time with each person, sometimes on multiple occasions, and also communicated with them  via phone and emails so his knowledge of each  individual he profiles is pretty extensive.  I’m sure  there was so much he could have  written beyond what space allowed about each of them.  The chapters are short and  engaging and  include summary information plus quotes and  snipets of dialogue between  Bronson and the interviewees.  I  found myself interested in each person and their story. I was curious about what would happen and how they would  handle the situation.  Sometimes, I  agreed with their process and sometimes not.  I had more empathy for some  and less for others.  I found their struggles to be  relateable and felt like I got a sense of each one’s personality and values and  quirks.  Bronson includes  specific details to make sure each one stands out as an individual. He is also  respectful of  differences and  the  struggles each person went through while trying to sort out this very important decision. 
Many of these folks didn’t take straight paths to  what they ultimately  chose to do.  This is true of Bronson himself  in terms of his writing career. His passion for this topic  grew out of his own struggles with  trying to figure himself out professionally.  He did a wide range of  things before becoming a writer.  Many of those profiled made choices  that didn’t make sense in terms of money, status,  or traditional views of what success means.  Some may have tried to follow paths that  would bring these things, or that would meet other people’s expectations.  They struggled with  weighing practical concerns and worries about what other people might think with  feelings of depression and not being fulfilled.  They talked about  wanting to  do “something else” that would be more meaningful to them.  They wanted careers they could be excited about and that allowed them to be themselves and  put energy into something that   truly felt important. 
Bronson talks about the changes in lifestyle some of them had to make in order to do this, but he never seems  insensitive to the fact that careers are also about  paying bills and meeting financial responsibilities, as well. Some of these folks spent significant blocks of time unemployed or  underemployed.  This was by choice in some cases and by circumstance in others.  Some stayed with jobs they  hated while trying to decide what to do next.  There were cases where planning and saving needed to happen first. Others went from job to job trying to figure out where they fit.
Sometimes, they also moved from city to city and went from relationship to relationship.  He includes information about how families and friends reacted to  people’s choices, too, and  makes it clear that considering  the impact of individual choice on relationships is  important.  He isn’t promoting  selfishness and  flippantly pursuing “what will make me happy” without regard for other people.
Bronson also talks about how  economic changes and  technological advancements have played a role. He talks about the dot com  explosion of the  90’s and  what happened to some  people involved in  those jobs.  He talks about expectations and how some people can’t settle into a career because of an inner restlessness that doesn’t have to do with any particular job but is more about something  personal.  He talks about   what happens when fantasy meets reality and how a lot of things just may not be what we thought they were when we were 20 and  didn’t have much life experience. Just having a degree and making good grades doesn’t guarantee that companies will be lining up to hire you, for example. The perfect job isn’t going to land on your head  while you’re  passively waiting for it is another  important point this book makes.
Bronson talks about lessons people learned through tragedies that gave them different perspectives on what mattered, but  these stories aren’t over dramatized and there aren’t many of them.  He talks about  how some people learned the hard way that  professional success at the expense of one’s family is a hollow victory.  Lots of  the stories talk about how  those profiled learned from  painful mistakes along the way.
I can see “What Should I Do With My Life” being helpful to  those who are trying to make career choices as well as those who are simply interested in  reading about other people’s experiences around this topic. I would recommend it to clients and colleagues.

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