“WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH MY LIFE?”
“WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH MY LIFE?”
by William H. Benson
May 8, 2003
Recently I read the new bestseller, What Should I Do With My Life?, by the young author Po Bronson. He let the word out that he wanted to meet people who had redirected their lives; he wanted to listen to their stories. He criss-crossed the nation, heard some nine hundred stories, came to know some seventy people closely, and included about fifty stories in his book, including his own story of how he decided to become a writer.
There was the story of Kurt, the great-great-grandson of a founder of a major American manufacturing company, who, following his divorce, gave up being groomed for the top position in the company and decided to pursue his dream of becoming, of all things, a policeman.
In so doing he admitted that he had violated the Monkey Law, something he had learned at Harvard Business School. The monkey swinging through the jungle must never let go of an old vine until he has a firm grip on the new one. It took him two years of struggle and of working as a volunteer without pay before he landed a job as a policeman on the night shift in El Monte, California, east of East Los Angeles. Kurt had discovered that he needed to serve people directly.
There was the story of Katt who had to give up her dream of competing in the 1988 Seoul Olympics in the shotput and discus when she discovered she was pregnant. Years later she returned to college and to track and was pushing herself toward the 2004 Olympic trials when her daughter began to complain that she needed help with her homework. A second time Katt gave up the dream of going to the Olympics.
There was Rick, a corporate lawyer, who was playing ice hockey and ended up breaking his ankle in eleven places, as well as his leg, and sheering off his heel. And yet he laughed because he was finally free to quit his job, for now he had an excuse. When healed he found a job as a long haul truck driver and loves it.
He said, “I have autonomy. I have a window seat, with a view that changes every mile. Nobody ever comes into my office without asking. I enjoy this job. . . . I’m doing this because it doesn’t eat me alive.”
There was the story of Sidney, a chemistry professor at a college in England who late in life decided that what he really wanted to do was return to law school. He detested his work in the college, a life he considered not fit for a human being. “I hit the point where I knew I ought to do something while my faculties were still reasonably intact, and not waste the rest of my life.”
He went to law school and found a position as a solicitor. “He loves the law. He has a mind that loves puzzles, and cases are puzzles–timelines, cross-references, stories with motives.”
There was the story of an arbitrage executive who decided to become a psychiatrist, the story of a ferocious criminal attorney who chose to become a minister in the Unity Church, the Asian-American who chose to become a high school teacher rather than pursue his father’s dream of becoming a doctor or lawyer or businessman, and the doctor’s daughter who became a doctor herself and then discovered that she could not put in the long hours any longer.
And then there is the story of Po Bronson himself, and how he tried numerous career paths before plunging ahead and writing his first book.
Why did these people change directions? Po decided that it required more than just a vague sense of dissatisfaction. Something personal had to surface: children’s needs, the need for intellectual stimulation, the need to be away from people, the need to be around people, the need to help people. He decided that often people will catch only a glimmer of what they truly want to do, and then they either act or they don’t.
Po ends his book. “I used to think life presented a five-page menu of choices. Now I think the choice is in whether to be honest, to ourselves and others, and the rest is more of an uncovering, a peeling away of layers, discovering talents we assumed we didn’t have.”