What Should I Do with My Life, Now?

Author Po Bronson addresses the current economic crisis, in this follow-up to his book and Fast Company article, "What Should I Do With My Life?"

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, and my book 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 employee 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 as "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 first 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 they 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.

Read more Top Jobs 2009

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  • Jeffrey Bourne

    Great, great article. I think the problem lies in that it is extremely difficult for people to be honest with themselves. Once you are, the path to the right direction becomes much clearer.

    Budget Van Lines

  • house wilson

    Your views are definitely truthful from what I have read. Economy does leave people at a state of mind thinking "what do I do now" and with your book, you have give others valuable information that can encourage them for the most part. The rest is up to them in the end. This is a great post. Business Credit

  • TJ McCue

    There are few books that I've dog-eared in my life. Po Bronson's is one of them. The stories are inspirational and his insights throughout ring true and help those of pursuing the dream (whatever it is) to stay on course. I love the book and I loved this article. I did a little remix of it on my Dun & Bradstreet blog for small business readers contemplating social media efforts.

    Come to think of it, I need to share something along those lines here on my FastCo blog, too. Thanks Po.
    TJ McCue
    Q4 Sales, LLC
    Check out our latest work helping small business owners with free website and sales reviews. http://www.salesrescueteam.com

  • Jordan NKS

    Firstly, i would say that the article is well written. Here are my points of view in reference to this article:
    1)I second this thought by adding that most people are not born into success. They have to work shit and some get better and lucky because they have nice bosses.
    I think it is not right to think of it this way. If a person is irresponsible at work, how can he be responsible for his personal life? As an employee, you are already tasked to do something for the company. That is your responsibility in exchange for the company’s trust.
    3)Agree. It never was the same. How can there be a step by step approach? It is up to the individual to analyse where he stands? What his roles are? No one knows better then the person himself. So these books are for reading and thinking.
    4)Partially agree. Perhaps where u are working towards is not where the company is going after all? Chrysler is gone already. What happened to the people then? Certainly it does not apply in this sense. And taking a look at what happens nowadays with mergers and acquisitions, who the hell knows where the company is heading?
    I do agree to an extent that neuro transmitters do play a part in personal well –feeling. But isn’t that all too scientific? So a person with lesser happiness is lacking it and what can he do? And having more of that makes him motivated? How often should he go for a jab to stay that way? I am unsure how to feel good all the time.
    5. I like this one because it is very illustrious and descriptive. But in reality, I love the sun, sea and glorious food and gorgeous babes. However, in Asia, there is no such job available. So I end up making end meets first, then save some money so I can go on annual holidays for the sun, sea and glorious food…. Still no gorgeous babes.
    So I agree that there is no right or wrong in this answer. Even for a sense of meaning and rightness, we have seen numerous cases of charity organisations in the doldrums due to embezzlement charges and fraud. How ‘right’ are we and how long can we withstand temptation? If 5million dollars is not tempting enough, how about 30million? What does this mean then? I sure like to work in a charity.
    6. I agree on this one, Seize the day! Use whatever you have to improve yourself. Make changes and live today.
    7.I think this is basic. What other choice do we have nowadays? The old economy is gone. The internet has made business really competitive. Customers are resourceful, they can get cheaper quotes and we have to think of ways to retain them. People learn skills easily over the net too. SAP makes delivery of goods faster. No one is even interested in quality standards like ISO, Six Sigma Black belt… etc because these are considered necessary standards for corporate business. It is already a given and no longer marketed as an advantage. What you have, others have it too.
    The barriers of entry are small per se for small and medium business. And its basically a “big fish eat small fish” situation. If we are nobody, then we have to be humble.
    About the workforce, there are so many people with double PHDs with at least 2 specializations. Take a look at China where the educated workforce are increasing in numbers. Are we all that competitive afterall? The thing is they keep on learning and we should too.
    And about life being hard…. I have seen people with real hardships. Walking many miles, clinging on to a rope whilst crossing river rapids just to get to school; Question is why are they doing that? The reason is they genuinely want to improve their lives and that is what I call transformation.


  • eric shannon

    that is phenomenal advice Po!

    today many are experiencing real anxiety... those that haven't been laid off as well as those that have, business owners and everyone in between. Understanding what to do with anxiety is important for getting the right outcome. I wrote some advice about that in Job anxiety? Listen up!. Hope you find it useful.

    -- Eric

  • spsyed

    Winners and losers: Many big companies are losing market share to small rivals. So, there are many losers and some winners in the boom and bust cycles. Many people in the business world are concerned about doom and gloom, ground realities, insolvency and bankruptcy in turbulent local and global markets. Even top lawyers, accountants, market analysts and auditors are already fired and facing long-term unemployment. There are no short-cuts for sustainable success and prosperity. Businesses need bespoke survival strategies to reduce losses, improve organic and inorganic efficiency, increase revenue, gain sustainable competitive advantage and outperform market competition. The strategies would help create new business opportunities and jobs. Many investors target niche or captive markets where consumer demand still continues to grow in double-digits annually to 2030. http://www.FixyaExperts.com

  • Manjit Syven Birk

    Eban, nothing wrong with tooting horns, I am just expressing the way I view it. I give you credit because you have engaged a conversation. Ten years ago I signed the Cluetrain Manifesto that spoke of markets as conversations. My original reference to ten years is totally in line with that manifesto. I did go to the Chris Dannen thread about Steve Jobs but I clicked onto a discussion group that led with the question "Leave Jobs Alone". I didn't think ten years later we would be so dominated by brand. My expectations of 2009 in 1999 were simple, that ten years, we would all be having conversations that matter. How we climbed into an age of superficiality and pettiness is something I do not know, but believe you me, I respect you for responding. Now I will sign off and sit back and watch the conversation unfold. I am figuring it is the shock of the economy that has stifled conversation, so I will sit back for six months and hope things brighten up. You are right to say we don't know much about the workings of the human brain, but conversations begin from the heart and not just because we are in a market. Thxs Eban. M.

  • Eben Carlson

    My point was that we don't know how the brain works. We think some pain is inevitable--just like we think some waste and friction is inevitable. But these observations are based on our emotional experience. There is some significant rational and scientific evidence to suggest that hyper-efficient systems are about to arise, which will allow a goodly portion of us to labor without what Po calls shit work, and for machines to operate without waste adn for the economy to grow faster and more efficiently without destroying the environment. It's all based on new physics--which started with the discovery of dark energy in 1998. Again, at the risk of tooting my own horn--a trip to www.whiteg.com might be instructive. --Best.

  • Manjit Syven Birk

    I thought he made a great point about forming mythic expectancy and entertaining fallacy in citing "neurotransmitters of joy". My takeaway from this article is about facing one's reality rather than simply blindly following the norm, to live life to the best of your own given abilities rather than judge what it is that others do or consume. The last line of the article sums it all up for me where Bronson says ["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."] I too consumed a major fallacy which is that one can eradicate illusion, yet I came to understand that one cannot remove illusion in the modern world, at best we can diligently modify illusion so it moves us personally closer to our own desired picture of objective reality or serves a more practical purpose. Understanding how our own mind works is a good step in that regard for then IMHO one can deal with any oncoming illusion or any bruised ego that stalwartly defends any painless mythical utopia. When we are too busy trying to figure out how other mind's work IMHO we begin to earn a degree in human exploitation. When we notice our own mind works, what we earn is our own freedom and here I support Bronson's statement : [This was what I condemn "selling transformation irresponsibly."]. Unless others voices care to express their views to this article, I will take my leave and return here on July 4th. M.

  • Eben Carlson

    Those interested in these questions might find my site www.whiteg.com interesting. There is more evidence for an immediate future ripe with dripping "neurotransmitters of joy" than conventional experts know, Mr. Bronson included.

  • Manjit Syven Birk

    Nice reprise of the Cathedral allegory. Ten years ago if I thought the core questions of today would be not that much different to the core questions, I would wonder what all the huff and puff of the personal transformation industry actually is. There is no substitute for solid in one's face truth. Face it or fear it seems to me a logical rather than emotional choice. It is fear that mostly leads to silence and such silence can be deafening.

    My personal plan of action was to resurface here in January of 2009 and I envisioned being apart of some real amazing social energy, but clearly we are in a period of introspective something-something which is root based (growing downward into the dark) rather than life based (growing upwards into the light). Inspiration can be bought but inspiration is a poor decoration. It is personal action which is the blood brother of inspiration.

    A plan is as good as the guess about what tomorrow might bring so I basically echo what Po Bronson says in this article. My best guess is that if my thinking is right, my ideas remain bright and my objectives create sight, it should be possible to theoretically emerge on the other side stronger in this fight. I will pop back on July 4th, and see what the energy level here is then, until then I will pay heed to Po Bronson, and get my head down and do what needs to be done. The alternative is the abyss where endless thinking lacking start value.