There's no better way to gauge the state of unease in today's workforce than typing "What should I do with my life?" into a search engine. The first thing you notice is that companies have bought those keywords and have ads promising panaceas. The next thing you see is that the number-one search result is the Fast Company cover story that appeared in January 2003.
Po Bronson's article, excerpted from his book What Should I Do With My Life?, posits that the answer to that metaphysical question lies in finding meaning in work and life, then deciding what values are essential in the latter and making sure they're in sync with the former. "The choice," Bronson wrote, "isn't about a career search so much as an identity quest."
A recent Gallup poll found that 55% of U.S. employees are not engaged at work, so it's no surprise that more than two years after its publication, readers were still adding comments to our Web site about Bronson's story and its personal impact. And it isn't a phenomenon limited to the past few years. Job satisfaction has steadily declined from nearly 60% in 1995, the beginning of the Internet boom, to 50% in 2004. As the Beatles have said, money can't buy you love.
Perhaps for this reason, What Should I Do With My Life? resonated far beyond the Fast Company community. The book stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for more than a year, even hitting number one for a week. And in perhaps the ultimate validation, Starbucks chose a Bronson quote this year to put on half a million of its coffee cups—"Failure's hard, but success is far more dangerous. If you're successful at the wrong thing, the mix of praise and money and opportunity can lock you in forever."
Almost as surprising as the book's reach were those who misinterpreted it, Bronson says—especially those who reacted negatively to what they saw as a mushy follow-your-dreams exercise. "In times of economic hardship," one letter to FC read, "it is cliché to comment on how people 'find themselves' in less fancy careers."
Bronson replies: "There's this misperception that you're supposed to be looking for these frictionless environments. All jobs have work that you'll hate to do. Therefore, find something that you believe in so much that you'll be able to put up with [it]."
That, in effect, is the true lesson of What Should I Do With My Life? Finding meaning in work is about finding some aspect of a less-than-perfect situation—even just one—that resonates the strongest, and amplifying it. "Everybody has a few aspects of their job that they don't necessarily love," says Jennifer Sullivan, a spokesperson for CareerBuilder.com. "But when you know that you're contributing to something, it is rewarding."
The story that best embodied these ideas was that of Don Linn, who left investment banking in the 1980s to run his then-wife's family business farming catfish in Mississippi. Despite not really liking catfish or farming, he found his relationships to be satisfying. Soon after the article came out, Linn went all the way up the Mississippi River to run a book- distribution company in Minneapolis (another industry he knew nothing about). "With every business I've been with, it's a matter of working with people," he says. "And that's what I really enjoy, the relationships—not that you had much of a relationship with the catfish."
What stories like Linn's have done for readers is to help them change their attitudes about their careers. "Whether you're raising catfish or pushing paper, it doesn't matter," says Dan Miller, vice president of learning and development for Monster.com. "It's how you approach it. The people in Po's book are the people who, regardless of what was handed to them, went out and took the risk and put themselves on the line and made the most of it."
"People don't succeed by migrating to a 'hot' industry or by adopting a particular career-guiding mantra. They thrive by focusing on the question of who they really are—and connecting that to the work they truly love."
Po Bronson, What Should I Do With My Life?, January 2003
A version of this article appeared in the October 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.