Dissatisfied Professionals Should Seek a Better Life

I once had a sign on my office wall that read: “This life is only a test. If it had been an actual life, you would have been given further instructions on where to go and what to do.”

Couldn’t we all use a little more guidance on our destinies? Many people decide their life’s work when they’re barely out of their teens, then spend 40 hours a week for the next 40 years doing jobs that leave them apathetic, bitter, depleted. Somewhere there may be work that would make time fly instead of crawl, but how many people have the courage, patience or money to seek their true calling, if, in fact, they have one?

Po Bronson found 55 such people, and in “What Should I Do With My Life?” (Random House, 370 pages, $24.95) he chronicles their answers to the ultimate questions: Am I happy? And if not, what am I going to do about it? Mr. Bronson himself walked away from a job as a bond salesman at First Boston to scratch his itch for writing. Marcela sold modems but wanted to do massages. Don was an investment banker but wanted to farm catfish. Kurt was a Ph.D. candidate in poetry who longed to be a chef. John, a divorce mediator, became a minister.

Obstacles to Happiness

“We live in a rich country,” Mr. Bronson writes. “So rich that we’re blessed with the ultimate privilege: to be true to our individual nature. Our economy is so vast that we don’t have to grind it out forever at jobs we hate. For the most part we get to choose.”

I doubt that many of the eight million Americans who are unemployed would agree. Nor, I’m guessing, would young adults without college degrees, recent immigrants or men and women over the age of 55. Yet Mr. Bronson is right that no society in human history has offered its citizens as wide a variety of occupations as 21st-century America does. In 1850, the first U.S. Census listed 322 job titles; in 2000, there were 31,000.

Some of Mr. Bronson’s case histories are heartening — people giving up lucrative corporate jobs to enter public service or become entrepreneurs. Not all his subjects are affluent, white and well-educated, and not all their stories have happy endings. In Mr. Bronson’s opinion, however, even failure beats inertia.

“If you’re not happy, you shouldn’t stay put, you should find where you belong,” he exhorts Mike, who was taking a self-described Zen Buddhist approach to his imperfect fate. “Purpose and fulfillment were right there for [Mike],” Mr. Bronson declares, “if he got off his Gandhi kick.”

Gandhi was actually a Hindu, and statements like that make “What Should I Do With My Life?” seem shallow and Western, in the worst sense of the word. Obligations? Tolerance? Compromise? Sacrifice? These are just obstacles to happiness in Mr. Bronson’s self-centered universe, their entreaties no more compelling than the barking of “a pack of junkyard dogs.”

“John decided he could compromise no longer,” Mr. Bronson writes about a man who quits his job and moves to a new city to start an electric-car company. To pursue this dream, “he pulled his kids out of school, let go of their nanny, who’d been with them since their older boy was born. His wife said goodbye to her friends.”

Then, to top it off, John blows his capital fixing up his new house and is forced to take the same kind of job he had left behind. After all that John had overcome, including “a family hesitant to change with him,” Mr. Bronson says that he was “hurt to learn” that John had failed. I bet the wife, kids and nanny hurt a lot worse.

Find the Sweet Spot

Mr. Bronson acknowledges that he became emotionally involved with many of his subjects, but he seems to think that’s a good thing rather than the liability it turns out to be. When his subjects ask his advice, he usually gives it; even if they don’t ask, he gives it. As their adviser, not to mention a journalist researching a book about life changes, he has a stake in the outcome of these stories. “There was no doubt I had a slant,” he says. “Why was I bent on encouraging people to change their lives?” One possible explanation is that if they didn’t, he wouldn’t have a book. But whatever the reason, the result is an unreliable depiction of how and why people change careers, the difficulties understated, the rewards exaggerated.

Large sections of the book are simply records of conversations between Mr. Bronson and his subjects, with him getting most of the best lines. People are constantly smacking their heads (metaphorically) and saying things like, “Wow, I never thought of that” or “Damn, when you say it like that it seems so easy and so obvious.” Patronizing and self-congratulatory, Mr. Bronson is a good example of a new publishing paradigm that’s gotten out of control: authors telling not just a story but the story of how they got the story.

Worse, Mr. Bronson practices psychological counseling without a license, proffering the kinds of banalities that give self-help books a bad name: “Carrying negative energy around is like carrying a 20-pound watermelon — you can’t give a good hug when you have a watermelon in your arms.” “Being uncomfortable is good. If you remain comfortable, you remain more or less yourself.” “One misconception is that our life doesn’t begin until we find an answer, when in fact our failed attempts often establish why we will find our future ‘answer’ so meaningful, that is, in contrast to the past.” Huh?

To deflect the possible criticism that “What Should I Do With My Life?” is loosey-goosey advice for slackers, malcontents and dilettantes, Mr. Bronson argues that when people love what they do, their productivity explodes. I suspect he’s correct, and the world would be a better place if everyone could find what Mr. Bronson calls the “sweet spot.” But someone has to collect the garbage, dig the ditches and clean the bathrooms, regardless of how unrewarding these jobs are. And most of us must simply persevere in the many unglamorous, middle-level jobs — neither exalted nor mundane — that help us to pay our way through life. Mr. Bronson has no time for such people; they have not “dared to be honest with themselves.” Oh, please.


By Cynthia Crossen

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