[silk] What Should I Do With My Life? (fwd)

Eugen Leitl eugen@leitl.org
Thu, 2 Jan 2003 20:08:53 +0100 (CET)

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 02 Jan 2003 21:16:18 +0530
From: Udhay Shankar N <udhay@pobox.com>
Reply-To: silklist@lists.vipul.net
To: silklist@lists.vipul.net
Subject: [silk] What Should I Do With My Life?

It takes courage, in these cynical times, for a non-politician / non-whacko 
(pardon the tautology) to use the phrase "moral imperative" while talking 
about anything. I respect Po Bronson's eye for the mood of the times. A lot 
of this article also resonates.

So, what do *you* want to Do With Your Life?



What Should I Do With My Life?

The real meaning of success -- and how to find it

by Po Bronson
photographs by Michael Grecco
from FC issue 66, page 69

It's time to define the new era. Our faith has been shaken. We've lost 
confidence in our leaders and in our institutions. Our beliefs have been 
tested. We've discredited the notion that the Internet would change 
everything ( and the stock market would buy us an exit strategy from the 
grind ). Our expectations have been dashed. We've abandoned the idea that 
work should be a 24-hour-a-day rush and that careers should be a wild 
adventure. Yet we're still holding on.

We're seduced by the idea that picking up the pieces and simply tweaking 
the formula will get the party started again. In spite of our best thinking 
and most searing experience, our ideas about growth and success are mired 
in a boom-bust mentality. Just as LBOs gave way to IPOs, the market is 
primed for the next engine of wealth creation. Just as we traded in the 
pinstripes and monster bonuses of the Wall Street era for T-shirts and a 
piece of the action during the startup revolution, we're waiting to latch 
on to the new trappings of success. ( I understand the inclination. I've 
surfed from one boom to the next for most of my working life -- from my 
early days as a bond trader to my most recent career as a writer tracking 
the migration of my generation from Wall Street to Silicon Valley. )

There's a way out. Instead of focusing on what's next, let's get back to 
what's first. The previous era of business was defined by the question, 
Where's the opportunity? I'm convinced that business success in the future 
starts with the question, What should I do with my life? Yes, that's right. 
The most obvious and universal question on our plates as human beings is 
the most urgent and pragmatic approach to sustainable success in our 
organizations. People don't succeed by migrating to a "hot" industry ( one 
word: dotcom ) or by adopting a particular career-guiding mantra ( remember 
"horizontal careers"? ). They thrive by focusing on the question of who 
they really are -- and connecting that to work that they truly love ( and, 
in so doing, unleashing a productive and creative power that they never 
imagined ). Companies don't grow because they represent a particular sector 
or adopt the latest management approach. They win because they engage the 
hearts and minds of individuals who are dedicated to answering that life 

This is not a new idea. But it may be the most powerfully pressing one ever 
to be disrespected by the corporate world. There are far too many smart, 
educated, talented people operating at quarter speed, unsure of their place 
in the world, contributing far too little to the productive engine of 
modern civilization. There are far too many people who look like they have 
their act together but have yet to make an impact. You know who you are. It 
comes down to a simple gut check: You either love what you do or you don't. 

Those who are lit by that passion are the object of envy among their peers 
and the subject of intense curiosity. They are the source of good ideas. 
They make the extra effort. They demonstrate the commitment. They are the 
ones who, day by day, will rescue this drifting ship. And they will be 
rewarded. With money, sure, and responsibility, undoubtedly. But with 
something even better too: the kind of satisfaction that comes with knowing 
your place in the world. We are sitting on a huge potential boom in 
productivity -- if we could just get the square pegs out of the round holes.

Of course, addressing the question, What should I do with my life? isn't 
just a productivity issue: It's a moral imperative. It's how we hold 
ourselves accountable to the opportunity we're given. Most of us are 
blessed with the ultimate privilege: We get 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. That choice isn't 
about a career search so much as an identity quest. Asking The Question 
aspires to end the conflict between who you are and what you do. There is 
nothing more brave than filtering out the chatter that tells you to be 
someone you're not. There is nothing more genuine than breaking away from 
the chorus to learn the sound of your own voice. Asking The Question is 
nothing short of an act of courage: It requires a level of commitment and 
clarity that is almost foreign to our working lives.

During the past two years, I have listened to the life stories of more than 
900 people who have dared to be honest with themselves. Of those, I chose 
70 to spend considerable time with in order to learn how they did it. 
Complete strangers opened their lives and their homes to me. I slept on 
their couches. We went running together. They cried in my arms. We traded 
secrets. I met their families. I went to one's wedding. I witnessed many 
critical turning points.

These are ordinary people. People of all ages, classes, and professions -- 
from a catfish farmer in Mississippi to a toxic-waste inspector in the oil 
fields of Texas, from a police officer in East Los Angeles to a long-haul 
trucker in Pennsylvania, from a financier in Hong Kong to a minister at a 
church on the Oregon coast. These people don't have any resources or 
character traits that give them an edge in pursuing their dream. Some have 
succeeded; many have not. Only two have what accountants call "financial 
independence." Only two are so smart that they would succeed at anything 
they chose ( though having more choices makes answering The Question that 
much harder ). Only one, to me, is saintly. They're just people who faced 
up to it, armed with only their weaknesses, equipped with only their fears.

What I learned from them was far more powerful than what I had expected or 
assumed. The first assumption to get busted was the notion that certain 
jobs are inherently cool and that others are uncool. That was a big shift 
for me. Throughout the 1990s, my basic philosophy was this: Work=Boring, 
but Work+Speed+Risk=Cool. Speed and risk transformed the experience into 
something so stimulating, so exciting, so intense, that we began to believe 
that those qualities defined "good work." Now, betrayed by the reality of 
economic uncertainty and global instability, we're casting about for what 
really matters when it comes to work.

On my journey, I met people in bureaucratic organizations and bland 
industries who were absolutely committed to their work. That commitment 
sustained them through slow stretches and setbacks. They never watched the 
clock, never dreaded Mondays, never worried about the years passing by. 
They didn't wonder where they belonged in life. They were phenomenally 
productive and confident in their value. In places unusual and unexpected, 
they had found their calling, and those callings were as idiosyncratic as 
each individual.

And this is where the second big insight came in: Your calling isn't 
something you inherently "know," some kind of destiny. Far from it. Almost 
all of the people I interviewed found their calling after great difficulty. 
They had made mistakes before getting it right. For instance, the catfish 
farmer used to be an investment banker, the truck driver had been an 
entertainment lawyer, a chef had been an academic, and the police officer 
was a Harvard MBA. Everyone discovered latent talents that weren't in their 
skill sets at age 25.

Most of us don't get epiphanies. We only get a whisper -- a faint urge. 
That's it. That's the call. It's up to you to do the work of discovery, to 
connect it to an answer. Of course, there's never a single right answer. At 
some point, it feels right enough that you choose, and the energy formerly 
spent casting about is now devoted to making your choice fruitful.

This lesson in late, hard-fought discovery is good news. What it means is 
that today's confused can be tomorrow's dedicated. The current difficult 
climate serves as a form of reckoning. The tougher the times, the more 
clarity you gain about the difference between what really matters and what 
you only pretend to care about. The funny thing is that most people have 
good instincts about where they belong but make poor choices and waste 
productive years on the wrong work. Why we do this cuts to the heart of the 
question, What should I do with my life? These wrong turns hinge on a small 
number of basic assumptions that have ruled our working lives, career 
choices, and ambitions for the better part of two decades. I found hardly 
any consistencies in how the people I interviewed discovered what they love 
to do -- the human soul resists taxonomy -- except when it came to four 
misconceptions ( about money, smarts, place, and attitude ) that have 
calcified into hobbling fears. These are stumbling blocks that we need to 
uproot before we can find our way to where we really belong.

MONEY Doesn't Fund Dreams
Shouldn't I make money first -- to fund my dream? The notion that there's 
an order to your working life is an almost classic assumption: Pay your 
dues, and then tend to your dream. I expected to find numerous examples of 
the truth of this path. But I didn't find any.

Sure, I found tons of rich guys who were now giving a lot away to charity 
or who had bought an island. I found plenty of people who had found 
something meaningful and original to do after making their money. But 
that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the garden-variety 
fantasy: Put your calling in a lockbox, go out and make a ton of money, and 
then come back to the lockbox to pick up your calling where you left it.

It turns out that having the financial independence to walk away rarely 
triggers people to do just that. The reality is, making money is such hard 
work that it changes you. It takes twice as long as anyone plans for. It 
requires more sacrifices than anyone expects. You become so emotionally 
invested in that world -- and psychologically adapted to it -- that you 
don't really want to ditch it.

I met many people who had left the money behind. But having "enough" didn't 
trigger the change. It had to get personal: Something had to happen such as 
divorce, the death of a parent, or the recognition that the long hours were 
hurting one's children. ( One man, Don Linn, left investment banking after 
he came home from a business trip and his two-year-old son didn't recognize 
him. )

The ruling assumption is that money is the shortest route to freedom. 
Absurdly, that strategy is cast as the "practical approach." But in truth, 
the opposite is true. The shortest route to the good life involves building 
the confidence that you can live happily within your means ( whatever the 
means provided by the choices that are truly acceptable to you turn out to 
be ). It's scary to imagine living on less. But embracing your dreams is 
surprisingly liberating. Instilled with a sense of purpose, your spending 
habits naturally reorganize, because you discover that you need less.

This is an extremely threatening conclusion. It suggests that the vast 
majority of us aren't just putting our dreams on ice -- we're killing them. 
Joe Olchefske almost lost his forever. Joe started out in life with an 
interest in government. In the early 1980s, he made what seemed like a 
minor compromise: When he graduated from Harvard's Kennedy School of 
Government, he went into public finance. He wouldn't work in government, 
he'd work with government.

Joe went on to run Piper Jaffray in Seattle. By the mid-1990s, he realized 
that one little compromise had defined his life. "I didn't want to be a 
high-priced midwife," he said. "I wanted to be a mother. It was never my 
deal. It was my clients' deal. They were taking the risk. They were 
building hospitals and bridges and freeways, not me. I envied them for that."

One night, riding up the elevator of his apartment building, Joe met newly 
hired Seattle schools superintendent John Stanford. Soon after, Stanford 
offered Olchefske a job as his CFO -- and partner in turning the troubled 
school system around. Olchefske accepted. Stanford rallied the city around 
school reform and earned the nickname Prophet of Hope. Meanwhile, Olchefske 
slashed millions from the budget and bloodlessly fired principals, never 
allowing his passions to interfere with his decisions. People called him 
Prophet of Doom.

Then Stanford died suddenly of leukemia. It was one of the great crises in 
the city's history. Who could fill this void? Certainly not the 
green-eyeshade CFO. But Stanford's death transformed Olchefske. It broke 
him open, and he discovered in himself a new ability to connect with people 
emotionally, not just rationally. As the new superintendent, he draws on 
that gift more than on his private-sector skills. He puts up with a lot of 
bureaucrap, but he says that avoiding crap shouldn't be the objective in 
finding the right work. The right question is, How can I find something 
that moves my heart, so that the inevitable crap storm is bearable?

SMARTS Can't Answer The Question
If the lockbox fantasy is a universal and eternal stumbling block when it 
comes to answering The Question, the idea that smarts and intensity are the 
essential building blocks of success and satisfaction is a product of the 
past decade. A set of twin misconceptions took root during the celebration 
of risk and speed that was the 90s startup revolution. The first is the 
idea that a smart, motivated individual with a great idea can accomplish 
anything. The corollary is that work should be fun, a thrill ride full of 
constant challenge and change.

Those assumptions are getting people into trouble. So what if your destiny 
doesn't stalk you like a lion? Can you think your way to the answer? That's 
what Lori Gottlieb thought. She considered her years as a rising television 
executive in Hollywood to be a big mistake. She became successful but felt 
like a fraud. So she quit and gave herself three years to analyze which 
profession would engage her brain the most. She literally attacked the 
question. She dug out her diaries from childhood. She took classes in 
photography and figure drawing. She interviewed others who had left 
Hollywood. She broke down every job by skill set and laid that over a grid 
of her innate talents. She filled out every exercise in What Color Is Your 

Eventually, she arrived at the following logic: Her big brain loved 
puzzles. Who solves puzzles? Doctors solve health puzzles. Therefore, 
become a doctor. She enrolled in premed classes at Pepperdine. Her 
med-school applications were so persuasive that every school wanted her. 
And then -- can you see where this is headed? -- Lori dropped out of 
Stanford Medical School after only two and a half months. Why? She realized 
that she didn't like hanging around sick people all day.

The point is, being smarter doesn't make answering The Question easier. 
Using the brain to solve this problem usually only leads to answers that 
make the brain happy and jobs that provide what I call "brain candy." 
Intense mental stimulation. But it's just that: candy. A synthetic 
substitute for other types of gratification that can be ultimately more 
rewarding and enduring. As the cop in East L.A. said of his years in 
management at Rockwell, "It was like cheap wood that burns too fast."

I struggled with this myself, but not until I had listened to hundreds of 
others did the pattern make itself shockingly clear. What am I good at? is 
the wrong starting point. People who attempt to deduce an answer usually 
end up mistaking intensity for passion. To the heart, they are vastly 
different. Intensity comes across as a pale busyness, while passion is 
meaningful and fulfilling. A simple test: Is your choice something that 
will stimulate you for a year or something that you can be passionate about 
for 10 years?

This test is tougher than it seems on paper. In the past decade, the work 
world has become a battleground for the struggle between the boring and the 
stimulating. The emphasis on intensity has seeped into our value system. We 
still cling to the idea that work should not only be challenging and 
meaningful -- but also invigorating and entertaining. But really, work 
should be like life: sometimes fun, sometimes moving, often frustrating, 
and defined by meaningful events. Those who have found their place don't 
talk about how exciting and challenging and stimulating their work is. 
Their language invokes a different troika: meaningful, significant, 
fulfilling. And they rarely ever talk about work without weaving in their 
personal history.

PLACE Defines You
Every industry has a culture. And every culture is driven by a value 
system. In Hollywood, where praise is given too easily and thus has been 
devalued, the only honest metric is box-office receipts. So box-office 
receipts are all-important. In Washington, DC, some very powerful 
politicians are paid middling salaries, so power and money are not equal. 
Power is measured by the size of your staff and by how many people you can 
influence. In police work, you learn to be suspicious of ordinary people 
driving cars and walking down the street.

One of the most common mistakes is not recognizing how these value systems 
will shape you. People think that they can insulate themselves, that 
they're different. They're not. The relevant question in looking at a job 
is not What will I do? but Who will I become? What belief system will you 
adopt, and what will take on heightened importance in your life? Because 
once you're rooted in a particular system -- whether it's medicine, New 
York City, Microsoft, or a startup -- it's often agonizingly difficult to 
unravel yourself from its values, practices, and rewards. Your money is 
good anywhere, but respect and status are only a local currency. They get 
heavily discounted when taken elsewhere. If you're successful at the wrong 
thing, the mix of praise and opportunity can lock you in forever.

Don Linn, the investment banker who took over the catfish farm in 
Mississippi, learned this lesson the hard way. After years as a star at 
PaineWebber and First Boston, he dropped out when he could no longer bring 
himself to push deals on his clients that he knew wouldn't work. His life 
change smacked of foolish originality: 5.5 million catfish on 1,500 water 
acres. His first day, he had to clip the wings of a flock of geese. Covered 
in goose shit and blood, he wondered what he had gotten himself into. But 
he figured it out and grew his business into a $16 million operation with 
five side businesses. More important, the work reset his moral compass. In 
farming, success doesn't come at another farmer's expense. You learn to 
cooperate, sharing processing plants, feed mills, and pesticide-flying 

Like Don, you'll be a lot happier if you aren't fighting the value system 
around you. Find one that enforces a set of beliefs that you can really get 
behind. There's a powerful transformative effect when you surround yourself 
with like-minded people. Peer pressure is a great thing when it helps you 
accomplish your goals instead of distracting you from them.

Carl Kurlander wrote the movie St. Elmo's Fire when he was 24. For years 
afterward, he lived in Beverly Hills. He wanted to move back to Pittsburgh, 
where he grew up, to write books, but he was always stopped by the doubt, 
Would it really make any difference to write from Pittsburgh instead of 
from Beverly Hills? His books went unwritten. Last year, when a looming 
Hollywood writers' strike coincided with a job opening in the 
creative-writing department at Pitt, he finally summoned the courage to 
move. He says that being in academia is like "bathing in altruism." Under 
its influence, he wrote his first book, a biography of the comic Louie 

ATTITUDE Is the Biggest Obstacle
Environment matters, but in the end, when it comes to tackling the 
question, What should I do with my life? it really is all in your head. The 
first psychological stumbling block that keeps people from finding 
themselves is that they feel guilty for simply taking the quest seriously. 
They think that it's a self-indulgent privilege of the educated upper 
class. Working-class people manage to be happy without trying to "find 
themselves," or so the myth goes.

But I found that just about anybody can find this question important. It's 
not just for free agents, knowledge workers, and serial entrepreneurs. I 
met many working-class people who found this question essential. They might 
have fewer choices, but they still care. Take Bart Handford. He went from 
working the graveyard shift at a Kimberley-Clark baby-wipes plant in 
Arkansas to running the Department of Agriculture's rural-development 
program. He didn't do this by just pulling up his bootstraps. His 
breakthrough came when his car was hit by a train, and he spent six months 
in bed exploring The Question.

Probably the most debilitating obstacle to taking on The Question is the 
fear that making a choice is a one-way ride, that starting down a path 
means closing a door forever.

"Keeping your doors open" is a trap. It's an excuse to stay uninvolved. I 
call the people who have the hardest time closing doors Phi Beta Slackers. 
They hop between esteemed grad schools, fat corporate gigs, and prestigious 
fellowships, looking as if they have their act together but still feeling 
like observers, feeling as if they haven't come close to living up to their 

Leela de Souza almost got lost in that trap. At age 15, Leela knew exactly 
what she wanted to be when she grew up: a dancer. She pursued that dream, 
supplementing her meager dancer's pay with work as a runway model. But she 
soon began to feel that she had left her intellect behind. So, in her early 
twenties, with several good years left on her legs, she took the SATs and 
applied to college. She paid for a $100,000 education at the University of 
Chicago with the money that she had earned from modeling and during the 
next seven years made a series of seemingly smart decisions: a year in 
Spain, Harvard Business School, McKinsey & Co., a White House Fellowship, 
high-tech PR. But she never got any closer to making a real choice.

Like most Phi Beta Slackers, she was cursed with tremendous ability and 
infinite choices. Figuring out what to do with her life was constantly on 
her mind. But then she figured something else out: Her need to look 
brilliant was what was keeping her from truly answering The Question. When 
she let go of that, she was able to shift gears from asking "What do I do 
next?" to making strides toward answering "To what can I devote my life?"

Asking What Should I Do With My Life? is the modern, secular version of the 
great timeless questions about our identity. Asking The Question aspires to 
end the conflict between who you are and what you do. Answering The 
Question is the way to protect yourself from being lathed into someone 
you're not. What is freedom for if not the chance to define for yourself 
who you are?

I have spent the better part of the past two years in the company of people 
who have dared to confront where they belong. They didn't always find an 
ultimate answer, but taking the question seriously helped get them closer. 
We are all writing the story of our own life. It's not a story of conquest. 
It's a story of discovery. Through trial and error, we learn what gifts we 
have to offer the world and are pushed to greater recognition about what we 
really need. The Big Bold Leap turns out to be only the first step.

Sidebar: One Size Does Not Fit All
Two different answers to one ultimate question

Organization Man Of the 900 people who I talked to, only one has had the 
same employer for his entire adult life. His name is Russell Carpenter, 
he's 35, and he's an aerospace engineer at NASA Goddard. We can all learn 
from him. Russell began working at NASA during college. In exchange for his 
summers, they paid for his tuition and, later, financed his PhD. Russell is 
a GS-14, stuck to government pay scales. The money is okay, but it's never 
the reason to stay. He's building a guidance system for the newest type of 

The halls and offices at NASA are quiet. These engineers are content with 
slowly pushing toward a solution. Which I took as Extractable Lesson number 
one: time frame. At NASA, Russell has found an intermediate time frame 
where he can accomplish the high-minded objectives that his division is 
charged with, but he's not under absurd pressure to do it all in 90 days.

Aerospace engineers are obsessed with redundancy and backup systems. 
Russell knows that metals give, that gears slip, and that motors overheat, 
and he plans for that in his designs. Not everything has to go right in 
order for it to work. And that way of thinking shows up in every aspect of 
his life, including how he achieves his ambitions. Which I took as 
Extractable Lesson number two: His backup plans do not lead to different 
destinations, such as "If I don't get into business school, I'll be a 
schoolteacher." His backup plans lead to the same destination, and if he 
has to arrive late by a back road, that's fine.

Later, Russell and I went to a baseball game, which clued me in to 
Extractable Lesson number three: Russell doesn't let himself get burned 
out. He doesn't think it's a big deal that he's only had one employer. His 
method is his secret, but it's no secret.

"So what do you do?" For five years, Marcela Widrig had a dream job that 
compensated her well, let her live in Barcelona, and paid for her frequent 
travel throughout Southern Europe. She sold modems for a big modem 
manufacturer. Modems were her means to her ends: money, travel, human 

When her company moved her to San Francisco, she suffered culture shock. 
The Internet was destroying everything that she loved about sales. The new 
ethos was speed. Get the deal done in a day! Don't even fly -- email makes 
it so easy! The human contact was gone.

The worst part was constantly being asked The Inevitable Cocktail-Party 
Question: "What do you do?" Marcela had been away long enough to have 
forgotten about this disgusting American custom. She found it degrading and 
reductive and mercenary. I too used to think that The Inevitable 
Cocktail-Party Question was a scourge on our society. But I'm starting to 
see that it is really about freedom to choose. A status system has evolved 
that values being unique and true even more than it values being 
financially successful.

In other words, if you don't like The Inevitable Cocktail-Party Question, 
maybe it's partly because you don't like your answer.

Marcela no longer liked her answer. She endured migraines and insomnia. 
After flying all the way to Hong Kong for a meeting that didn't even last 
one hour, she vowed, "I cannot sell one more modem." But she didn't quit 
for two more years. On her vacations, she flew to Switzerland to train in a 
school for deep-tissue massage. It was her way to move toward genuine human 
contact. The day she returned from one of her Switzerland trips, the modem 
company went under, and she was forced into her new life.

It took her about a year to drop the business-suit persona and truly 
embrace her new profession. The Inevitable Cocktail-Party Question no 
longer bothers her. "I do body work," she says. "I love what I do, and I 
think that comes across."

Po Bronson is the author of three best-selling books. This article is 
adapted from his new book, What Should I Do with My Life? The True Story of 
People Who Answered the Ultimate Question ( Random House, January 2003 ). 
Contact him by email ( pobronson@pobronson.com ).

Tough times demand tough talk
demand tough hearts demand tough songs
demand...(Rush, _Force Ten_)