Lessons Learned from: What Should I do with my Life? by Po Bronson

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Located in San Francisco, CA, Po Bronson is a bonds salesman-turned-author of the 2002 novel, What Should I Do With My Life?: The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question. The novel recounts a handful of conversations and impressions Bronson gained after interviewing over 900+ ordinary people over a span of 2 years. Bronson invested time and energy into each individual’s life story–flew to their homes, carefully listened to other people’s experiences, regrets, aspirations, and built friendships not out of conveniency, but out of mutual respect. He opened his heart and mind to new perspectives. As a result, Bronson gained their trust and the people he interviewed felt comfortable talking about some of the most difficult and transformative times of their lives.

I did not find the novel didactic, nor infused with adrenaline. Rather, it was easy to feel connected to the novel’s interviewees. I feel as if I know some of the people he interviewed because I see certain traits reflected in my own friends’ thoughts, beliefs, and courses of action. Although it is not always clear (that is understandable because life is almost never black and white), Bronson successfully takes note of universal trends amongst people from all walks of life. Here are 4 of my key takeaways.

1. Moral dilemmas and injustice are oftentimes not pressing enough for us to make big changes in our life. Instead, things need to get personal.

Bronson’s writing made me believe that few people will change their lives due to an ethical issue that they experience or witness–even if it happens on a daily basis. In one interviewee’s case, Don Linn faced a moral problem each day at work as he pushed leveraged buyouts onto clients who could not afford, nor need them. Nevertheless, he continued to close deal after deal until one day, he went home and his young children did not recognize him because his work life became his whole life.

Instead of waiting for “things to get personal” or for a negative experience to catalyze my ability to make important changes in my life, I will do my best to proactively manage symptoms and re-evaluate every few months. Prevention is better than a clean-up.

2. Do not wait for 90% clarity or an epiphany in order to make your important decisions.

Chances are, you probably won’t get it. What you will have is the lost opportunity cost of time. Regardless of what skin color or socioeconomic circumstance one is born into, we all have 24 hours in a day. How will you use your time? Will you repeatedly mull over the pros and cons of each course of action, or will you take a risk and give 110% into one?

Bronson emphasizes the importance of deciphering where one’s craving for change comes from. After I have considered the origin of my anxiousness, personally, over 50% confidence level is enough for me to take a leap of fate.

3. Going out of your comfort zone and daring to take risks is scary, but a necessary part of self-improvement.

Sometimes, too much thinking, analyzing, and rational justification is exactly what holds us back. Sometimes we should not just listen to, but trust, our hearts over our minds and do what we feel is right, rather than what we think is right.

I struggle to think of a time where I have taken a risk and walked away believing I would be better off without the experience I just gained. Sure, sometimes I feel that way, but after my most visceral emotions pass, I usually take comfort in the fact that I learned something new–regardless of whether the lesson learned was from success or failure.

4. Feeling fulfilled is different from feeling happy.

I believe that being happy is relatively simple because for most people, happiness is a choice. But happiness can also feel not enough at times. For instance, I am confident that all of us have taken a ride on the hedonistic treadmill before: buying the latest shiny gadget, following the same fashion trends in order to fit in (perhaps this explains why unintentional #twinning happens so often?), subscribing to the mentality of work hard, play harder…but how long does this rush of endorphins last? On the same continuum, finding fulfilling work is hard because it requires a lot more effort and courage to take risks and try new things. It seems to me that most people desire feelings of fulfillment, too. Maybe the search for this feeling is what drives the average person to switch his or her career a handful of times. One step further than finding fulfilling work is committing to take action long-term. Doing fulfilling work is the most challenging because this means people must shed old habits and make sacrifices. However, doing fulfilling work is also the most rewarding because you can feel at peace, like you are where you belong.

Those who found fulfillment in Bronson’s novel did not take a direct path from Point A to Point B. More often than not, the path was full of dead ends and U-turns. For a lot of his interviewees, Point B was not a destination, but a feeling of belonging and a feeling of giving back in some way. I am far from Point B, but I look forward to sharing my journey with all of you as I first practice expressing my thoughts through writing.

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