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'What Should I Do With My Life?'

Po Bronson calls it "the most obvious and universal question on our plates as human beings: What should I do with my life?"

Novelist and business writer Bronson spent two years interviewing more than 900 people who had weighed or were weighing that question. From his research came the book, What Should I Do With My Life? The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question.

For Morning Edition, Bronson describes what he learned from the people he interviewed, and focuses on four: Debbie Brient, once a sales executive; Rick Olson, a onetime lawyer; Don Linn, a former investment banker; and Leela de Souza, whose resume includes stints as a ballerina, Stanford MBA and White House fellow. Each approached their desire for a life change a little differently, he says. But like most of the people he interviewed, ultimately these four were searching for "a place where they can be content, grow roots a little, and make an impact."

In an interview with npr.org, Bronson tells more about the lessons behind people's life-changing quests -- including his own.

npr.org: You've said that the matter of what we should do with our lives is "the most obvious and universal question on our plates as human beings." After interviewing hundreds of people, how would you say most of us address what you call The Question -- do we do a pretty good job of meeting it head on, flounder hopelessly, avoid it with a vengeance?

Bronson: Most attempt to answer it with one eye open, one eye closed. We let our fears govern our decisions; rather than challenging the validity of those fears, we accept the boundaries set by those fears, and end up confining our search to a narrow range of possibilities, like the guy looking for his car keys under the streetlight because he’s afraid of the dark. Some broad examples: we confine ourselves to a range that is acceptable to our parents or our spouse; we confine ourselves to places inhabited only by people "like us," meaning of our class and education level; we place too much emphasis on being respected by an imaginary audience; we shy away from avocations that take a long time to mature and pay off.

I was inspired by people who had overcome these fears to look beyond the obvious choices. It wasn’t easy for them, but in a way that hard journey made the result even sweeter. It wasn’t just a matter of finding the right puzzle piece to match their skills; they had to grow as a person first.

Your radio report features four people who saw the need for a radical change in their lives, and have gone forth to make it. Let's talk a bit more about the stories of each of them, and the lessons you took away from them. Tell us how you learned about Debbie Brient, the sales executive turned conservationist, and what you think others could learn from her experience.

A lot of people have this notion, or maybe it’s a hope, that their calling will just make itself clear one day, as an epiphany. An epiphany is a religious notion, and we invoke the word "epiphany" any time we have a good idea, because it helps conjure a sort of divine certainty – we’re implying, "Hey, this wasn’t just my little idea, I got it straight from God." But I think this is a misappropriation.

In fact, true epiphanies are really rare. Of the 900 stories I learned, only three had genuine epiphanies. One heard a voice telling her to go to Maine, one heard a voice telling him to go to Guatemala, and Debbie Brient heard this voice telling her "Isn’t it clear!?" Well, epiphanies aren’t clear. These three people followed the voice, but were very unsure what they were doing. And they had to figure it out. To me, Debbie’s story is a lesson in clarity versus muddledness. We think it’s supposed to be clear. We think if it’s not clear, it must not be calling me. But in fact, even true callings are unclear, and even more so for those who don’t hear a voice.

You interviewed Rick Olson, who changed his career from lawyer to trucker. In your experience, will most people who ask themselves The Question wind up facing such a dramatic life change? And if they do, what will they need to know and do to carry it off?

Obviously, not everyone needs such a radical change. But Rick’s story demonstrates the significant potential for change we inherit when hard times strike. It's the hard times that force us to overcome the doubts that normally stop us from acting.

For people who are considering a dramatic life change like Rick’s, all they really need is to know they’re not alone, they’re not the only ones who’ve done this. That seems to help people –- to know they’re not crazy, that other people have done this and been happy.

Since you started your book research, you've followed Don Linn from a New York investment banking firm to a catfish and cotton farm, and now a book distributorship. You framed his answer to The Question in terms of him being able to live with his conscience. Do you believe many Americans stay in jobs that they feel require them to betray their morals or ethics? And what did you learn about people's decisions to get out of jobs like that?

I can’t quantify the number of people who feel their work is part of some unethical system. But it’s not uncommon. However, I found that despite their frustration, very few people change their life simply for ethics. They usually stick to the grind. They change their life when it gets personal –- when the system turns on them. In Don Linn’s case, he had moral problems with being ordered to push leveraged buyouts on clients that didn’t need them and couldn’t afford them. But those moral problems didn’t cause him to change. The day his life changed, he came home from New York (he lived in Dallas) and his daughter and son, then three and one years old, respectively, asked "Who is that man?" He’d spent so much time on airplanes, they didn’t recognize him. And that’s the point when it got personal.

The final person you profiled in the radio piece is Leela de Souza -- a gifted dancer, a White House fellow, a Stanford MBA, and still she wound up out of work, confused and depressed. You must have collected stories of people who faced up to The Question, did their best to craft an answer, and still have yet to get their happy ending, their ultimate fulfillment. What's the advice in that case?

It’s a process that takes many attempts, and you learn from the failed part of each attempt. Making mistakes is a necessary part of learning. All 55 of the stories in my book are failure stories –- where best intentions aren’t working out, and they have to figure it out from inside that hole. The answers lie more in our hearts than our minds. Leela is a very intelligent woman –- but she realized, after six months of unemployment, that finding her purpose is the one problem that’s not easier to solve if you’re smarter.

You list four specific areas where people take wrong turns in figuring out their answer to The Question: money, what you call "smarts," place and attitude. Can you talk a bit about each of those areas, and how people's approaches to them can confuse the search for the best course in life?

There is not room here for me to discuss these properly. I hope people will read the book. But, briefly, we make certain presumptions about how the world works, and then make decisions guided by those presumptions. Well, it all goes wrong when those basic presumptions are inaccurate. Those are presumptions more about how we want the world to work, rather than how it actually does. Here are four wrong presumptions, which we have wrongly accepted as true:

(1) That money is the shortest route to freedom.

(2) That we can think (or analyze) our way to an answer of where we belong.

(3) That we are autonomous from the environment that surrounds us.

(4) That our biggest obstacles are external, rather than internal.

You observed that almost everyone you interviewed for the book struggles with this life-direction question more than once. Is there such a thing as asking yourself this question too much, too often?

In the book I tell the story of a woman who had changed her career trajectory five times in 10 years. We met when she was on the cusp of yet another career change. But after some serious self-examination, she realized her hairtrigger desire to change came from her very tumultuous childhood (she moved frequently and her mother had five boyfriends growing up). In the year after this realization, she devoted her energy to defusing that craving for change.

So, the answer to your question is yes. Sometimes we need to decipher where our craving for change comes from.

Did you write this book because you knew so many people who were struggling with life-direction questions, or because you were facing that struggle yourself, or both? How do you think you've handled those points in your own life when you've asked and answered The Question?

Three years ago, I was wondering whether to get married again and have a family, or stay single and keep working on my writing career (which requires me to travel a lot and work many odd hours). I never thought I could do both. In these three years, I have done both -– the book is nothing less than a testament to me overcoming that fear. Not only is it the most important thing I’ve ever written, but my family was actively involved. My son, who’s not yet two, went on 17 trips during the reporting of the book, as I traveled across the country and both oceans to meet people in person. I no longer feel torn between these two loves. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in how I’ve answered this question in my life -- mistakes both in my career and personal life -- but writing this book was one of the few right things I’ve done.

Is there such a thing as the wrong answer to The Question?

I think that’s playing a game of semantics, when people say "There is no wrong answer because you learn from your mistakes and it’s all part of a process." I do think there are wrong turns and we should be willing to take a stand and call them out. Such as: when people betray themselves, when people betray others, when people cheat or lie or fool themselves, when people act unethically to get ahead, when people pretend they will get rich when they won’t, when fathers abandon support for their children, etcetera. The list of wrong answers is endless.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.