What Should I Do with My Life?: The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question

What Should I Do with My Life?: The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question

by Po Bronson

Paperback(Mass Market Paperback - Reissue)

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“Brimming with stories of sacrifice, courage, commitment and, sometimes, failure, the book will support anyone pondering a major life choice or risk without force-feeding them pat solutions.”—Publishers Weekly

In What Should I Do with My Life? Po Bronson tells the inspirational true stories of people who have found the most meaningful answers to that great question. With humor, empathy, and insight, Bronson writes of remarkable individuals—from young to old, from those just starting out to those in a second career—who have overcome fear and confusion to find a larger truth about their lives and, in doing so, have been transformed by the experience. 

What Should I Do with My Life? struck a powerful, resonant chord on publication, causing a multitude of people to rethink their vocations and priorities and start on the path to finding their true place in the world. For this edition, Bronson has added nine new profiles, to further reflect the range and diversity of those who broke away from the chorus to learn the sound of their own voice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345485922
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/29/2005
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 240,087
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.98(d)

About the Author

Po Bronson is on the board of directors of Consortium Book Sales & Distribution and the editorial board of Zoetrope: All Story magazine. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and Wired. He graduated from Stanford with a B.A. in economics and from San Francisco State with an M.F.A. in creative writing. He lives in San Francisco.


San Francisco, California

Date of Birth:

March 14, 1964

Place of Birth:

Seattle, Washington


B.A., Stanford University, 1986; M.F.A., San Francisco State University, 1995

Read an Excerpt

Destiny vs.Self-Created Meaning

An Ordinary Guy

Wouldn’t it be so much easier if you got a letter in the mail when you were seventeen, signed by someone who had a direct pipeline to Ultimate Meaning, telling you exactly who you are and what your true destiny is? Then you could carry this letter around in your pocket, and when you got confused or distracted and suddenly melted down, you’d reach for your wallet and grab the letter and read it again and go, “Oh, right.”

Well, a friend of mine has such a letter. He’s thirty-two years old and rents a bedroom from a nice lady in Phoenix near the base of Camelback Mountain. He’s gray at the temples, wears Hawaiian shirts, and drives a dusty Oldsmobile that suffers from bad alignment. The car’s tape player is broken, which is fine by me because I can’t stand the soft rock he listens to. He loves America because friends here treat him like an ordinary person. He says being here has made him much more open-minded. He grew up in a refugee camp in southern India. When he got the letter he had just enrolled in a special school there, with the vague notion of eventually becoming a professor of Tibetan literature, though he admits he wasn’t much of a student. But what else was there to do in life? No way was he going to be a farmer. Being a businessman meant having to sell, and he didn’t study hard enough to ever become a doctor. He couldn’t imagine sitting out his life in a government office job, filing forms. His name was Choeaor Dondup, but everyone called him Ali, after the boxer, because he was big. His hair hung to his shoulders. He spent most of his time figuring out how to get into his girlfriend’s pants. He played soccer. He was scared of the dark. Then one day at school he received this letter, signed by the Dalai Lama.

Ali was a big believer in the Dalai Lama.

The letter said he wasn’t Choeaor Dondup after all. Instead, he was the reincarnation of a warrior who, along with his five brothers, had ruled a poor and remote region of eastern Tibet six lifetimes ago. The brothers had descended from one of Genghis Khan’s grandsons. Ali’s Previous One turned his back on the family’s violent rule and became a monk. Over his lifetime he founded thirteen monasteries and became the great spiritual leader of this region, the Tehor. Ali’s real name was Za Rinpoche, which is Tibetan for “The Dharma King.”

Imagine! You’re not a dumb, lost, inexperienced seventeen-year-old! We actually have a spot picked out for you! And not just any spot!

wanted: Great Spiritual Leader. No experience necessary.

Nevertheless, the letter was a bit of a shock. They wanted him to attend the Drepung monastery in northern India. All Ali could think about was, “Am I going to have to cut my hair?” “Am I going to have to become a monk? Give up sex?” You think it would be easy if your destiny were offered on a silver platter. But Ali went around for a few days openly expressing his angst and annoying his friends by debating whether this was the right thing to do. The social pressure was so great that eventually he shut up, gave in, and went off to the monastery, keeping his doubts to himself. It took four years for the doubts to evaporate. But it’s never been easy. He spent the next twelve years memorizing two-thousand-year-old ancient texts, the whole time craving the kind of understanding that comes from experience. Back in Tehor, when people are dying they hold his photograph inches from their face and stare at him, wanting him to be the last thing they ever see before they cross over into unembodied consciousness. That’s how much faith they have in Rinpoche–more than he has in himself, I suspect.

I found Rinpoche like this: When my son was born, my mom cleaned out her basement and brought up my well-preserved souvenirs from my childhood, soccer trophies and warmup jackets and my high school yearbooks. In one of those yearbooks was a nice note from an upperclasswoman, Jodi, fondly remembering those long conversations we used to have during studio art classes. “What conversations?” I wanted to remember. So I tracked her down, and during another long conversation she mentioned she’d been hanging out with Rinpoche. I was curious, though not for any particular reason. Just curious. Curiosity is a raw and genuine sign from deep inside our tangled psyches, and we’d do well to follow the direction it points us in. So to Jodi I said, “I gotta meet that guy,” and booked tickets to Phoenix.

What would it be like to have this certainty about your place in the world? To have it in writing from the Dalai Lama himself! Of course, my desire to understand this wasn’t my only motivation. I was excited to meet a holy man. Perhaps his spiritual presence might rub off on me, and he might offer me guidance. Instead I found a friend, who, though sacred, was still utterly human and real. He was skilled at minimizing his anguish over everyday struggles, but he still faced them routinely and fought his urges like any of us. Possessing that letter had not relieved him of having to figure out where he really belonged and make some hard choices. In his mind, this question was not settled.

He and I were riding around Phoenix a little while ago, looking for some authentic Mexican food. I was joshing him about this reincarnation thing.

“Come on, you really believe it?”


“So, all of you, or just, like, your soul?”

He said the biggest misconception in the West, and in young Tibetans, was that mind is physical.

I said, “How do you know young Tibetans? You said you’ve never even been to Tibet.” (China wouldn’t let him into his country.)

“Like, you know, I’ve met many who are also in exile.”

“In Phoenix?”

He said that they were mostly in New York.

“What does that even mean, ‘mind is not physical’? That’s so cryptic.”

He tried to unpack his statement for me. Sanskrit describes five layers of self, or mind:
and consciousness.

His consciousness had been reincarnated, but his perceptions and feelings and body had not. That said, the inner layer, by itself, is no more valid or important than the outer. Self is the combination of the five.

“So on the inside you’ve got it figured out, but the rest of you is dragging along.”
Rinpoche laughed, and it’s when he laughs that he seems so wise. He learned his English in Atlanta from undergrads at Emory University, and he picked up their vocal idiosyncrasies, tossing “kind of,” “like,” and “you know what I mean” into every sentence.

He speaks English like a teenager, but laughs like a man six lifetimes old–such a deep, merry, pure chuckle.

I asked him if Buddhists believe we all get a specific destiny.

“We don’t think there’s a specific place in your life to go. Everybody’s destiny is to become an enlightened being and reach the everlasting state of mind.”

“That’s pretty easy for you to say. Your destiny arrived in the mail. What if you had to go out and get a job?”

He laughed again. “Yes, that I could not imagine.”

Rinpoche has always had to be pushed to take the next step. In 1998, the Dalai Lama chose him to lead a tour of monks across the United States. Rinpoche didn’t want to go. He’d heard the tour required long bus rides, thirteen hours at a time. He relented when the abbot leaned on him. Rinpoche says he was a narrow-minded snob back then. Maybe a monastery sounds like a terrific place to become a deep person, but the truth was, he was sheltered and had a big ego. He didn’t hang out with ordinary monks, only monks of high status. He had no respect for other religions, and assumed anyone who wasn’t a Buddhist couldn’t be a nice person. He was lonely and too serious. But traveling in America did wonders for his personality. After a year, he went back to the Drepung Monastery, and everyone said, “Wow, you’ve changed a lot.” He hung out with monks regardless of their status. He laughed all the time. He felt more grounded. His elders were so impressed they asked him to stay and teach. For once he had the balls to say, “That is not in my nature,” and stick by it. He wanted to return to America, where not everyone treats him like a divine being. He wanted to understand the Western mind, how people in the West think.

Exposing himself to this crazy world was making him into a better person, and that was the right path to be on.

If it were me, no matter how cool or great it would be to have a spiritual calling, and to be given this early in life, I’d still have that American notion of needing to discover things myself. I’d need independence–I’d feel controlled. I might now and then be testy about having my calling put upon me rather than arriving at it by myself. We have mixed feelings about the seductive notion of destiny. There’s a persistent tension between wanting our life’s purpose to be revealed to us by some higher power and wanting to scrap and fight for it against all odds–to earn it without help. We think about destiny sort of like how we feel about inheritance–we covet its fruit but it’s sweeter if we earned it ourselves. And so I wasn’t surprised when Rinpoche called to give me his new address and phone number.

“What happened?”

“I am not with Bodhiheart anymore.” Bodhiheart was the foundation he cofounded with his sponsor–the woman in whose house he had lived until now.

“Did you get in a fight?”

“Uh, not really. Kind of. I myself am not a citizen, you know? So as my sponsor, I relied on her for legal things like this.”

“Like creating the foundation.”

“That is right. So I have my own foundation now.” He let out a hearty laugh, his punch line coming a little quick before I could understand.

“What happened between you?”

“I felt she tried to keep people from me, control my schedule, these things, you know? Like she wanted to be the access to me. Like last time you were here? She was upset with that.”

“But you’re my friend!”

He sighed. “That is right. You understand.”

“You don’t want anyone to control you.”

“That is right.”

“So have you ever lived alone before?” He’d spent most of his life in a monastery with four thousand monks.

“No, never.”

“Can you cook?”

“Simple things.”

“Going out for burritos a lot, I bet.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“How big is your apartment?”

“Not too small.”

“You’re not still scared of the dark, are you?”

Rinpoche laughed.

“I’m glad you’re learning to look out for yourself,” I said.

“Yes. At this I am getting better.”

Once he’d said to me, “I wish I could be ordinary sometimes.” He was getting his chance.
At one of Rinpoche’s “teachings” at a hospice, he described how fears hold us back from our own advancement. “Fear is like a wound within our emotions,” he said. You heal a fear much like you heal a cut on your hand. If you ignore a cut on your hand, it will get infected. But it will heal itself if you pay attention to it and give it time. Same with a fear.

First, recognize its existence–what kind of fear is it? Is it fear of poverty, of loneliness, of rejection? Then use common sense. Don’t let the fear get infected. Often we burn 70 percent of our emotional energy on what we fear might happen (90 percent of which won’t happen). By devoting our energy to our other emotions, we will heal naturally.

This didn’t sink in for me right away. In the moment, my mind tagged it as “deep,” and filed it away to be revisited later. Which I did. When my way of organizing this book was finally coming into focus–as stories portraying people working through their fears and misconceptions–that method rang a bell. I dug up my notes on Rinpoche’s teaching and found the similarity. I felt like I’d wasted time getting there the hard way. “Look, it took me nine months to figure this out by myself, when all along Rinpoche was trying to show me this is how to do it.” But, then again, I felt like I understood it better because I’d done it the hard way.

Which was how he’d lived, too. His purpose was given to him, but he’d had to go find it anyway.

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What Should I Do with My Life? 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 55 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I looked so forward to reading this highly-recommended book, especially finding myself now in a position where, after 25 years, I do not have a choice as to whether or not to make a career change: The choice has already been made for me. What I was hoping for was some sort of blueprint to follow as I find myself facing so many difficult decisions. What I found instead was story after story of somebody simply stumbling upon his perfect match or dream job, rather than a guide as to how someone might find it with deliberation and planning. There seemed to be no starting point from which one might begin his search for the 'ultimate answer,' and I had no more insight as to 'Where do I go from here?' after reading the book than I did before. Definitely disappointing.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As I read this book, I began to realize who this work was meant to appeal to. The majority of individuals whose stories were documented happened to be those who have made loads and loads of money, enough to feel comfortable with a major life decision or career change. Doctors, lawyers, Wall Street execs and the like. Most had advanced degrees and experienced things most Americans would never dream of but somehow still felt their lives were missing something. It seemed like the author himself came from privledge and chose to interview individuals who came from similar backgrounds. There may have been one story I could relate to in the entire 300 plus page work. Being a 29 year old, college educated individual attempting to return to business school I had hoped the book would tell at least a few stories of middle income individuals like myself. Unfortunately, there are not. I would not recommend this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Would you give up a salary of $300,000 a year to find yourself? Po Bronson seems to think that after reading his latest book, What Should I Do With My Life?, you will feel compelled to do just that. He seems to think he has the power to influence the masses. To be fair: events surrounding the publication of Bronson¿s last book, The Nudist On The Late Shift, would seem to back him up. Published just before the dot-com industry collapsed, the book ¿ an enticing account of all things great within that industry inspired many of its readers to jump on the dot-com boat. When the industry sank these poor suckers went down with it. Bronson felt so guilty he published an apology in The New York Times Magazine. Because of these events the author emphasizes that this book, is meant only to help people find what¿s best for them. In other words, reader beware ¿ he¿s done apologizing. He doesn¿t have to worry. What Should I Do With My Life? simply isn¿t that convincing. Most of us twenty and thirty-something BA wielding working saps aren¿t making $300,000 a year. Though we¿re the ones most likely to be intrigued by such a title, we shouldn¿t be fooled: This book isn¿t about us. The author¿s passion is most ignited when he¿s detailing the stories of people who were financially successful and who, for their own reasons, turned away from that success. He seems so intrigued by these stories that he fails to realize they are essentially one story -- retold forty times. In the introduction to What Should I Do With My Life, Bronson claims to have interviewed some 900 people for this book. Supposedly, one of his goals is to show that his question is one with which people of all classes struggle. Yet of the 50 people whose stories make it into the book, all but about 10 began as highly paid professionals who found themselves asking this question in spite of their six digit incomes. Where are the high school drop outs, housewives, editorial assistants, bar tenders and others who have struggled with this question? Bronson begins the book with the story of a spiritualist who finds peace only after he leaves the monastery. He later profiles a blue collar worker who goes off to college and starts his own business and a self-proclaimed loser who invents golf equipment. But his treatment of these stories feels forced ¿ as if he is aware of the need for diversity among his subjects but isn¿t all that interested in creating it. This is unfortunate, as these are the stories that could turn this dull, repetitive book into an engaging read. If you¿re confused, frustrated and lacking direction you may feel inclined, after reading this book, toward a little late night soul searching. Just don¿t lay awake waiting for any revelations ¿ What Should I Do With My Life isn¿t likely to help you identify or live your dreams.
NCS More than 1 year ago
Po Bronson has written quite the inspirational book. It's not like traditional self-help books (which I believe is the section I found it). It doesn't necessarily give you a set of rules or procedures. It tells the story of everyday people and how they found a sense of balance in their lives by trying to do something meaningful while also facing their everyday responsibilities. I found it motivating because it wasn't necessarily about living your dream. It was about people who had dreams, but for one reason or another have been unable to fulfill them in the traditional sense. But while on the journey to their dreams they found other things that were satisfying. It was about living and when you put your whole self into living fully you will lead an incredible life, even if you do not realize your dreams.
Guest More than 1 year ago
While this book may have a somewhat narrow audience, as mentioned in the above reviews, I found it to be very good at getting right to the core of what holds us back. This book does not spoon feed the reader answers to the question posed by the title. But it does give one many things to think about some of which may be questions the reader is has avoided.
Fraucopter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I bought this one when I was at a point in my life in which I was asking the question posed in the title, read it, found it unremarkable and cheesy, then ended up selling it to a used book store. I think the appeal of this book hinges on what you're looking to get out of it. It's essentially a book of inspirational stories that will bring a smile to your face, but aren't too intellectually stimulating. If you're looking for a better collection of stories based around people talking about their jobs, try Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs by Bowe et al or Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Studs Terkel. Both Terkel and Bowe do a fantastic job of letting the interviewees stories shine for themselves instead of trying a little too hard to reach for a sappy sweet moral like Bronson does. However, you might like this title if you're looking for some feel good inspiration al la the Chicken Soup series. Nothing wrong with those books or What Should I do With My Life for that matter, but they're just not to my taste
ntempest on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I know a lot of people were frustrated this because it's not really an answer book. But I loved it, found it inspiring. I'm the kind of reader who enjoys walking in another person's shoes a bit, even if I wouldn't want to live in them permanently, and this is that type of opportunity. And ultimately, no one can tell you what to do. This book just shows how other people set out to answer the question for themselves. Revelatory.
rachelv on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A fun book. Won't help you figure out what you want to do with your life, but will probably inspire you to give it some serious thought. Written as lots of short antecdotes, so it's great for reading on the train or subway.
javabird More than 1 year ago
This book tells biographical sketches of other people who found their passion in life. What the book does not do is provide any useful guidelines for how to figure it out yourself. The book mostly seemed to be the author's answer to what to do with his own life. I found it lacking in insight or encouragement. Skip this one.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is filled with inspirational stories and is a great read
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The idea of the book is good,but disappointed after reading a few chapters.definitely not what I expected  ,is one story after story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Keep going for part 9. Next page i think
Lorene More than 1 year ago
The idea for the book was good, but the stories chosen were dull.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
When I first glanced at this book, I thought it would be any normal self-help book. I thought there would be a little quiz here and there, places to journal, and a few predominant questions to answer for yourself. I was pleasantly surprised that the focus of this novel was more based on the examples of other people, rather than most books, which tend to be solely about you. I appreciated his creativity and originality while I read. I am a high school senior and I believed that by reading this I could finally answer life¿s toughest question we must all ask ourselves. Unfortunately, I have not answered that question after reading. I am somewhat disappointed because I was depending on the book to tell me what my future held. The stories taught me that no one else could decide for you, you must be strong enough to figure it out on your own. It was refreshing that real people just like me have been successful with their lives and happy with where they are. I loved that Po Bronson told stories of people through out all walks of life. It gave me reassurance because I realized that I don¿t need to be so urgent and anxious for my future. The major themes of this book are to over come fear and confusion to find a larger truth in their lives. This truth differs from person to person but moving past your animosities will help to find out how to live your life. Read this book with no expectations and no dependence, and then it will be enjoyable.