What should I do with my life?, by Po Bronson

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I’ve liked Po Bronson’s other works, but when this book came out a couple years ago, I didn’t really feel it was worth checking out. What was the point of reading about how other people had answered the question of what to do with their lives?

But it stayed on my to-read list. And I eventually saw it in the library last week, so I picked it up. I really liked it. A lot. The basic idea is that after his first three books, Bronson was casting about for what he should do next with his life. And so he started asking other people how they answered that question. More and more people heard of his question and came to him with their answers. And the results are collected in this book.

What works about the book is that in amongst all of the fifty-some stories that he tells are several that speak to me directly. The stories I find interesting are probably not the same ones that you would, but there’s enough variety that everybody can find something. For instance, I was touched by the story of the woman who had decided she wanted to be a doctor as a child, had worked incessantly towards that goal, and had finally achieved it and realized she didn’t want it. It reminded me of the ten years I spent in physics. Or the lawyer who had everything he had said he wanted but was still unhappy. Bronson memorably characterizes the lawyer’s dilemma as him telling himself “You’re educated, you came from a good family, you’re privileged – you’re not entitled to unhappiness!“, which is a feeling I often have.

Or the time Bronson describes his own struggle with walking away from a good job to pursue his dream of writing. As he puts it, “Failure’s hard, but success is far more dangerous. If you’re successful at the wrong thing, the mix of praise and money and opportunity can lock you in forever. It is so, so much harder to leave a good thing.”

But the passage that struck home most for me was this one:

“Do not wait for the kind of clarity that comes with epiphanies… Most people had a slim notion or a slight urge that they slowly nurtured until it grew into a faint hope which barely stayed alive for years until it could mature into a vision… Most people feel guilty about wanting what they want, and they feel foolish for wanting something impossible, and those censoring voices will bark like a pack of junkyard dogs, night after night. Don’t doubt your desire because it comes to you as a whisper; don’t think, “If it were really important to me, I’d feel clearer about this, less conflicted.”

This is both inspiring and dangerously comforting. It’s comforting in that it makes me feel like it’s okay that I haven’t dropped everything to go chase dreams of social software or being a generalist. But it’s inspiring in helping me realize that there may not be a thunderbolt from the sky to realize what I should be doing with my life. Or, to quote Snow Crash, it seems that most people are like Hiro, who “finally went through a belated, dim-witted epiphany, not a brilliant light shining down from heaven, more like the brown glimmer of a half-dead flashlight from the top of a stepladder”.

The book has also made me spend some time reflecting on what my passion might be. When I first picked it up, I was thinking that it was ideas, and connections between ideas. Then I thought that it was understanding ideas, understanding different mental models and being able to translate between them. I always keep on looping back to the same general principles of community and communication, of helping people understand each other despite the imperfect medium of language. I just can’t quite nail it down yet. And maybe that’s okay. But it’s important not to let it die completely. Which means you’ll probably continue to be subjected to my ramblings on this blog as I continue to try to refine what I think and figure out how it all fits together.

I think the other thing I took away from this book was a re-framing of my own life. I had decided very early on that I was going to be a particle physicist like Feynman. Everything was geared towards that, my high school science fair project, going to MIT, the professors for whom I worked at MIT, etc. And with all of that momentum built up, it took me years to be able to walk away from it, even after realizing that I didn’t really want to be a physicist. And reading this book made me realize that becoming a programmer was, in a way, a chance to take the road not taken for me. When I was a freshman at MIT, I was acing the Intro to CS class without even trying, while almost failing physics. Everybody told me I should go into CS. I was stubborn and stuck with physics. When I finally quit physics, I, of course, defaulted to being the programmer that everybody had told me I should be.

But my freshman self was right. I don’t really like programming. I’m pretty good at it, and I have the potential to be really good at it. But I don’t have a passion for it. I’ve been doing it for seven years now and it’s a comfortable life. But is it the answer to the question “What should I do with my life?” Maybe not. So maybe it was dangerous for me to read this book right now, at a time when I’m already thinking about where I want to go, and who I want to be, and how that can be reflected in a career I choose. Lots of questions. Few answers.

10 thoughts on “What should I do with my life?, by Po Bronson

  1. Reading this, I think your calling is to be a techno-cultural translator — someone who translates concepts for people with different intellectual backgrounds.

    You probably won’t find a job with that title, but that’s what you should be doing. I’m sure that it’s what you enjoy about programming, because I enjoy that aspect of it, too.

    I know this because I think it’s a big chunk of my calling, too. Weird off-beat science education is working pretty well so far, but let me know what other vocational niches for it you find…

  2. I think that’s a reasonably good description for what I’m starting to think my niche is. I haven’t quite figured out what it means yet. Programming is definitely one area, especially in a role like the one I have now where I’m helping non-technical people articulate their needs into a form that programmers can code.

    Other possible areas include writing, possibly including science writing or other popular essay writing (e.g. taking the Latour stuff and making it more comprehensible), and management (e.g. interfacing between a research or programming group and the rest of an organization). Those are the ideas I’ve got right now. We’ll see what other ones I come up with, now that I have this frame in place.

  3. Yay for being an interface!

    You should see if there’s an option to auto-subscribe commenters with email addresses to the comments feed. Oh, or just change the “subscribe to comments” checkbox default to “on”. I keep almost missing stuff.

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