We are all writing the story of our life. We want to know what its
"about," what are its themes and which theme is on the rise. We
demand of it something deeper, or richer, or more substantive. We want to
know where were headed--not to spoil our own ending by ruining the
surprise, but we want to ensure that when the ending comes, it wont be
shallow. We will have done something. We will not have squandered our time
here. This book is about that urge, that need.
I began this project because I hit that point in my life. The
television show Id been writing for was canceled. The magazines I wrote
for had thinned their pages. My longtime book editor had quit to pursue
theater and film. I was out of work, I had a baby on the way (my first),
and I was worried: how to be a good father, how to make money to support
my family, and how to keep growing as a writer. I probably could have
hustled up an assignment (the freelancers equivalent of "Just
go get a job"), but I wasnt sure I should. I felt like the
kinds of stories Id been telling no longer worked. They no longer
mapped the depth and drama of human life as I experienced it.
Looking for guidance and courage at this crossroads, I became intrigued
by people who had unearthed their true calling, or at least those who were
willing to try. Those who fought with the seduction of money, intensity,
and novelty, but overcame their allure. Those who broke away from the
chorus to learn the sound of their own voice. Nothing seemed more brave to
me than facing up to ones own identity, and filtering out the chatter
that tells us to be someone were not.
What might I learn from those who had confronted this question?
I decided on the simplest approach possible: I would express my
curiosity to whoever would listen, trust this would provoke some leads,
and travel the country tracking down the people whose stories spoke to me.
I had no idea that sticking to this simple method would soon take me to so
many places Id never been, and far deeper into peoples lives than Id
ever gone as a writer.
I hit on an incredible wellspring of honest sentiment. Complete
strangers opened their lives and their homes to me, confessing feelings
and events they hadnt revealed to their closest friends. This was at a
time when we were losing our respect for corporate leaders, we no longer
believed new technology would make our lives better, and the attack on our
freedom made life precious and weighty. People were reassessing what
mattered to them and what they believed in.
I heard some nine hundred stories, spent countless hours corresponding
and on the phone, and came to know about seventy people closely. I spent
time with them all in person, which was absolutely necessary. (About fifty
are included in the book.) The word "interview" doesnt
describe the emotional exchange that usually occurred. None were friends
when I started, but most were by the time I was done. These were microwave
friendships, forged with fast blasts of revelation and bonding, like those
formed quickly in a freshman dorm, remembered for years. I let them cry in
my arms. I slept on their couches. I sat in their musty attics, looking
through old photo albums. We went running together. We traded secrets. I
met their parents and held their children. I went to ones wedding. I
became symbolically associated with their turning points. Many people
described how much it helped them to have me listen; they talked their way
into a greater understanding of what had transpired and why.
The people in this book are ordinary people. By that I mean they did
not have available to them resources or character traits that gave them an
uncommon advantage in pursuing their dream. Some have succeeded, many have
not. Theyre not famous. Over half are parents. Over half participate
actively in their church. Theyre a diverse assortment of ages and
professions. Most (but not all) are educated, but a fair number earned
that education later in life, as one step upward in their chosen
A handful had spent years earning a high salary before they woke up to
what their life was all about, but only a couple of them saved any of that
money most spent what they earned, just like anyone else, and as a
result didnt have a safety net when they changed their life. Only two
asked me not to use their real names. Ive chosen stories that I hoped
would encourage reflection and offer solace, not ones that merely
Most importantly, when I say that these are ordinary people, I mean
theyre real. Theyre messy and complicated. You hold in your hands
the antithesis to all those books which pretend their
one-size-fits-all formula will result in rosy, happily-ever-after
Hollywood endings. Im a chronicler; this is (foremost) a social
documentary of peoples lives; it just so happened that I learned a ton
in the observation. The result might lack the comforting ease of a
cure-all, but it makes up for it with integrity. (You want a step? Step
one: stop pretending were all on the same staircase). This theme is
going to reappear throughout: Its not easy / Its not supposed
to be easy / Most people make mistakes / Most people have to learn the
hardest lessons more than once. If that has been your experience, the
people herein will comfort you. They did me. That alone was worth the
I was no expert. I had no credentials as a counselor or academic. I
approached these people as merely "one of them." The events of
my life had shredded any theories I used to have about how to address the
question "What should I do with my life?" I had been humbled
into admitting I knew nothing, and as I hit the road I was continuously
humbled again by what some of these people had endured and the wisdom they
seemed to radiate. I learned from them through inspiration and imitation.
I also learned from the multiplicity of stories--by comparing how people
talked and what language they invoked, certain patterns emerged, and I
could place a story in the context of the larger picture.
I learned that it was in hard times that people usually changed the
course of their life; in good times, they frequently only talked
about change. Hard times forced them to overcome the doubts that normally
gave them pause. It surprised me how often we hold ourselves back until we
have no choice. So the people herein suffered layoffs, bankruptcies,
divorces, evictions, illness, and the death of loved ones, and as a result
they were as likely to stumble into a better life as they were to arrive
there by reasoned planning. They made mistakes before summoning the
courage to get it right. Their path called into question the notion that a
calling is something you inherently know when youre young. Far from it.
These people discovered in themselves gifts they rarely realized they had.
They spoke of fulfillment, not happiness. Very often they found
fulfillment in living up to their moral responsibility to society in
finding some way to feel they were helping others, or at least connect
genuinely with others. In this sense, even though they were pursuing what
they personally needed, they were learning selflessness. And while they
had to fight hard to get what they loved, they also had to learn to love
what they then got; while they scrapped for what was within their reach,
they learned acceptance of events beyond their control. They learned that
their responsibilities didnt keep them from their purpose they were
part of their purpose. (And sometimes the most important part). They did
not find some Single Perfect Answer to the question; at some point it felt
right enough that they made their choice, and the energy formerly spent
casting about was now devoted into making their choice fruitful for as
long as it might last. In every case, they found a place that was good for
them. What I mean by that is, it was something that shaped their character
in a positive way. Even if they didnt succeed wildly, doing it brought
to the surface a trait that had been neglected. They might not have
discovered their calling, but they did discover a lot about themselves.
By no means have I written about only the success stories. Many of the
people I included were midtransition, searching and hoping. This presented
its own challenge, because they routinely asked for my counseling. This
was always an uneasy role to be put into; usually, I handled this by
telling other peoples stories--"Heres what this person found,
in a similar situation...." In a few instances, I was not so passive
when I sensed that my passivity--my listening mode--was being taken
inappropriately as endorsement. I didnt want to be an accomplice to a
wrong turn. So I tried to guide them by reminding them of their own stated
resolutions. Anyones whos counseled a friend struggling with this
question knows this tension you want to be encouraging, but you also
want to be realistic. I didnt handle all these situations perfectly; I
reveal these moments in the text to show my own fallibility.
People asked a great many questions that helped steer my research. Many
of these questions were of the smart-aleck variety, merely
intellectual/devils advocate babble, but it was much more difficult and
challenging to address those asked from the heart, by people stuck in the
middle of it and honestly confused. Questions such as:
Should I put my faith in mystical signs of destiny, or shuld my
sense of "a right fit" be based on logical, practical reasons?
Should I accept my lot, make peace with my ambition, and stop
Why do I feel guilty for thinking about this?
Should I make money first, to fund my dream?
How do I tell the difference between a curiosity and a passion?
How do I weigh making myself a better person against external
When do I need to change my situation, and when is it me that needs
What should I tell my parents, who worry about me?
If I have a child, will my frustration over my work go away?
What will it feel like when I get there? (How will I know Im
These were screamingly obvious questions, but it seemed they were
almost so obvious that we hadnt publicly collected how weve learned
to answer them--as if the answers should be obvious too, which theyre
not. Too often were reticent about these issues. Talking about them can
seem so fruitless, meanwhile inflaming anxiety and diverting us from the
other things we have more control over, and can do. Yes, but it can also
strengthen our resolve and shield us from distractions. I found that the
biggest obstacle to answering the question this book poses is that people
dont give themselves permission to take it seriously. At the risk of
being fruitless, let this book be a safe place for a discussion.
This book does not research the history of its question. I dont
quote experts, though I interviewed some, and I dont quote literature
unless it was quoted to me by someone I wrote about. I didnt spend time
in the library to write this book. Those sources of wisdom felt too
abstract compared to the hard-earned record of those who actually took
action, changed their life, and enjoyed or suffered the consequences.
Spending time with them affected me subtly. Afterward, I was always
spent, and needed to recharge on the familiar patterns of my family, the
writers Grotto, and my soccer teams. I became hyperaware of what
mattered to me and what was merely that weeks noise intruding on my
life. It stripped away some of the ways I had colored my past, and often I
was visited by old friends in my dreams. I became more honest in person,
less contrived in my writing. They helped me find my own story. They
wanted to know how Id come to be a writer, and how Id recently
become a husband (for the second time) and a father (for the first time).
Id never written about my own journey, never thought it was a story
worth telling, but hearing their stories helped me tell my own in a way
that it finally did have some oomph. To some it was inspiration, and to
others it was kinship. Okay, he gets it.
My biggest surprise was how being a new dad folded into the book, and
how I face this question now that I have a family. Writing hadnt come
easily to me, and Ive had to be very protective of my love for it. I
was once so afraid that being a parent was incompatible with being a
writer. The travel, the intense concentration. For years this fear had
stopped me from mixing the two. Somehow, in a year in which our son, Luke,
was born, and my wife, Michele, a molecular immunologist, was putting a
drug through the FDAs approval process, I found the time and the room
in my heart for this enormous project. I took my family with me whenever I
could, which was most of the time. In his first year Luke went on
seventeen trips of up to ten days in length, including weeks in London and
Hong Kong, which he loved because it was hot. Now it seems like a miracle.
Its a far different book from what I originally envisioned. It
reflects what I found, not what I predicted. I didnt write a single
persons story until I had gotten to know two-thirds of them, and even
then their meaning was just beginning to show itself. Nowhere is this more
apparent than in the unconventional way Ive arranged these stories. Its
not organized by industry or personality type, and its not a
travelogue. Since my method conveys how Im implicitly suggesting we
think about this question--and since figuring out how to do this didnt
come easily--an explanation is probably necessary.
There are many very real stumbling blocks that block us from pursuing
this question: never enough money, never enough time. Were aware
of those constraints theyre right in front of us, every day. But we
also have many psychological stumbling blocks that keep us from finding
ourselves. Some of these are badly tangled misconceptions, some are deeply
rooted fears. The two are related--like any prejudice, misconceptions get
fabricated and sustained by fears. These psychological stumbling blocks
are often less real than we imagine. By confronting them, we begin to see
around all our obstacles, even the seemingly insurmountable ones. What I
found is that, if you take care of these obstacles, you create an
environment where the truth is invited into your life.
So this book is meant to unearth the psychological demons that haunt
us. It uses peoples stories to demonstrate these misconceptions and
fears, and shows how people are confronting them or have gotten past them.
Their stories are organized into eight sections. In the first section,
theyre struggling with the essential paradox of trying to make a
"right" decision in the absence of experience. In the second
section, theyre overcoming traditional class notions of where they
belong. In the third, theyre learning to resist the temptations that
have distracted them from their true aspirations. The modern economy tends
to toss us around like a hot potato, while wed usually prefer to settle
down and stay put. The people in section four have found ways to resolve
that inherent conflict. In the fifth section, theyre getting to know
themselves as people first, then struggling with what that means for their
career mission. The people in the sixth section found their right place or
environment, which led in turn to greater insight. The seventh section is
the longest in the book. It recognizes that we make our choices with our
family in mind. The people in the final section demonstrate the virtues of
patience and persistence. I include them not to admonish the young and
urgent, but to respect the big picture. Most of us take the slow road, no
In addition to that macro-structure, youll find subthemes and
side-conversations running story to story. Theyre not meant to be read
out of order, though theres no harm in that. Theyre meant to build
on each other. Ideas and terminology brought up in earlier stories are
invoked in subsequent ones, and the result is meant to resemble a rolling
conversation, but one in which the ideas are continually reined in by
dogged reality. Like any conversation, there are times I interject and
times I mostly listen.
When people heard this books title, the most common question Id
get asked was, "So is your book about life, or about careers?"
And Id laugh, and warn them not to get trapped by semantics, and
answer, "Its about people whove dared to be honest with
to What Should I Do With My Life?