BlogButton.jpg (39872 bytes)

Back to What Should I Do With My Life?


Obvious Questions Don't Have Obvious Answers

click here to hear me 
reading the introduction

We are all writing the story of our life. We want to know what it’s "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 we’re headed--not to spoil our own ending by ruining the surprise, but we want to ensure that when the ending comes, it won’t 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 I’d 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 freelancer’s equivalent of "Just go get a job"), but I wasn’t sure I should. I felt like the kinds of stories I’d 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 one’s own identity, and filtering out the chatter that tells us to be someone we’re 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 I’d never been, and far deeper into people’s lives than I’d 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 hadn’t 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" doesn’t 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 one’s 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. They’re not famous. Over half are parents. Over half participate actively in their church. They’re 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 transformation.

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 didn’t have a safety net when they changed their life. Only two asked me not to use their real names. I’ve chosen stories that I hoped would encourage reflection and offer solace, not ones that merely entertained.

Most importantly, when I say that these are ordinary people, I mean they’re real. They’re 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. I’m a chronicler; this is (foremost) a social documentary of people’s 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 we’re all on the same staircase). This theme is going to reappear throughout: It’s not easy / It’s 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 trip.

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 you’re 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 people’s stories--"Here’s 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 didn’t want to be an accomplice to a wrong turn. So I tried to guide them by reminding them of their own stated resolutions. Anyone’s who’s counseled a friend struggling with this question knows this tension – you want to be encouraging, but you also want to be realistic. I didn’t 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/devil’s 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 stressing out?

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 achievements?

When do I need to change my situation, and when is it me that needs to change?

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 I’m there?)

These were screamingly obvious questions, but it seemed they were almost so obvious that we hadn’t publicly collected how we’ve learned to answer them--as if the answers should be obvious too, which they’re not. Too often we’re 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 don’t 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 don’t quote experts, though I interviewed some, and I don’t quote literature unless it was quoted to me by someone I wrote about. I didn’t 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 week’s 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 I’d come to be a writer, and how I’d recently become a husband (for the second time) and a father (for the first time). I’d 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 hadn’t come easily to me, and I’ve 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 FDA’s 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.

It’s a far different book from what I originally envisioned. It reflects what I found, not what I predicted. I didn’t write a single person’s 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 I’ve arranged these stories. It’s not organized by industry or personality type, and it’s not a travelogue. Since my method conveys how I’m implicitly suggesting we think about this question--and since figuring out how to do this didn’t 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. We’re aware of those constraints – they’re 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 people’s 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, they’re struggling with the essential paradox of trying to make a "right" decision in the absence of experience. In the second section, they’re overcoming traditional class notions of where they belong. In the third, they’re 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 we’d 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, they’re 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 shortcuts.

In addition to that macro-structure, you’ll find subthemes and side-conversations running story to story. They’re not meant to be read out of order, though there’s no harm in that. They’re 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 book’s title, the most common question I’d get asked was, "So is your book about life, or about careers?" And I’d laugh, and warn them not to get trapped by semantics, and answer, "It’s about people who’ve dared to be honest with themselves."

Back to What Should I Do With My Life?