Life Stories

It's the ultimate question. It's also the title of Po Bronson's new book. What Should I Do with My Life? has become a genuine cultural phenom in a very short time. More oral history than self-help screed, the book's a No. 1 New York Times best-seller.

Bronson was inspired to write What Should I Do with My Life? (Random House) while looking in his own mirror. He was a successful author but still dissatisfied, and his writing jobs were thinning just as his wife began to grow fat with their first child. Wondering how other people went about searching for satisfaction, Bronson began soliciting stories on his Web site. He was amazed at the response.

"People would Google 'What the fuck am I doing with my life?' or 'What's the meaning of life?' and it would lead to me!" Bronson says. "But it was an emotionally powerful thing for people to tell their stories, as well as for me to hear them."

Soon, in that fast-paced world of Internet word of mouth, Bronson was deluged with tales of winning and woe: the lawyer who became a trucker to spend more time with his kids, the office worker who realized her relationships with men were stunting her career, the mother torn between her adolescent daughter and the pursuit of her Olympic dream.

Bronson eventually heard more than 900 stories from people online, on the phone and in person before selecting the 55 vignettes that appear in the book. He made an effort to look for a cross-section of ages, occupations and outcomes.

Traveling to interview people face-to-face, he slept on their couches, pored over old scrapbooks and even let them cry on his shoulder. Bronson, it appears, is America's most empathetic man.

But he says that the book does not direct readers to "chuck everything" to pursue their dreams -- not all of the stories have happy endings. Instead, he favors working within a realistic framework. "People have dreams, and then they have realities. And when realities kick them in the ass, they give up their dreams," he says. "But you don't have to give up. You just shouldn't pursue the fanciful dream, but lead an authentic life." In other words, you aren't going to become an MTV rock star, but you still can shred a six-string on the stage of your local club.

Ultimately, the book doesn't provide an answer to the title question. (And really, were you expecting it to?) Instead, it offers snapshots of how others figured things out. "We all have our passions if we choose to see them," he writes. "Most of us don't get epiphanies. We don't get clarity. Our purpose doesn't arrive neatly packaged as destiny. We only get a whisper. A blank, nonspecific urge. That's how it starts." The author found that people were most likely to make a change after events like layoffs, bankruptcies, divorces, illnesses or deaths in the family.

For his Houston appearance, Bronson will talk, present a slide show and hand out photocopies of new chapters. "The book to me is a conversation, and that didn't end when the book came out," he says. A sequel may be in the works, and his next project will be a similar look at family learning and dynamics -- for which there should be no shortage of material.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero