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The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question

Written by Po BronsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Po Bronson


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On Sale: December 24, 2002
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-1-58836-048-9
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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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.

From the Trade Paperback edition.


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.

From the Hardcover edition.
Po Bronson|Author Q&A

About Po Bronson

Po Bronson - What Should I Do with My Life?
Po Bronson travels the country recording the stories of real people who have struggled to answer life’s biggest questions. To learn more about his research, visit www.pobronson.com. He is the author of five books–two novels and three works of nonfiction–and he has written for television, magazines, radio, and newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and NPR’s Morning Edition. He lives in San Francisco with his family.

Author Q&A

A Talk with
Po Bronson
Author of
The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question

You went searching for the answer to quite a broad and difficult question. Why?
The short answer: because writers are supposed to tackle the broad, difficult questions.
But stating the question so bluntly (as in the title) often makes me queasy. In reality, I had asked myself this exact question when I switched careers and became a writer (and again when I became a father). After my last book, which profiled several people wrapped up in the internet boom, I watched as the bubble burst. I recognized this question–always prevalent–would become a huge issue for so many people. Many people I knew or would meet were suddenly faced with this question, whether they chose to ask it or not. My writer’s instinct kicked in and I went from there.

You met more than 900 people. How did you find them all?
I simply told everyone who asked what I was working on. The word spread, often in a six-degrees-of-separation zigzag that I couldn’t retrace. That I found so many was an indicator of how pregnant this question was in our society. I’d asked a question that people wanted to talk about.

The phone would ring, and I’d answer it, and suddenly I was a confidante.
“How’d you find me?” I might ask later.
“From your friend Heidi in Olathe, Kansas.”
I didn’t know any Heidis in Olathe Kansas.
Nor did I know Dr. DeStrange, some guy in Seattle who sent a kid in Baton Rouge my way.
In the middle of the night, confused and frustrated people typed “What is the meaning of my life?” into the Google search engine, sort of as a joke, not expecting it to have an answer. But Google lead them to descriptions of my book in progress, and soon their life was intertwined with mine.
They came to me. Gifts from the ether.

Out of these connections, how did you choose the 55 stories to include in the book?
I let my muse be my filter. I didn’t expect to be comprehensive, but I tried for diversity of ages, classes, and professions. I chose people who had dramatic stories and who I could empathize with. I tried not to repeat myself. Importantly, I didn’t chose stories to serve as example of certain predetermined arguments. What their stories “meant” often didn’t come clear until the writing, until the third or fourth attempt to tell it. The meaning surfaced from the stories; I did not force it upon them.

Were you surprised by some of the trends and answers you uncovered?
Constantly. Here’s a few that ran counter to my expectations:
1. Studs Terkel found people content to stay put. I found people dizzy from change and upheaval. Of the 900 I talked to, only one had had the same employer his adult life. It’s a different world out there.
2. I used to advocate the adrenaline rush, the brain candy. But now I recognize it for just that–candy. A synthetic substitute for other kinds of gratification that can be ultimately more rewarding and enduring.
3. I was surprised how many immigrants and working class people considered this question important to them, not just the educated and well-to-do.
4. I assumed a large fraction of people would have no clue where they belonged. It turned out most had good instincts, but had been scared away from following them by fears and misconceptions about how the world works. Time and again, in story after story, subjects were their own worst enemy. The gravitational pull of old habits began to take effect.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I could go on and on, but remember, each person I met had a different answer to this question. The one thing I discovered in nearly every person I met–those who had succeeded in reaching their goals and those who had not–is that they were better off for asking the question. Not just putting it out there, but actually having the guts to at least start looking for an answer.

In today’s economic climate, how realistic is it for people to just up and change their careers? Don't a significant portion of people in this country suffer from paycheck to paycheck, afraid to leave because even a bad job is better than no job?
It’s simply wrong to assume that it is in good times, when opportunity is aplenty, that people change their life. They’re free to, but they don’t. They don’t make hard choices because they don’t have to. It’s when the money has dried up that people are often forced to find something else that gives their life meaning.

Of all the people I interviewed, almost all of their transformations began in hard times like these upon us now — they suffered layoffs, bankruptcies, hospitalizations, family crises, et cetera. Those hard times helped them realize what really mattered; the hard times reset their moral compass and helped them make tough choices. The economy is not made up of two groups, those who stay put and those who seek. It’s a lie that people can choose to stay put for long — time and again, we are all forced to make changes — we graduated, get downsized, our spouse gets a job in a new city and we tag along. It’s up to us whether these inevitable changes will lead to somewhere we can be content, or simply lead us in circles, back to the same discontent we started with.

I apologize in advance for the rudeness of this next question, but what do you feel makes you qualified to write about this subject?
I wasn’t an expert. I had no credentials as a counselor or academic. I’m a writer and a journalist and, as a journalist, I set out to cover a story. As I researched my subjects–exhaustive research, as it turns out. I went to see everyone in person, wherever they might be–I approached them as merely “one of them.” I had asked this question myself and been humbled by it. I approached this project as if I knew nothing and was continuously humbled by what some of these people had endured and the wisdom they seemed to radiate.

Yet, I made sure that I employed my tools as a writer to tell their stories. I believe I have been emotionally and intellectually honest in every story I told.

After four books–two novels and two nonfiction–how has your writing voice changed over the last eight years and how did this growth affect the writing of this book?
I began as a satirist, my comedy bleak and black. I was strictly on the attack. In the final scene of my first novel, two bond salesmen quit their jobs and drive off to a better, saner life. Fade out. But what was the better, saner life? I could put no words to it and was terrified of ever having to spell it out. I recognized it would require a different language and tone - from decimation to affirmation, from irony to ministry, from misanthrope to philanthrope.

With this book, I have finally crossed that bridge. So many complete strangers let me into their lives and trusted me with their life stories. The kindness of that gift stirred me. Through them, I have finally given voice to that question I left unanswered four books ago.

A journalist is supposed to remain neutral and not interfere when reporting, but there are times in WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH MY LIFE? when you break that fourth wall. Can you comment on this?
Numerous times people asked me for advice, and several times they directly asked me for help. Occasionally, when pressed, I obliged. In one case I actually got the subject a new life–by selling him a book distribution company I’d been involved with.

It felt creatively appropriate to do this. The book’s point-of-view is “don’t be a bystander in life.” Don’t let opportunities to get involved pass you by. Be lead by your heart. Let yourself care. So to maintain the normal distance of a journalist would have felt contrary to the message of the book. Same with the choice to tell my own story in the book–which I know is a controversial choice. It was important to trade intimacies, not to have it be one-sided. I had to reveal myself as they did to me.

What do you hope that readers will take away from this book?
I hope they’ll enjoy reading it and while doing so, it will naturally help them contemplate the story of their life. Maybe the stories they read, the lives they enter on the page, will disarm a few fears, freeing them to invite more truth into their life. It will offer solace when their journey demands sacrifice, introspection, and courage.

Finally, with the publication of WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH MY LIFE?, a dialogue that you began will start being discussed in a larger arena. Where do you hope that this “conversation” will go?
People don’t have to agree with me; I hope that, by either fostering agreement or provoking disagreement, it helps people find their story.

From the Hardcover edition.



Although all three of his books have been critically acclaimed bestsellers, author Po Bronson began work on What Should I Do with My Life? because he was asking himself that very question. For answers, he crossed the landscape of America to find people who have struggled to unearth their true calling—people of all ages, classes, and professions who have found fulfillment: those who fought with the seduction of money, intensity, and novelty and overcame their allure; those who broke away from the chorus to learn the sound of their own voice.

From the Hardcover edition.

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