A quick thank you to Louis for this interesting and insightful book review…
Love the fact that he wasn’t sure what to make of being given self help for his birthday but he seems to have enjoyed it!
What I should be doing with my life (by Po Bronson).
Most self help books approach life problems such as ‘What should I do with my life’ much like western economists approach problems in the developing world. They make several key assumptions about the human race; rationalise, and (drum roll) come out with a workable theory which they apply across all demographics and geographies.
Thankfully economics is changing, and so it seems is the self help literature. Po Bronson (sub-editor of USA Wired Mag – an Esc favourite) takes the opposite perspective by searching, interviewing and detailing individuals who, for a variety of reasons, have taken a plunge to address how they spend their remaining years.
Other peoples’ stories
He hopes the anecdotal evidence, of 90 individuals (out of a research base of 900+), will provide a more relevant, actionable and reflective message, then the one-line-mantra’s produced be other self help gurus. The case studies range from a Wall Street hotshot, who moved to a Catfish farm, to an India Buddhist monk turned Reno social worker. Although these examples are mostly State-side, Po does an admiral job of selecting a wide variety in subjects and admits, with an clichéd iceberg reference, that he has only explored the tip.
Self help books are not known for their character descriptions or emotive passages, and Po does nothing to alleviate his genre’s shortcomings. However if you can ignore these failings and the impression that Po acts as a prophet to these, often misguided individuals, then there are some learnings for the Escape the City audience.
Is getting self help for Xmas a bad sign?!
When I unwrapped the book (still undecided how to take being given a self help book for my birthday) my initial thoughts, as doubtless was many others, were that it would cover rags to riches stories which would be about as useful as taking notes on Jay-Z’s bio on MTV. But I was pleasantly surprised, not all the stories were successes, and not all were about making millions, in fact most were (semi) ordinary Americans making decisions to throw off their expectations from peers, family and society to try and pursue something that fitted them as individuals.
Po does draw some themes across stories, including that there is no one ‘way’ of doing things. We are all different; in terms of attributes and circumstances, therefore finding and recommending set paths is a difficult if not impossible exercise. However what he does claim is that a person’s character, and making things personal are key to attempting and finding your ‘should be doing’.
There is still a lot of luck and often herculean amounts of hard work (Po himself slept 4hrs a night so he could fit in 3hrs of writing each morning whilst being a bond trader in NYC) required to make a successful leap, but work on your personality, learn from your previous experiences, and understand your motivations; then you are in with a chance.
Be aware of the influence of those close to you
Another nugget is the term the ‘Inner Circle’ coined by C.S.Lewis. These are the people who most influence your perspective – especially of yourself. They may be family, friends, peers, but can also be bosses, role models or media stereotypes. This is where the character development comes in. We are all naturally inclined to act on the opinions of our Inner Circles or, even worse, our perception of those opinions.
However, Po suggests that to find ‘What you should be doing with your life’ maybe you need to develop the ability to ignore their perceptions and make it personal to you.
It is not these theories which really stand out from the book, but rather the breadth of what makes people happy and those that achieve it. Recording individual stories both closer to home – such as ex-public school, Cambridge, Foreign Office worker turned teacher – and those further afield (from the current Esc community) – such as the Native American who set up a Native American economy in California – go a long way to showing what is possible.
Do you love Esc?
If you love Esc then this book is for you. It is all about the people, not a step-by-step guide to life. They both aim to inspire and open your eyes to what others have done. This often doesn’t make it easier to do, but they demonstrate (and in Esc’s case, bring to life) the vast variety of people and ambitions out there.
The message is not to give up on your current situation but find and pursue what you should be doing with your life.
Click here to check out the book.