Q&A: Author Po Bronson

In a new book, author Po Bronson takes an unconventional look at careers and the pursuit of professional happiness.

What Should I Do With My Life? — the latest installment in Good Morning America's "Read This!" book club — includes the career chronicles of a Los Angeles lawyer who became a priest, a Harvard MBA catfish farmer turned biotech executive, a Silicon Valley real estate agent who opened a leather crafts factory in Costa Rica, and others.

The following exchange with Bronson is based on questions submitted by Good Morning America viewers.

Moderator

How can you tell the difference between a curiosity and a passion?

Po Bronson

When you begin, you don't know the difference. You discover the difference by exploring it. The more time you give to it, you find out whether you really like it; you find out whether you like who you are when you're doing it, whether you like other people who are doing it and whether it's good for you.

One of my great passions happens to be writing. When I began I didn't know whether it was a curiosity or passion. But I kept exploring and liking what I was getting out of it. But the true passion was something that kicked in after 15 years of doing it. You grow into a passion; so the only way you can tell the difference between a curiosity and passion is by exploring it and finding out.

In my interviews, so often people were thrust into a state of eternal daydreaming and one romantic scenario after another would pass through their minds. They would wonder, "Maybe I really should have opened a hardware story in Louisville?"

A lot of those fanciful daydreams ended up being discounted. People's passions more likely came from something they thought a lot about; it didn't make only a fleeting appearance in their mind, but stayed in their mind a lot. Maybe some of those fanciful daydreams would make you happy, but it's likely that if you were ready for them, they would come to you repeatedly.

Cheri from Spring, Texas, writes

I have read many books on finding your true calling and I still am nowhere near where I think/want to be. What is the definitive way (apart from getting a letter from the Dalai Lama) to figure out what you want to be when you grow up?

Po Bronson

Well, Cheri, what I hear you saying is you're looking for the answer in a book, as if there's one way to do it. I compare finding a calling to finding your story, which involves finding who you really are through trials and tribulations. We don't all have the same story or one definitive way of finding it, which is why I told 55 people's stories in my book.

I would say it's not so important to look for signs of destiny, but to embrace the legitimacy of your experiences and let them shape and steer you. Whatever happens that is good and bad in life, from that emerges your story or a sense of calling.

Christina from Monroe, Wis.

"I should've taken that left turn at Albuquerque."... After a person hits this point in their lives, what advice do you give them to try next? (This would be the point where they realize that they are either on the wrong path or want something far different from their current situation.)

Po Bronson

Christina, in the book I tell several stories of people who felt they should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque 15 or 20 or 30 years ago and portray them attempting many years later to recapture or get back to the turn they should have made. It's extremely common.

Most people in their journey make mistakes and take wrong turns before they realize where they should have gone. It's not something to beat yourself up about. Assuming you're in a position where you can make a change — rather than in one where you have to wait, be patient and make the best of it — in that direction to Albuquerque is the best way to head.

I interviewed dozens of people who took that route, and while not all of them necessarily succeeded in a conventional sense, they all felt there was something there they needed to explore and something there they needed to learn about themselves. None regretted making the change.

Carmen from Orlando, Fla.

"What should I do with my life?" is the question I've been asking myself for some time now. I started working when I was 13 years of age. Married at 21, have two children, and still happily married to my H.S. sweetheart. Somehow I've been feeling kind of an emptiness inside. At 34 years of age, I still don't know what I want. I am a hard worker, but I am not happy where I am right now.

I am a native of the Caribbean. I miss the beach. I miss tranquility. I love French antique furnishings. I love to decorate my house. I would love to work from my house or have my own business. And yet, I don't know how to put it all together. How do you support a family on selfish dreams?

Po Bronson

Carmen, that's a very poignant finale: "How do you support a family on selfish dreams?"

The people in my research who succeeded learned that your responsibilities don't keep you from your purpose — they're part of your purpose, often the most important part.

In the book, I tell the story of one young man who considered himself on a quest. Suddenly his quest was put on hiatus when he unexpectedly got his girlfriend pregnant, got married, and had to get a job. I worked with him until he could see that his quest hadn't ended but just matured into this stage where it included real-life practicalities.

It's important to find your dream that works for you and your family needs. It begins just one little step at a time. People don't reinvent themselves overnight as French antique dealers on a Caribbean island. They mature into that over a period of time.

So it starts as an interest, an interest becomes a hobby, a hobby becomes something that helps you get to know others in the industry, until you begin to see that it's in fact a life that others have chosen and are making work and seems more doable to you.

Wanting a dream that takes you away from your family is selfish and irresponsible, but wanting to be your best self so you can by fulfilled, be a great role model for your children, and a source of joy for those around you is not selfish — it's part of doing God's work.

Jennifer in Austin, Texas

Hi, just wondering — what advice do you have for how to reconcile wildly impractical dreams with the hard, dull facts of economic necessity, especially for single parents?

Like most single mothers, I've got to work, and in many ways, my job is very fulfilling. But I'm REALLY happiest alone, listening to music, writing, reading, asking questions, exploring issues and ideas in fiction, essays and screenplays. I'm a big chicken about sending my stuff out, so, so far, it's a pathetically bubble-like, insular experience. I know I've set myself up for failure by not letting the rest of the world in on mine. But I also wonder if I'm just a big, self-absorbed idiot. Who cares what I think?

Nevertheless, I find myself spending an inordinate amount of time daydreaming on the side about making the leap from lovely, fevered writing to actual, real-life livelihood with a single wave of the magic wand.

Po Bronson

Jennifer, in the 10 years in which I wrote inside my own bubble, I didn't have children, but I had jobs and I was married. That's a big difference, but I can understand what you're describing.

My biggest concern, writer to writer, is that in indulging our passion we don't cut off those who love us from the outside world. We have a tendency to cut ourselves off from the outside world. We do this largely to stop time because we know that getting good at any art takes at least a decade, often more, in the same way that raising children takes a couple of decades.

I would argue that you're learning patience as a mother that will help you as a writer. I can't say this more emphatically: Dreams, particularly wildly improbable ones, are to be pursued, not just achieved.

Your hobby is no doubt making you a more interesting, creative and engaged person with the world. It benefits your character and probably benefits your children. It's good for you, regardless of whether you were to make a living as a writer. Keep that in mind. Embrace it for that. And if, with the benefit of patience, you also happen to make a living as a writer, that's just gravy. But again, very likely, your hobby is helping you be a more interesting and better parent to your kids.

J. Bailey from Durham, N.C.

How do you make the transition to a new career when you know what you don't want to do but you haven't figured out what you do what to do?

Po Bronson

J., you don't say so directly, but I'm going to infer and guess that you're still doing the things you know you don't want to do because you're waiting to find out what it is you do want to do.

There are some benefits of having a job while you're waiting; the economy is tough and you need to pull in an income. But when you can make a change, even one step in a direction of something you think you might be interested in, you'll step into another world in which your instincts and passions can be refined.

Of the 900 people I interviewed, very few knew what it was they wanted to do. Most had to stumble in the direction of their instincts without a clear picture, and slowly that picture became clear over 10 or 20 years. So you don't have to know where you're going to end up in order to take the first step; you don't have to have a clear vision.

Barb Casey from Miamisburg, Ohio

It's comforting to know that I'm not the only one questioning "what should I do with my life?" It's inspiring to know that people have been in the same boat and have done something about it. How did the people that you talked with make the leap? What gave them the courage?

Po Bronson

Barb, I found that just about everybody ponders this question, but making the leap means taking the question even more seriously.

Something usually happened that made people question what was really important. Often this was something very personal, where the costs of continuing what they were doing seemed impossible to suffer.

Very often people were forced into making the leap — they were laid off, they got divorced, someone they loved died, they suffered an illness. The life they used to lead no longer existed, so they had to make a change.

For example, very rare was the person who ever found that a certain amount of money was enough and they were now free to make a change. People who tried to save up a lot of money to then be able to change often never did, or usually never did.

People who were working in situations they found unethical often didn't trigger a change until that unethical situation came and bit them directly and they were betrayed by someone they worked with or the company they worked for.

So the best way to enable a change without having to be forced into it by a crisis, as I've described is to begin by surrounding yourself with like-minded people, either people who also want to make a change in the direction you want to or who have already done it.

There's a powerful, transformative effect when you put yourself in a community of people. The change you desire simply becomes less complicated, more doable, more feasible, more realistic.

Bronson's Final Thoughts

Many of these questions revolve around, "How do I achieve my dream?" I'm concerned that the lean of the questions tells only half the story. While it's important to get what you love, it's also important to learn to love what you get. Quite a few stories in the book are of people who stumbled into something they never imagined doing and they unexpectedly discovered something to love about it.

In one of the stories that tends to get a lot of publicity because it's bizarre enough to be repeated, an investment banker becomes a catfish farmer in Mississippi. I think it's really important to note that he was not an outdoorsman; he didn't dream of being closer to nature and he never dreamed of being a catfish farmer or a farmer of any sort.

He left banking because it had become unethical and he discovered in farming a business that behaved very ethically, that was as cooperative as banking was cutthroat, and he found in it something to love, not because it was fish or cotton but because it was ethical.

My point is that asking this question is very often an urge for a better life, and pursuing your dreams — if you have them — is just one way to get there. It's just as common to stumble into it. But his story begins where all these stories being: with the consciousness that his life had to change.

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