Can a best-selling novelist bring new insights to your quest for career satisfaction? John McLaren finds the case studies encouraging.
In the late '80s I wasted some cash very wisely. I had run out of visa in California and was staring down the barrel of a return to work in the City. Then I saw an ad from a London firm with the seductive graphic of dramatically breaking chains, accompanied by siren copy suggesting that for a mere pounds 1,500 they could reveal the secret of what you really should be, and in one bound you would be free from misery. I posted the cheque and turned up at their offices trembling with anticipation. What would the answer for me be? Astronaut? JCB driver?
It was a con, of course. All that was on offer was recycled American psychometric tests, with a bunch of fourth-rate consultants trying their hopeless best to interpret the results. The nearest they got to suggestions for me was doing an MBA or working for the government (having failed to read the notes at the bottom of my bed showing that I'd already tried that medicine). Depressing as it was, this experience was not a waste at all, since it taught me the valuable lesson that there ain't no quick fix when looking for your personal grail.
Fifteen years on, this subject is all the rage, and plenty of writers are spotting the opportunity to make a fast buck milking it.
What makes Po Bronson's stand apart from the rest is that he is a novelist rather than the usual journeyman guru. His first book, Bombardiers, rightly became a big seller, but his follow-up about Silicon Valley, the irritatingly titled The First dollars 20 Million is Always the Hardest, was disappointing.
However, Bronson is so convinced that he was the single biggest factor in persuading the wannabes of America to move west that, after the tech collapse, he was moved to write a letter of apology in the New York Times.
I don't doubt for those who had lost their jobs and their savings this was the consolation they were hoping for.
The same sense of self-importance pervades What Should I Do With My Life?.
Bronson travelled from coast to coast, and occasionally abroad, checking out people who had found their dream or were actively engaged in the search. Readers may be wryly amused by how often the triggering of the subject's Damascene moment is a flash of insight from the author himself. Though a genuinely good listener, Bronson repeatedly claims to be surprised how open and honest these people were with him. (Having put themselves forward for interview, why on earth would they clam up?)
The case studies that constitute most of the text are about par for the course for a book of this sort, and if you strip out the classier descriptions, are not particularly interesting, except perhaps for the cases where there is a Dahl-esque twist in the tail and the answer is not poet or composer but stockbroker; or where one terminally bored and unhappy lawyer in LA finds fulfilment as a lawyer elsewhere.
There is, nonetheless, a valid reason to include this long catalogue, apart from the need to pad a magazine article out to a book. The broader the range of examples, the greater the chance the reader will find one to relate to. And this matters because, as Bronson rightly emphasises, one of the things that stops people investing the effort in their own search is the fear that this is self-indulgence. As one of his subjects says: 'Why can't my brain just let me get on with normal, mindless work like millions of other people?' Anything that encourages searchers to keep searching must be a good thing.
In his epilogue, Bronson tries to go beyond the individual and to place this issue in a wider business context. Quoting the projected decline in the number of workers as a proportion of the population, he suggests that the only way to generative economic growth is to have more people doing what they're passionate about. While no-one can doubt that people work better when they love what they do, managing the supply of the right shapes of pegs and holes on a national basis may be tricky.