to What Should I Do With My Life?
Reading Group Guide
(Prepared by Random House editors in
consultation with the author)
Book Clubs and Others Seeking Further Provocation (A User's Guide, if you will)
Now that you've read What Should I Do
With My Life, we highly recommend discussing it with your friends,
family, or book group. We suggest the following questions as fodder for
Strategies & Macro Influences
Finding Your Story
1. Po chose to weave in fragments of his
life when his memories were triggered by the stories of others. How did
this enhance or detract from your experience of reading the book? Did his
doing so encourage you to think about your own memories, or did it get in
2. Journalists are supposed to be
impartial. Theyre not supposed to overtly care for the people they
write about. In rejecting that method, Po seemed to be suggesting that
caring for others is necessary for a meaningful life. Do you agree? What
would Po have gained or missed if he had adopted a journalists
3. Most of the stories have positive
outcomes, but the subjects have to endure a painful period to get there,
and theyre still tinged with regret and uncertainty afterwards. Did you
find the overall picture rosy or sad? Did you expect otherwise?
4. Po chose to include several stories of
people who are still struggling, or who have found only part of their
solution. He also chose ordinary people, rather than famous ones. Why do
you think he made these choices? How does it influence the overall tone of
5. Was part of your enjoyment the fantasy
of being welcomed into the intimate lives of strangers? Was part of your
enjoyment the sense that theres someone out there who would be willing
to listen to your life story? How important to your enjoyment was getting
concrete wisdom from the stories?
6. Po recorded the stories of over 900
people. That suggests he wanted to be encompassing and representative of
everyone, but he freely admits that his research was biased heavily
towards the kind of person he used to be (and the kind of people he used
to write about). Does this influence the legitimacy of his conclusions? In
what ways has your perspective also been limited by where you come from?
7. Po categorized the stories in a way that
highlighted the psychological issues we have in common. He rejected
methods of categorization that would have sorted people by profession,
age, or class. Thus, the story of an electrician is followed by a
political appointee, and the story of a mother is followed by a trucker,
etc. What is the author trying to say about the way people usually
8. Po clearly chose not to write a
How-To guidebook. But he seems torn between two ambitions his desire
to be a serious chronicler, which dictated recording the stories straight,
and his desire to help readers, which lead him to distill helpful
insights. When did he cross over too far, in either direction? Do you work
in a field where wanting to help others means you are taken less
STRATEGIES & MACRO INFLUENCES
9. Did you think any of these people should
have stayed put, rather than leave their old life behind? Whose choices
did you question or criticize? For instance, did you question Carl
Kurlanders decision to write Louie Andersons autobiography, rather
than his own? Did you accept or reject Mark Kraschels appreciation for
Muslim culture? Did you respect Katt Clarks decision to set aside her
Olympic dreams for her daughter a second time?
10. Many of these people left professions
where they would have made a lot of money, and in some cases did. What
message do you extract from this that its necessary to resist the
temptation of money, and the sooner the better, to avoid being locked in
by golden handcuffs? Or does their example suggest that its possible to
follow in their path, aiming for money now and postponing your calling
11. Katherine James, Warren Brown, Debbie
Brient and Jennifer Scott were among the many who believed they were being
steered towards the right decision. Do you believe in destiny, or a
guiding hand? If so, what should one do when the universe seems to be
making it very, very hard to succeed? is that a sign youre going in
the wrong direction?
12. Po concludes that a calling isnt
something you know, in the absence of experience, its something
you grow into. Many of the people in this book werent able to
figure out where they really belonged until the second half of their life.
How should this influence the way we counsel students, who want to find
their answer now, not later?
13. Every industry has a culture. And every
culture is driven by a value system. Po urges us to recognize how these
value systems have shaped us, for better or worse. What is the culture of
the industry in which you work? What does it value in a person, and what
doesnt it value?
14. How have you and your spouse (or
partner) helped each other in your pursuit? How have you hindered each
other? Have you chosen partners because they helped you succeed? Po
confesses that he used the support of his first wife like a crutch
that he didnt take sole responsibility for his own situation. Do you
agree that generous support can lead to neglect of responsibilities?
15. Roughly half the people in the book are
parents. The other half arent at least yet (either because theyve
delayed doing so, or they havent found their partner). Did you read
their story differently if they had children? Did you relate to them
16. When youve had to counsel friends or
family who are facing an agonizing decision, how have you balanced the
need to be supportive against the need to be realistic? To what extent is
your counseling strategy reflective of your own successes and failures?
17. Po says that were all struggling to
transcend the way our class defines us. He seems to be saying that the
inequity between classes is a wound in our collective psyche. Do you think
its that relevant does it really affect our individual enjoyment of
18. At LSU, Mike Blandinos Buddhism
taught him to find his answers in his state of being, not doing. In
Indiana, Barry Brown was influenced by the sermons of an old-time
Calvinist. Mike Jenzeh was guided by Isaiah 58 of the Old Testament. At
the Unity Church in Bandon, John Butler taught that what we consider our
strengths are limiting beliefs compensating for our biases and
weaknesses. At St. Agathas in Los Angeles, Father Joe preached that
helping others is the way to serve God. How does your religion affect your
pursuit of this question? Do you agree with your churchs teaching?
FINDING YOUR STORY
19. What have you been called to, over the
course of your life? Have you listened to those calls? Which have you
acted upon, and which have you chosen not to?
20. Write a one-page memory of a time
during your childhood or teen years that you managed to succeed at
something that you were afraid of trying or convinced you would fail at.
21. In the first section, Po portrays
various ways of arriving at "a sense of rightness," such as
analyzing your skills, or watching for synchronicity, or wanting to help
others who have suffered similar tragedies and losses. Po also says were
as likely to simply stumble into a place that feels right as arrive there
by reasoned planning. Which of these ways have you used when telling your
story to others? Could you tell your story using the other methods?
22. Po concludes that its in hard times
that were forced to overcome the fears and doubts that normally give us
pause. To what extent have the changes in your life been self-selected,
during good times, or been forced upon you, during hard ones? When youve
suffered hardship, has it altered what you consider important? Has
hardship changed your life, or have you fought to get back to
23. Po warns against editing out important
pieces of our story in order to make our story more presentable to others.
"Embrace your luck, pain and ghosts," he suggests in one
chapter; in another he writes, "look backward even more than forward,
and chase away preconceptions of what our story is supposed to sound
like." He contrasts the Resume Version with the Work-In-Progress
Version. How do you describe yourself in a public situation? How do you do
so differently in a private situation? What failures do you rarely bring
up? Do you agree that we should be more revealing of our "real
story" in public situations?
24. In the chapter "The Brain Candy
Generation," Po says the true search is for what you believe in
what kind of world you want to live in. In what ways are you making the
world a better place even if its just one quality interaction at a
25. Po tells Tom Scott that happiness is
too easy a test; rather, we should ask what will be fulfilling. Leela de
Souza found that fulfillment when she stopped asking what would make her
happy, and instead asked "to what could she devote her life?"
Mike Jenzehs life improved when he gave up that it was all about
himself. Yet these stories are balanced by the likes of Warren Brown, who
stopped suppressing what made him happy, and Kurt Slauson, who had been
denying himself permission to enjoy his life. Have the most fulfilling
periods of your life also been happy ones? Is happiness essential?
26. Bart Handford tells Po the parable of
the three bricklayers building a cathedral, suggesting that even menial
work can be meaningful if its contributing to something you believe in.
Have your most meaningful accomplishments required a lot of menial work?
27. Po suggests that temptations can come
in many forms: in the form of money, respect, love, and convenience. Write
a one page memory about a time in your adult life that you resisted one of
28. In the chapter "The Ungrateful
Soldier," Po recounts C.S. Lewiss assertion that belonging to an
Inner Ring is a powerful, wayward desire. Po asks Tim Bratcher whos
sitting at that table whos in his Inner Ring. Are there ways youve
used status as a surrogate for individual expression? What elusive ring do
you long to belong to? Are there people in your life (or in your past)
that you dont respect, yet are still trying to prove wrong?
29. Both Stephen Lyons and Chi Tschang tell
Po that if you can develop into a person of good character, your chances
of succeeding in life improve dramatically. What do they mean by
"character"? Whats an example from your own life of good or