God I loved this book. He’s organized it as a set of stories about individuals with some common elements. He clearly struggled with the hierarchy, and didn’t want to impose his own meaning by creating one. He all but let the stories tell themselves. Although I’m the exact wrong kind of reader (I’m in the middle of a 15+ year project, and not likely to make any wild decisions any time soon), I did love reading it for it’s ability to tell a story. Here’s a list of things I loved about the book, in no particular order.
It’s not about you: I often find my most useful information in life comes from understanding how other people have handled situations. I don’t even necessarily want to know what lessons they’ve learned, since their situations don’t match mine, so I need to get the raw material. I need to their thought process, their rationale, and hold it up to the light.
Po does a great job at retelling their stories, and letting them unfold for you without bashing you over the head with “What They Learned”.
Something for nothing is worse than nothing at all: Getting all the money you’ll ever need in life from parents or grandparents (I’ve worked with a few people like this) is about the worse thing someone could do for a person. It removes the drive, the edge, required to create passion and dedication. The same is true of your answer. One of the earliest stories in the book is about a young man who received a letter telling him he was an ancient Tibetan reincarnated. Suddenly his entire life seemed laid out for him, with teaching, mentorinig, monastaries, etc all pre-ordained.
I don’t think anyone would be surprised to find that the rest of his life is, to some extent, is defined by him trying to find his way despite this huge expectation that’s been thrust upon him. Like an albatross, he can’t make it go away, and he can’t have a life where it’s not a factor. He’s obviously had a chance to help people in ways that few of us ever will, but he’s also lost the empty blackboard of possibility that most of us have available to us.
It’s not cheesy: After 30 I’ve lost any and all sense of fru-fru-ness tolerance that I once had. Every day I become more and more a rationalist without becoming cynical, and there’s not much in the way of tolerance for the kind of crap that you find in self-help books. I knew Po Bronson’s book would not come anywhere near that pit, and I was not let down. He manages to coax people out of their shells to tell their stories without necessarily having to buy into their value systems. This is an incredible relief to the reader, who gets to maintain a grounded narrator throughout the book.
It’s an attitude, not a goal: Even more than just saying “It’s a journey, not a destination”, I find that so often the attitude people bring to a situation often pre-ordains the outcome. Think all Starbucks employees are crabby and unhelpful? You’re sure to see proof of that the next time you go to Starbucks. Whether it’s you imposing your opinion on a neutral situation and ignoring the counter-clues, or whether you carry a chip on your shoulder that induces bad behavior from your fellow human, the attitude you carry creates the reality. Po Bronson does an excellent job describing the attitudes and mental states of his subjects, demonstrating that exact point.
Bronson clearly understands we don’t live on this planet, but in it. Wracked with some amount of guilt for the hype of Silicon Valley during the boom, he of all people understands that actions have consequences, and no single activity creates those consequences with more weight than the answer to life’s greatest question, “What Should I Do?” His treatment, and his lack of an easy answer should please you greatly.