WHAT DO I WANT to do with my life? Well, it's too late to be Po Bronson. Or is it? The Seattle native turned Bay Area zeitgeist chronicler, Wired cover boy, and dust-jacket pin-up is returning home to read from his new book, What Should I Do With My Life? (Random House, $24.95), but I won't be sitting in the audience. I already spent seven years of my life sitting alongside him at the Lakeside School. After we graduated in 1982, he went his way (fame, fortune, People magazine's Sexiest Author Alive 1999), and I went mine (weekly film critic, misanthrope, social pariah).
What Should I Do profiles some 50 people who have "unearthed their true calling, or at least were willing to try." These were people who sought, in different ways, to answer what Po calls The Ultimate Question (see book title): "Complete strangers opened up their homes to me," he writes with his customary weird mix of the earnest and unctuous. "I slept on their couches. We went running together. They cried in my arms. We traded secrets. I met their families. I went to one's wedding. I witnessed many critical turning points."
And who are those individuals who answered The Question, who miraculously sprang from their wheelchairs—Hallelujah! I can walk!--and turned their lives around? Among those profiled are banker-turned-Seattle-schools-superintendent Joe Olchefske; an ex-lawyer who became a truck driver so he could spend more time with his son; a former Wall Streeter who became a catfish farmer; and a onetime ballet dancer now a biotech marketing executive. (Though my favorite example is a screenwriter who stepped off the Hollywood fast track after penning St. Elmo's Fire in order to write . . . a puffy biography of the fat, whiny comic Louie Anderson. I should see if Carrot Top is taken.)
A self-help tract for the era of career and economic stagnation, the book's platitudes and exhortations are equal parts Tony Robbins and Robert Fulghum. (In fact, the man responsible for Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten was one of our teachers at Lakeside.) "There is nothing more genuine than breaking away from the chorus to learn the sound of your own voice," Po writes. The new key word is passion. "It comes down to a simple gut check: You either love what you do or you don't. Period." Po even offers four easy-to-remember snares that must be avoided if we are to achieve maximum human potential: money, smarts, place, and attitude. (You'll have to read the book for a fuller explanation.)
He makes it sound so easy. And, for Po, I suppose it is. His own personal rebranding reads like one of the inspirational case studies described in his book.
NOT LONG AFTER graduating from Stanford in '86, Po spent 19 months as a bond salesman for a big trading house in San Francisco. That was Po Version 1.0. He didn't really enjoy the experience (as he would later write), but everyone else was doing it. It was a zeitgeist thing, a cultural phenomenon of young, smart kids rushing to Wall Street after college. It was the era of Oliver Stone's Wall Street and "Greed is good." You didn't want to get left out.
Flash forward a few years, after some grad-school writing classes and editorial jobs, and Po Version 2.0 is launched. On the heels of other ex-financiers like Michael Lewis (Liar's Poker), Po publishes his 1995 debut novel, Bombardiers. It's well written and well received, a success. Better still, Po gives good author tour. His handsome face and catchy opinions begin to pop up in newspaper and magazine articles. For old-line stodgy business publications, he was a quotable source and a hip young business journalist. That year he told NPR, "The way you make money in the financial markets today is information. You have better information than other people have, or you take more risks than other people take."
His fascination with risk naturally led him from Wall Street to Silicon Valley, where Po Version 3.0 was born. It was a characteristically nimble transition, another cultural shift perfectly judged—like the hero of The Fast Runner leaping from one treacherous ice floe to another. His start-up novel The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest (1997) didn't enjoy quite the acclaim of Bombardiers, but he sold it to Hollywood for a handsome sum. (Last year's movie adaptation went, more or less, straight to video.)
But the reviews didn't matter so much, since Po had become less a detached, literary observer and more a star participant in the hype-driven dot-com culture he was chronicling. He didn't just write for Wired ("The room was aglow with the anticipatory thrill of riding this bullet train up the exponential revenue curve," December 1998); his own face was on the cover. Po Version 3.0 became a cybercelebrity; fan sites sprang up to debate his sexiness. "Working has become nothing less than a sport," he wrote. "Here in superachieverland, people are motivated by the thrill of the competition and the danger of losing, and every year the rules evolve to make it all happen quicker, on higher margins, to reach more amazing sums" (Wired, July 1999).
THEN, AS THE SILICON Valley chips came raining down around him in 2000, Po Version 4.0 began ramping up a two-year development process that led to What Should I Do. Smart guy that he is, the author seemed to recognize that the era of breathless, adulatory suck-up business-mag profiles was over. In their place was a new market for tales of uplifting career change—in other words, How to cope with downsizing, worthless options, and involuntary simplicity. Of this new workplace reality, he told The New York Times last year, "I've seen a lot people say, 'I'm going to find that same thing somewhere else, maybe not in the Internet but with a hot dog stand.'"
You can, too. Po has always been bright and successful, and now his success stems from marketing his wisdom to the less successful, to those of us still insufficiently self-actualized, the Version 1.0 crowd. We hapless Dilberts need him more than ever. Fast Company magazine—once a flag-waver for the digital economy that was supposed to change all the rules—this month carries a big fat excerpt from Po's new book, with Po on the cover.
"Asking The Question aspires to end the conflict between who you are and what you do," Po writes with near-theological weight. "Answering The Question is the way to protect yourself from being lathed into someone you're not. What is freedom for if not the chance to define for yourself who you are?" Previously, he was exhorting us onward and upward with exotic, insiderish tales from Sand Hill Road and the trading floor. Now, post-bust, he's got the same rah-rah tone, only he's a pitchman selling pure hope to the outsiders and disenfranchised, and his tent show is coming home to Seattle.
Though I marvel at his adroit opportunism (and isn't that the mark of any savvy freelancer?), I don't doubt Po's sincerity; he seems to have genuine concern for others' well-being. He has promised to check in every day to a Yahoo newsgroup, "Life Goals," a forum created by one of his readers to discuss the issues raised in his book. Po also avers that he's turned down offers to edit magazines, write for TV, join start-ups, and otherwise parlay his name into easy money: "All because it has been and remains my dream to write what it is that must be written."
Po finally is his own best example of continuous improvement. Though we can't all be so capable and ever-mutable to achieve our dreams, maybe, after buying his book, you and I can surf from boom to bust as fluidly as he.
Po Bronson will speak, present slides, and sign books at 7 p.m. Tues., Jan. 21, at University Bookstore, 4326 University Way, 206-634-3400.