What Do I Want to Do? 5 Books That Offer Answers

I'm obsessed with books that offer help me ponder the question "What do I want to do?" The less prescriptive, the better - I want to sort things out for myself, TYVM, but it is helpful to hear what's worked for others. Here are five books that I've dog-earred, scribbled upon, and carried from beach to board room and everywhere in between.

1. What Should I Do With My Life? The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question by Po Bronson

What a question

What It Is: Po Bronson spent significant chunks of time with seventy ordinary people in order to compile this lengthy, thought-provoking social documentary. The book provides detailed sketches of Americans grappling with questions of career, fulfillment, and purpose and lets you draw your own conclusions.

My Testimonial: This book popped onto shelves - and Oprah's couch - when I was smack-dab in the middle of debating whether to drop out of my fully-funded doctoral program. Reading Bronson's tales of everyday people who made changes in their lives gave me the courage to create my own defining moment. It wasn't long before I wrapped up my master's thesis research, gave notice, and set off to my dream state of Maine!

Favorite quotation: "This theme is going to reappear throughout: It's not easy / It's not supposed to be easy / Most people make mistakes / Most people have to learn the hardest lessons more than once. If that has been your experience, the people herein will comfort you. They did me. That alone was worth the trip."

2. Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for you Through the Secrets of Personality Type by Paul Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger

What do you want to doWhat It Is: This hefty book enables you to quickly figure out your Myers-Briggs Type (you know, those four letter codes people always seem to know about themselves, like INFP or ENTJ). You can then turn to the chapter dedicated to your type and read career profiles, elements of career satisfaction, and ways to job search effectively using your personality strengths. Best of all, the authors lay out specific occupations frequently pursued by people from your type.

My Testimonial: This book gave me wisdom in spades throughout my twenties. My college roommate and I first bought a "dorm room" copy and then, after graduating, passed it through the mail depending on which of us felt lost at the time. The occupations listed for my type are DEAD ON; I've tried or explored most of them of my own accord, even when I've forgotten they were listed in "my chapter." I recommend this book to my Intro Psych students every single semester. (Besides, you don't want to be caught at a party not knowing your MB Type. Total loser moment.)

Favorite Quotation: "The right job enhances your life. It is personally fulfilling because it nourishes the most important aspects of your personality. It suits the way you like to do things and reflects who you are. It lets you use your innate strengths in ways that come naturally to you, and it doesn't force you to do things you don't do well (at least, not often!)."

3. What Now? by Ann Patchettwhat

What It Is: Based on a commencement address she gave at her alma mater Sarah Lawrence College, novelist Ann Patchett (State of Wonder, Bel Canto) offers a refreshingly honest look at the winding path toward career and fulfillment. She explores her own ways of answering "What do I want to do?" while offering commencement-worthy nuggets of wisdom.

My Testimonial: Patchett is my favorite novelist, and I was an aspiring fiction writer myself at the time this book was released. I found it soothing to read that Patchett's road to literary stardom was littered with waitressing, odd jobs, and doubt, a confirmation that I wasn't the only one whose twenties didn't resemble the glamorous adult life we all envision.

Favorite Quotation: "Sometimes not having any idea where we’re going works out better than we could possibly have imagined."

4. How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth and Karen Dillonwhat do you want to do

What It Is: The book is based on a speech Harvard Business Professor Clayton Christensen gave to the Harvard Business School's graduating class. He had just overcome the type of cancer that had killed his father, and his brush with mortality made him urgently consider questions like "how do I find happiness in my career?" and "what is the role of relationships in my work and life?"

My Testimonial: Christensen is a no-nonsense business prof through and through. It's fun to watch him pair his love of theory and strategy with deep, philosophical questions. The result is practical, useful advice that has a "work it out your own way" twist. I haven't added a book to my list of Top "What Do I Want To Do" Books in almost a decade (and believe me, I've been looking!), so to finally find one worthy enough is testimonial enough. (And it even held up as a brainy beach read, as you can see here.)

Favorite Quotation: "When you were ten years old and someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, anything seemed possible...Your answers then were guided simply by what you thought would make you really happy. There were no limits. There are a determined few who never lose sight of aspiring to do something that's truly meaningful to them. But for many of us, as the years go by, we allow our dreams to be peeled away. We pick our jobs for the wrong reasons and then we settle for them. We begin to accept that it's not realistic to do something we truly love for a living. Too many of us who start down the path of compromise will never make it back. Considering the fact that you'll likely spend more of your waking hours at your job than in any other part of your life, it's a compromise that will always eat away at you."

5. I Could Do Anything if Only I Knew What it Was: How to Discover What You Really Want and How to Get It by Barbara Sherdo2

What It Is: Career counselor Barbara Sher pulls out all the self-improvement stops in this classic book. You simply can't talk about "what do you want to do" books without mentioning this one. Between the brief exercises, practical tips, and get-off-your-butt wisdom, it really is the starting point for most career fulfillment seekers.

My Testimonial: This is an oldie but goodie, published way back when I was in high school. Its tone and examples are targeted toward a middle-aged audience, but that didn't stop this "there has to be more out there" high schooler from loving it (it didn't hurt that my second-hand copy came with a handwritten erotic love note tucked inside...which is still there!). After finishing the book, I dreamed of creating my own version of the book that would speak to young people. Who knows, maybe one day I will.

Favorite Quotation: "Did you know that fewer people get depressed during war than in peacetime? In a war, everything is important. Day to day, you know exactly what to do. Your life may be frightening, but the struggle to survive gives you direction and drive. You don't waste any time figuring out what you're worth or what you're supposed to do with your life. You just try to keep alive, save your home, help your neighbors. The reason we love to watch films about people whose lives are in danger is because every move is loaded with meaning. When there's no emergency to rise to, we have to create goals that have meaning. You can create such goals, if you know what your dream is."


What did I miss? Let me know your favorite books that help you ponder "What do I want to do?"

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