I went to hear Po Bronson speak last night. Bronson is the author of a number of bestselling books including The Nudist on the Late Shift: And Other True Tales of Silicon Valley and Why Do I Love These People?: Honest and Amazing Stories of Real People. But the book he focused on last night (especially fitting given an audience comprised primarily of college students) was What Should I Do with My Life?: The Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question. The book tells the stories of 50 people (out of the 1,000 he interviewed) who discuss their experiences of career change.

To me books such as this are important for two reasons: a) they tell us stories about the lives, hopes, concerns, and dreams of real people (as any good, in-depth biographical or life history accounts can do); and, b) their popularity tells us that people are looking for insight about the issues raised in such books because they are not finding in their current situations or contexts the answers, direction, clear paths, identity, and more that they desire.

Many people seem to be finding something important in this book. It is easy, especially amongst academics, to dismiss bestselling books as too simple, but in the spirit of Harriet Martineau (one of sociology’s early founders who argued that we need to analyze the popular songs of the day as representative of people’s hopes, dreams, and fears), we need to pay special attention to such popular culture manifestations. And it was moving to hear Bronson talk about the thousands of email responses he received to this book (ranging from students, to cancer survivors, to mid-life career changers, to soldiers on their way to or from Iraq or Afghanistan, to new retirees and more).

Summarizing basic insights from that book, one Amazon.com reviewer writes:

He observes that people avoid change because of the accompanying loss of identity. They hang back “because they don’t want to be the kind of person who abandons friends and takes up with a new crowd,” precisely what you have to do following a life transition.

Such realities raise questions about the structure of the society and its ability (or lack thereof) to provide a stable and clear sense of identity and meaning. There is space there for a sociologically informed critique of the kind of society that leaves people wanting clear direction from books, life coaches, and others that they appear not able to find in the people that they know or the contexts within which they find themselves.

Bronson has done us a sociological service by rooting his accounts in the lived experiences of people’s daily lives. He also seems to affirm the importance of a sociological approach to understanding and intrepreting the stories he tells. I got a chance to speak with him briefly both before and after his presentation and he mentioned that he has found himself turning toward a sociologically informed perspective to make more sense of our lives. This turn is reflected in his blog (titled “social studies”) which highlights the importance of the sociological perspective.

I do think that it is worth asking why people suffer such apprehension, confusion, and concern when it comes to career selection. Our tendency is to focus on the individuals involved (seeking to provide them with individual counseling and coaching). But social problems demand social solutions. Perhaps we can also focus on what kind of society puts more and more individuals into such quandries over and over again. Perhaps it is a consequence of our social structure and our solutions must call for structural change.

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