As I pore through the Po Bronson book I’ve assigned my service-learning students, I wonder how my students will connect to the people being profiled – if only because I have a hard time connecting myself.
Some of Bronson’s profile subjects have lived careers out of some other universe, breathing air so rarified, I’d suffocate in seconds. One, Choejor Dondup, gets a letter from the Dalai Lama, telling him his real name is Za Rinpoche – which translates to “The Dharma King.” Another, a Harvard MBA and Boston investment banker by the name of Don Linn, turns his business acumen to running his in-laws’ fish farm in Mississippi. A Duke graduate by the name of Carl Kurlander hit it big when, at age 24, he wrote the screenplay for St. Elmo’s Fire and became wired into the Hollywood writing scene – his big dilemma is moving back to Pittsburgh to take a teaching job, which he heroically does.
Indeed, the collective achievements of the folks in What Should I Do With My Life? are almost as daunting as the question itself. They certainly make me want to reboot my own life from time to time.
But I don’t have the luxury of dwelling on such things, if only because, even as I’m teaching Bronson for one community service course, I’m reading Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh for another. Off The Books carries the subtitle The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, and what you get is exactly that – a close reporting of the complex exchanges and relationships that lends some order to the underground economy involving everyone from prostitutes and drug dealers to back alley mechanics and pastors. Many are hustling from day to day for simple survival, in a state of mutual vulnerability and mutual threat; they’re less worried about what they should do with their lives than where they can sleep tonight without being raped or robbed. Unlike Bronson with his reflective profiles, Venkatesh’s text is more dispassionate, preoccupied with reporting and analyzing the complexity of economic relationships over decades of urban history. But there is enough flesh and blood, fear and anger, coming through the prose to feel a little less sympathy for Bronson’s heroes as the size up their choices.
At least, after all, they have some.
Reading these two books side by side, week after week, is simultaneously clarifying and unsettling. Even though Bronson interviews nary a millionaire – in fact, many folks are, at best, lower middle class – the contrast between the lives Americans lead in these two books is shocking.
What to take away from such juxtapositions?
The easy response is that the people in Bronson’s book seem naïve and self-centered by comparison, oblivious to their relatively blessed place in the greater scheme of things. Of course, Bronson sees that objection coming from a mile away. “Of all the psychological stumbling blocks that keep people from finding themselves, the most common problem is that people feel guilty for simply taking the question seriously,” Bronson writes in the chapter “The Umbrella of Freedom: Anyone Can Find This Important.”
As Bronson goes on to note, “So many people I interviewed around the country felt guilty for obsessing about what kind of work they should do. It felt self-indulgent. They would say things like, ‘Poor people, they don’t get to choose. And they’re still happy. New immigrants, they’re ecstatic to have any job at all. You don’t see any of them stressing about who they are. They want to do well.’”
Bronson, of course, disagrees. Not only does he find it “terribly perverse” in this logic: Why should we live like poor people when poor people don’t want to live like poor people? But Bronson notes that even immigrants know life is about a lot more than money: “They routinely fight challenges to identity and self-esteem in the course of trying to work their way to better jobs. Not to mention the challenges of raising children and building a community.” Bronson includes his share of people who came from modest beginnings or have fairly pedestrian jobs – as well as those whose tough life choices included a commitment to serving others.
Meanwhile, it’s clear in Venkatesh’s pages that even as people participate out of necessity in the underground economy, they are often fueled by ideals of making the community better and taking care of the individuals in it, whether the cared for are church ladies or gang members. He describes three women (Marlene, Eunice and Bird) who came together to fight for their neighborhood despite considerable differences – one is a fervent churchgoer, another a prostitute. They have put themselves out front in not only trying to clean up the litter each week, but also in negotiating with gangs over dealers over when and how to use the park. They are clearly insisting on making a meaningful impact on the world around them, even as the forces arrayed against them invite them every day to give in.
Obviously, I am leaning here toward collapsing the distinctions between the worlds of Bronson and Venkatesh. But that, too, would be foolish. The books reflect very different realities, as vivid in contrast as the city I drive through twice a day as I head from my suburban campus through poverty-stricken areas and back out again to my condominium facing the woods.
There is no tidy resolution to this juxtaposition, no one-lesson-works-for-all ending. Bronson himself disdains such endings – he warns there’s no “one-size-fits-all” answer to What Should I Do With My Life? We’re on shaky ground any time we reduce an individual’s complex experience to a single lesson; I impose no moral on the story of anyone in either book.
But from Bronson I do take one “extractable lesson” about life: Think bigger. From Venkatesh? In thinking bigger, include thinking of others, moving in a world I drive through every day, yet blithely ignore.
When Bronson was asked whether his book is “about life, or about careers,” Bronson would answer simply: “It’s about people who’ve dared to be honest with themselves.”
Even though the two authors don’t know it, Bronson and Venkatesh figure to keep working together to keep me on my toes.