What Should I Do With My Life?

Career guides that actually help.

Three days ago, I graduated from college. Seated in the football stadium with 5,300 of my fellow Tar Heels, I wore yards of Carolina blue nylon, chatted throughout the commencement address, and then tossed my cap skyward. Now I must confront the daunting reality of postcollegiate life: a job. 

I am not entirely bereft of future prospects—I have a six-month internship at a magazine in Santa Fe that starts in June. But an internship is not a job, nor is it certain that whatever I think I want to do at age 21 is what I should do with the rest of my life. So, I did what any recovering grad would do: I took a trip to Borders and picked up armloads of career guides to see if they could help me find my calling.


I selected books that would help me figure out what career to pursue as well as those with practical advice on how to obtain that perfect job. Some were helpful on both fronts, and some on neither. All assured me, thankfully, that work doesn’t have to be miserable. My crucial considerations included:

Usefulness: How insightful was the text? Did the book tell me something more novel than “follow my dreams”? Did it give me constructive tips? 

Applicability: Was the text appropriate for recent graduates? Or more geared toward those in midcareer? If it included profiles of individuals, were their stories interesting and informative?

Readability: Was the tone too reminiscent of a high-school guidance counselor’s? Did it pander to college students with its “hip” lingo? Would I consult it again?

The results, from worst to best: 

Not Recommended 

How To Find the Work You Love, by Laurence G. Boldt, 158 pages, $12

This book’s appeal lies in its diminutive size and its reassuring Zen title. I read it first of all the books, figuring I would start from the theoretical and work toward the practical. But it was a bit too theoretical. The book argues that your “life’s work” is created through dedication to either your personal values, service to others, or pursuit of what you excel at or enjoy. Boldt offers plentiful encouragement and “focusing questions” to help refine your ideal career. But actual content is slim, as the font is large, the margins wide, and the famous quotations ubiquitous. And it plods along—once you sift though the jargon, insights are only about once a page. Its attempts at practicality were especially unhelpful: “More often than not, when we do the work we love, the money takes care of itself.” Tell that to my parents when I’m still living at home.

Advice of Note: “The commitment to excellence requires that we put aside any false modesty. It is not a sign of arrogance to expect great things of ourselves.” 

Recommended for: People who like the Tao of anything and who view their job search as an epic quest. 

Bottom Line: Too flimsy. Save time and money and buy a motivational poster about dedication instead.

The 2006 What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard Nelson Bolles, 402 pages, $17.95

First published in 1970, Parachute is the godfather of all career guides. Chapters address the best and worst ways to look for a job, whether to move away for a new career, and tips for interviewing and salary-haggling. While its layout and design—illustrations galore—is the most appealing of all the books, Bolles’ writing style is the most annoying. He takes liberties with punctuation and italicization that are distracting, and his voice is numbingly didactic—he repeatedly explains that “percent” means “out of 100.”

The book’s churchy tone and endless asides made me groan: Bolles ends with a 22-page epilogue titled “How To Find Your Mission in Life,” and he means mission in the Christian sense of the word. His lack of irony or humility felt like a stern rap across my knuckles. The sprawling nature of this book and its plethora of exercises make it a good resource to thumb through, but it also makes the job search seem overwhelmingly momentous—as if in addition to finding a job, I must first read this tome.

Advice of Note: “Job hunting is more like dating than any other human activity we might compare it to. … Do I like you? Do you like me? Do we want to take a chance on going steady?

Recommended for: Adults (not recent grads) who like faith-based advice and are nervous about a career switch in the Information Age. Includes enough exercises to keep a reader busy for weeks, allowing one to put off looking for a job.

Bottom Line: This book encompasses both practical and philosophical aspects of careers, but flip through it and read a few pages before buying: You’ll either grin or shudder.

Recommended With Reservations 

Do What You Are, by Paul D. Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger, 386 pages, $18.95

Do What You Are promises individualizedcareer advice based on your Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a personality test anchored in Carl Jung’s work. The book devotes a chapter to each personality type, each of which contains profiles of people supposedly much like you. Unfortunately, these people tend to be strangely similar in experience: All three profiles of my personality type, ENFP, were consultants of some kind—including one personality-type consultant.

The book does do a good job of emphasizing your strengths. It contextualizes them in terms of the job search, offering insight into how you’d fare in different careers. It also suggests how to overcome the pitfalls you’re most likely to experience: “The secret to success for an ENFP is learning to: Prioritize, focus, and follow through.” 

Advice of Note: “Type does not determine intelligence or predict success, nor does it indicate how well adjusted anyone will be. It does, however, help us discover what best motivates and energizes each of us as individuals, and this in turn empowers us to seek these elements in the work we choose to do.”

Recommended for: People who like taking quizzes in magazines and enjoy having their personality analyzed.

Bottom Line: This book helps readers articulate their character traits in terms of workplace skills. But if you know yourself well enough to admit you’re bad with deadlines, you probably already know you shouldn’t work at a newspaper. 

Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads, by Sheila J. Curran and Suzanne Greenwald, 320 pages, $16.95

This book intends to reassure students (and their parents) that liberal-arts majors can get jobs, too, by imparting 23 life stories of now-successful people in their 20s, 30s, or 40s who made good career decisions. Smart Moves is like Po Bronson’s What Should I Do With My Life? (assessed below), but with more extensive profiles, subtler narration, and a motive: defending the liberal-arts degree. The writing is smoothly geared toward ambitious college kids, and each profile ends with a bulleted list of its subject’s “smart moves,” making this book solid but uninspiring.

Advice of Note: “The only thing that’s certain in your career life is that you can’t reliably predict where you’ll be in five years, let alone twenty-five. There is no single career that’s right for you and no dream that’s too outlandish.”

Recommended for: Current college students who want to get a head start on career planning. Then they should give this to their parents when asked what they’ll do with that degree in philosophy.

Bottom Line: A well-organized book of in-depth career stories—but more than most people will want to read, and they don’t hook the reader quite as well as What Should I Do With My Life?


Wh at Should I Do With My Life?, by Po Bronson, 436 pages, $7.99

A best seller when it was published in 2002, this book is a compendium of mini biographies of people who have gutsily chosen to embrace their passions. Bronson is an active narrator with a casual tone, and the profiles are linked by his yearlong quest to research this book. The book is also a good examination of work itself: Is life about the journey or the destination? Is it OK to work a crummy day job and live for the weekend? The prose reads like a human-interest segment on the Today Show; the stories are surprisingly addictive.

Advice of Note: “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.” 

Recommended for: Voyeurs of all ages who love hearing the life story of the person next to them on an airplane.

Bottom Line: Too hefty and repetitive to read all at once, but I may occasionally refer to this to remind myself that you figure out life as you go along. A good gift for college grads, though it might lure them into becoming, say, a catfish farmer.

Have No Career Fear, edited by Ben Cohen-Leadholm, Ari Gerzon-Kessler, and Rachel Skerritt, 201 pages, $12.95

This book, which is part of the Students Helping Students series published by Penguin, is less visually attractive than most of the others, but much more useful. It boils down the philosophical aspects of the job search to a few bulleted questions: What inspires me? What do I love to do? This book is packed with practical suggestions on how to network, apply and interview for a job, excel in your work, and even addresses what to do if you’re fired. The collegiate tone can be grating (after using a clever interview tactic, you’ll feel “really frickin’ good”), but the editors cover a lot of ground in this slim book. I enjoyed the straightforward advice from recent grads rather than career coaches.

Advice of Note: “Keep in mind, your first job is never quite what you’re looking for. It’s meant to be a stepping stone and for you to acquire experience.”

Recommended for: College students and recent grads who like lists and snappy words of wisdom.

Bottom Line: Doesn’t get into anything too deeply, but this book has an upbeat tempo and quick pace that make the job search feel manageable and even fun.

I’m an English Major—Now What? by Tim Lemire, 252 pages, $14.99

I assumed that “English major” was merely a euphemism for “liberal-arts student.” It’s not. This new book is made for those who have spent the last four years critically contemplating Middlemarch—a specificity that allows Lemire to give bright graduates practical advice, not simply encouragement. I found this book to be by far the most useful, as well as the most fun to read. 

I didn’t major in English (though I minored in creative writing, perhaps the only discipline less lucrative), so I can attest that this book is a valuable resource for any grad with aspirations for writing, publishing, or academia. It’s not padded with quotations or truisms. Lemire launches into the realities and requirements of careers most appealing to literary types: teaching, grad school, journalism, book publishing, even corporate jobs. The writing is funny without trying too hard, thanks to Lemire’s well-executed wit and sarcasm. He deals honestly with the delusions of the English major (it can’t be that hard to write a novel), and the sidebars for each field are especially useful, summarizing “Most Important Skills” and “The Best Advice I Ever Got.”

Advice of Note: “If you are considering teaching because you can’t think of anything else to do … stop. You should not enter the teaching profession by default or with a sense of resignation. Doing so will make you a lousy teacher, and lousy teachers produce worse students.”

Recommended for: English majors and those who wish they were.

Bottom Line: A worthwhile purchase for liberal-arts types, and one to reference when you want to make a living as a freelance writer.