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Computing Thoughts
You Can't Do What You Want By Doing Something Else
by Bruce Eckel
October 3, 2009
I'm reading Po Bronson's "What Should I Do With My Life?" which is brilliant on many levels. For one thing, it's the anti-self-help book; it's just stories from talking to people, and by no means is everyone successful.


And it's dense, by which I mean not fluffy but packed with insight. He spent years researching and developing this book, and his own struggle is woven into it. Indeed, it's not about formulas and answers, but about the struggle itself.

One observation set me back. There are lots of people who wanted to do one thing but then got "practical" and did something else "first." The idea was that they'd be successful and sock away money doing the practical thing, and after that they could go back to the thing they loved. Bronson was sure that, among the hundreds of people that he interviewed, someone would actually have been successful with this strategy. It sounds so reasonable, after all.

But he encountered exactly zero people who pulled it off. Everyone who tried got sucked into the "practical" career and were never able to extract themselves from it. Too comfortable, too many expectations from friends and family, too easy just to keep doing what you're doing.

Although we admire when someone can do something unique and creative, society is set up to resist such attempts. Your parents, with all the love and best intentions, will urge you to do something that "makes a good living." Your friends and coworkers resist behaviors that might take you away from them, and will tell you stories of how this or that person tried and failed. And hardest of all, when you are ready to make your leap of faith, the temptations appear; the tremendous opportunities that for some reason only come out of the woodwork when you are ready to walk out the door.

There's a quote that appears again and again in various forms: "close one door, another opens." It seems like magical thinking until you see it happen. And it only happens when you don't leave the door partially open, but instead firmly close it. For some reason, being certain that you're ready to move on does cause some kind of magic to happen, and I don't know why.

This doesn't mean it will be easy. But your struggles will be towards happiness rather than trying to avoid some litany of unpleasant things as most people do -- and most people (over 80% in this country, it appears) are unhappy in their careers. And knowing that you are moving towards something that you love (even if you don't yet know what it is) seems more likely to make you happy than just marking time in a job, waiting for something to happen so you can start doing what you really want.

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel ( provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2009 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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