How to Answer the Question, “What Should I Do With My Life?”

kitten on bookshelf

Yes, that kitten is Phoebe, back in her blue-eyed days.

I headed down to San Diego County earlier this summer to do a talk at Growcology. Bianca Heyming, who runs Growcology along with her husband Nick, told me some advice her dad passed on to her about how to figure out one’s path in life. It’s the best wisdom I’ve ever heard on the subject. Her dad told her, “Look at what books are on your bookshelf and do that.” I really wish someone had told me this years ago–I could have skipped music grad school (music has never occupied much space on my book shelf). Instead I could have jumped ahead to what I’m doing now.

Unsurprisingly, most of the books on my bookshelf, now and in the past, are how-to tomes relating to the subjects on this blog: gardening, poultry health, beekeeping, food preservation, baking, cooking and self-reliance. There’s another broad category : books relating to symbolism, Carl Jung, Rudolf Steiner and media theory. The rest are oddball topics: electronic circuits, 70s land art and fencing tactics. Together these topics make me the crazy person that I am. In short, I’m non-linear weirdo with a DIY streak and an interest in topics that have fallen to the bottom of a hole as deep as the as-is bins at LA’s vast St. Vincent de Paul thrift store.

But the big question is not about me, it’s about you. What’s on your bookshelf? And what are you going to do about it?

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  1. Hmm. Zombie apocalypse,Pandemic Outbreaks, Dystopian future, Space Warfare…

    So I’m going for the zombie killing space pilot who interrupts an evil alien trying to start an outbreak on earth next week..

    Sorry had to be a bit silly with that one. I think its great advice

  2. That’s a great way to figure it out! I have a majority of ministry books and that’s my biggest passion for sure…natural health and gardening my second one. I am actually teaching natural health in a ministry school right now – wow! Funny how that happened!

  3. Such a very interesting way to find your life’s calling! And when I looked at my bookcase, found it is true! There is an insatiable hunger to learn more of what I am interested in, and thus the book buying! Do you have a 1/2 price book store near you? Maybe be glad you don’t…

    • Worse–and I forgot to mention this–the LA Central Library is near the YMCA I go to. I’m always dragging home a ton of strange books. So in addition to the books on the bookshelf there is always a stack of library books.

  4. I have a Masters Degree in Fine Art, so have a good collection of books on art and artists, but haven’t substantially added to it for years. The media I chose were always labor-intensive and intensely hands-on; intaglio, lithography, ceramics, fiber. After an all night marathon in the ceramics studio during grad school, a professor arrived to start his day and commented, “Some people just have to make things. You’re one of those people.” Sure enough,the books I keep going to are largely about making in one form or another; growing, cooking, preserving, knitting, sewing, embellishing, repairing, building, creative use and re-use, etc. I much prefer going to the garden, sewing maching and tool box over the local mall. I frequent the library, so my personal collection of books has grown slowly, but I have “my shelves” there, and that is truly where I find me!

  5. Oh my. We could talk symbolism, I think. It informs all of life. In grad school for English MA, I just went to the university library and stared at a section of the shelves that held books on symbolism and such. I found the perfect book to explain the one image in a book I was going to write a 30 paper on. (or on which I was going to write a 30-page paper.) See. I know better.

    I got an A and totally blew away the professor who had been teaching the novel for 25 years and did not know what the image meant.

    Ten years later, other grad students in that class called me for the book title so they could use the book.

    So, my books are symbolism, literature (English Romantics and American Transcendentalists, my area of interest, study, and expertise),making things, how the brain works (Broka’s Brain) Foucault, women’s studies, vampirism. Yes, all the subjects on the list are interconnected. Then, there is sociology, poetry, and gardening books.

    Interestingly, the thing I “make” best and for which I have the most fervor, sewing, is not represented on my bookshelves. I only have about three cookbooks, too. hmmm.

    I get the need to create, make.

    There is a great melding of intellectual pursuits and creative pursuits, both in my head and on my bookshelves.

    Sorry. but “symbolism” made my brain whir with happiness.

  6. So this is not actually related to this post but to the ethos of your blog in general. My wife and I are trying to figure out how to live more intentional/sustainable/mindful/considerate. This is not new but it is something we are always trying to be better about. I love your guys’ blog because it deals with a lot of the things I care about, but we live in a city (namely DC) and because of what I do (I am a human rights lawyer) we will probably always live in a city. Do you guys have any recommendations for blogs like yours but for those who live in a little more urban setting (i.e. with less than 700 sq/ft of living space and no yard to grow things in)?

    • i think its all about forming friendships, about building community around very simple and just and inter-generational urban living. community gardening, disaster preparedness, worker cooperatives, community activism around environmental justice or public health or food access or access to open space or fill in the blank) issues… that is what i would say urban permaculture is about more so than growing one’s own food at larger scales and these are all things one can do in cities

    • Gonna jump in with a reply Ian – the only blog that springs to mind is ‘”The Nonconsumer Advocate”. Katy Wolk-Stanley makes a concerted effort to buy everything she can used, and to reduce her waste. Oh, just thought of another – The zero waste home. She doesn’t post very often.

  7. I love to read, so I have lots of fiction. I also have nonfiction books about homesteaders (Helen and Scott Nearing), or gardeners such as Joan Dye Gussow, Kristen Kimball’s The Dirty Life, about how she and her husband dove headlong into a CSA in which they provide the whole package -milk, meat, veg, maple syrup. And as I have discovered that I am a thinker but not a doer, I will probably just continue to read about others doing cool things.

  8. I wish I had had that advice years ago too. My bookshelves are full of cookbooks and sustainability and history and literary classics. Yet only now, at the age of 44, am I about to commence a Masters degree in food history.

    • That sounds like the perfect degree…. My bookshelves are also stuffed full of cookbooks, books on sustainability and homesteading, gardening, history and food history in particular. Fiction is varied, with lots of English classics (I love Jane Austen) and fantasy (especially Stephen Lawhead).
      My perfect job would be as an expert on food and domestic history (I want to be Ruth Goodman basically). I have actually started looking at jobs as a re-enactor or historical demonstrator but they tend to be seasonal and involve working through the summer holidays. One day…

  9. I have such a wide variety of books — spirituality, gardening, women’s studies, astronomy, poetry….it’s easy to see why I’ve had no less than three different careers and many more odd jobs in other fields in this lifetime. Life seems to be something of a smorgasbord for me, and my library reflects that.

  10. A pot pourri of horticultural, cooking, woodworking, dyeing… tomes; some philospophy, economics, geeky grammar books; a smattering of historical how-tos (from William Cobbett’s Cottage Economy to Mrs Beeton) and some electronics circuitry too. My ‘pot pourri’ library is due to my dad advocating that his children should be “Renaissance Men”… Not a bad life course!

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  12. This is great advice! In the last 2 years. For me, earth-based spirituality books plus a rapidly growing collection of parenting and homesteading books (and magazines). The first is a path I’ve been on a few years (and bought most of those books about 10 years ago), the latter two are paths that I started out on roundabout 2 years ago, and am very much a novice in but learning fast! All three pretty much some up the way I live my life right now – and there’s no way I’d rather be living it. Yay for books! ♥

  13. wow…oh this would have helped me sooooo much hearing this in my youth….im 42 now and still working on the dream but closer now than ever before….have the 10 acres with ponds and fish….have the existing building on the land that we are converting to our home…..started clearing out all the “bad” plants/trees/etc that took over during approx 15 years of neglect…
    about the books – my mom (who knows me best i suppose) brought me home two books from a library sale when i was about 15 years old that i have carried with me ever since. i have tons of gardening, homesteading, cook books on my shelves now but these two are so close to my soul because they started the dream for me:
    “Living on The Earth” by -1970 by Alicia Bay Laurel (complete with cremation at the end)
    “Yoga, Youth, and Reincarnation” – 1968 by Jess Stearn
    no internet back then and what was in my head i thought was just weirdness and out of place in this world and these two books gave me the hope that one day i could be my inner self! i fell for the mans bs for many years and have a late start but i am getting there!
    thank you for being there for everyone that happens upon you and for whom you are the light!

  14. I have a bunch of How to Get Rich books and How to Influence People books.

    I’m doing all this Urban Homesteading stuff out of necessity, but when I do make it big, get rich or win the lottery, I’m buying a big SUV, a big house & a big pool.

    Oh, and I’m going to vote Republican.

    • I totally agree! Confession: My bookshelves are 100% Ayn Rand. First editions, autographed copies, rarities, braille editions… even Alan Greenspan’s signed copy of Atlas Shrugged. Oh, and DVDs of those excellent movies.

  15. Yes! This is so true. I heard a similar piece of advice a few years ago, and really took it to heart. I have a master’s degree in art education but it’s never been my life’s biggest passion. Looking at my bookshelf it’s pretty clear that I’ve always dreamed of being a farmer. My husband and I plan to move out of our urban homestead in a few years and build ourselves an art farm. This way we can combine our love of art and creation with our love of farming. Gallery space and growing space, all in one. I’m so thankful that we’ve figured out our path early on and can spend many years together working for this dream.

  16. i’m kind of a compulsive book buyer and thinking about the answer to this question has inspired me to donate a lot of my books and only keep the ones that have to do with what i want to do with my life. i’m just going to go off a hunch that i’m not going to change my mind and repurchase my still-unread copy of atlas shrugged 😉
    among the ones i’d keep: all my utopian novels, Thoreau, and my Luc Schuiten books (
    i’ll also keep mafalda, david foster wallace & walter benjamin. coincidentally those three are my answer to that fantasy dinner guest question.

    • I did the same thing a few years ago. I basically got rid of everything that I don’t use for reference. Most other books I can get at the library. And like you I kept my Thoreau.

  17. Thank you for this post. It prompted me to write up a whole post of my own. Unsurprisingly, many of my most beloved books on the shelf are the same as the ones I see in your photo… (minus the cat, but I’m working on that part).

    • Thank you for your lovely post. And my neighbor Anne would be happy to send you some cats for your bookshelf.

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  19. I guess I do things backwards, because my book selections have always followed my life choices, not predicted them. I was a dancer and a dance teacher in my teens and 20s, and I had a lot of books about dancers and choreographers. Then I started to get serious about studying Spanish, which I’d always loved but not made time for, and I got a lot of books in Spanish and Spanish language texts. That was followed by Latin American studies – books about Latin America. And then I moved to Venezuela, bought some land with my husband and we decided to turn it into a permaculture system and to build our own home using natural building methods, and now all my books are permaculture and organic gardening, natural building, and related stuff. So yeah, I always have the books for my passion, but I didn’t have Latin American studies books while I was dancing or permaculture books while I was learning Spanish, so I don’t think my book collections would ever have served me in figuring out what to do in my life. Judging by the responses to this post, that makes me unusual!

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  21. This post got me thinking, not just about the books I have and what they represent, but also with how much I use them and what kinds of activities I’d like to start doing. Some books I use a lot right now – the cookbooks and gardening books, for instance – but ones on soapmaking, basketweaving, and herbalism haven’t been used much, so clearly I have some catching up to do. And some – those on building log cabins, creating root cellars, and raising livestock, for instance – will have to wait for some time when I’m no longer living in an apartment.

    It was also interesting to see just how much books that I would have considered to be focused on more personal interests have encroached on my academic work books. This gives me hope that my move from one research area into another that’s more aligned with my interest in self-reliance is possible.

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