'What Should I Do With My Life?' One Man's Answer

In This Excerpt from Po Bronson's New Book, Meet Rick Olson

Rick Olson

Rick Olson, lawyer turned trucker. Courtesy Po Bronson hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Po Bronson

Rick Olson had a job as a corporate lawyer and, he says now, "It was difficult to figure out how to just walk away from it." Then a hockey accident put him in the hospital, where he had eight months "to figure out what I wanted to do with my life."

Po Bronson chronicled Olson's life-change odyssey in a chapter of his new book What Should I Do With My Life? The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question. The chapter — entitled "The Mechanic Gives 100 Percent" — is reprinted here with permission.

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By Po Bronson

Since Rick Olson was now a long-haul trucker, and regularly crossed the country in three days, he was willing to meet me anywhere on my travels with his 18-wheeler and take me to the next place I needed to be. Later, I took him up on that, but for our first meeting I wanted to meet him near his home in Pittsburgh, and specifically, to revisit a place in Pittsburgh called The Incline. The thing to do at The Incline is ride an old mining tram to the top of Mount Washington, which offers a spectacular view of the Golden Triangle downtown and the river fork where the Monongahela joins with the Allegheny to form the Ohio.

On a Saturday afternoon three years ago, Rick came up here with his son Patrick, then seven. That day began a chain of events that led Rick, now 42, to change his life.

So we came here first.

Rick liked Nascar, hunting and fishing. He played ice hockey and was learning the guitar. He smoked. He almost never drank; on the 4th of July he’ll buy a case of long necks. That lasts him a couple months during the hot months, but the rest of the year he has no taste for it. His cowboy boots were splattered with mud. He’s six-one, medium build, skinny legged. His voice hits many high notes; there’s a drawl in it, even though he’s originally from Minnesota. His most distinctive feature was the bone structure of his eyebrows; they’re slanted in an upside-down V, so the look on his face is permanently receptive and compassionate. He stood with his fingers jammed in his front pockets, his shoulders in a shrug.

Patrick was not his biological son, but from the moment Rick first picked him up and held him, at ten months old, the bond between them was permanent. Rick had met Patrick’s mother, and married her, and divorced her, and none of that really mattered. Rick said, "She and I were brought together to bring him and me together." Patrick needed a Dad, and Rick was it. After the divorce, Patrick really looked forward to his Saturdays with Dad. And this one particular Saturday, he woke up and told his Dad he wanted to go to The Incline.

They rode up to Mount Washington and then stood at the railing at the overlook. Rick had been here a hundred times in his life. Patrick started to look around and ask questions.

"Hey Dad, look at that sign flashing on 3 Rivers Stadium."

"Hmmm." Rick had never noticed the sign before.

"Hey Dad, look at that boat on the river. What kind of boat is that?"

Rick had seen boats like that his whole life, but didn’t know what they were called or what they carried. So he pointed out a sand barge.

"Hey Dad, how do they get the sand out of the rail cars and onto the barges?"

Again, he didn’t know. So they looked around, scanned the visual field for clues, and figured it involved a big crane and a funnel.

"Hey Dad, which building do you work in?"

Rick pointed out his downtown tower, where he was a corporate lawyer.

"What’s that building next to it?"

It was a perfectly logical question for a kid to ask, and Rick had walked right past that building every day for five years, but he didn’t know. How could he not know?

"Hey Dad, look at that bridge."

"Hmmm."

"It’s painted blue and gold. Pitt colors."

Rick had driven across that bridge a thousand times, and while he knew it was colored, never associated it with Pitt.

"Hey Dad, can we wait here until the Geyser goes off at The Point?"

"Sure."

"Hey Dad, which river goes South to North? Is it that one, or that one?"

Every schoolkid in Pittsburgh learns about the oddity of how the rivers meet and one seems to flow upstream. Rick had moved here when he was seventeen; he’d lived here 22 years, and he’d never learned such an obvious thing. He’d never thought to ask. He’d never really paid attention to things like that. But today, Patrick was making him pay attention. They didn’t snap a picture and go after five minutes like most people. Patrick stood there for two hours, asking question after question, noticing thing after thing that Rick had never in his life noticed. This had a profound affect on Rick. It was like his son was sent to him to teach him to pay attention and treasure the moment.

Three years later, Rick turned to me from this very same spot. "My eyes were more open that day than they ever had been. I loved my son dearly. But until that day, my mind was always 600 places. I’d never focused on him 100 percent."

After two hours, they walked down the street for an ice cream cone, and then they went back to Rick’s apartment, and Rick made his son dinner, played with him, and put him to bed, read him a story, kissed him goodnight, and came downstairs to his couch. Rick sat there and tried to figure out what had just happened. But something had happened.

One thought kept recurring, haunting him: "I’d been here 22 years, and never noticed all those things. What else in life have I been missing?"

Rick was a corporate lawyer specializing in radio station mergers. He nicknamed himself The Mechanic, meaning he was good at closing deals but terrible at bringing in business. He’d been passed over for partner and didn’t make much money, forty or fifty thousand a year. The hours were long, and he’d been doing it too long to enjoy it anymore. Doing it for what? Doing it only because he’d always been doing it, ever since Henry the VIIIth? Certain memories came back to him, like the time his wife had gall bladder surgery. On the way over to the hospital, a partner handed Rick a cell phone and suggested he make calls while in the waiting room. Or like the time his son had to sit in his office all night while Rick met with clients. Or all those vacations he’d supposedly gone on, but every morning at 7 a.m. was checking the hotel fax machine and returning calls before his family woke. It was suddenly so clear to Rick: your job runs your entire life. Even if you work only eight hours a day, it stills controls your life. What you wear and when you wake up and when you eat and when you come home and when you go to sleep are all scheduled around work.

"I had a permanent edginess back then," Rick explained, though it was hard to imagine because he was now so peaceful. I commented on that, and he said, "It really has so much to do with multitasking. Even as I’m talking to you now, I’m trying to remember everything I want to tell you, and it hurts my brain to think two lines at once. I’ve become that sensitive to it. But I used to think six lines all the time. And stupidly I was proud of it. I thought it was who I was, but I see now it was a symptom of my work. And I see now that multitasking creates a sense of guilt that you’re selling everyone short, including yourself. God forbid anyone accuses you of being less than 100% there, because then you’re just defensive. That defensiveness, and that guilt, becomes a skin you wear every day, a skin you wake up in. You talk too fast, you drive too fast. I felt twenty pounds lighter when I shed that skin and learned to pay attention."

Rick’s wisdom always came out perfectly like that. He had become a great philosopher, but not by reading books (he read Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum) or talking to other philosophers. I don’t think he realized how eloquent he sounded. He’d spent all that time alone in his truck, driving, being in the moment, noticing the road, the view, the beauty of the country, and somehow, because of that, when it came time to talk, these articulate words spun from his lips.

That day with Patrick pushed Rick 80% of the way toward quitting. So he went looking for the other 20%. He called his father in Minnesota, a retired engineer, and told him he needed to quit. His father said, "You’re 38 years old. You gotta stop squeezing into a round hole if you’re a square peg. You’re going to have a heart attack in five years. You’ve won it all and lost it all several times, playing a game you just don’t want to play."

The rest of the 20% came when Rick started playing ice hockey again in the adult leagues. Shortly into the season, Rick crashed into the boards at a flukey angle. He woke up later in Presbyterian Hospital, and was told by the doctor that his ankle was shattered into 11 pieces, both of his legs were broken, and his heel had been sheared off. Rick heard this and started laughing.

"Why are you laughing!?" the doctor asked.

"They just unlocked the gate. This is my chance to walk away."

"You won’t be walking anywhere for awhile."

"That’s fine by me."

His rehabilitation took ten months. He couldn’t leave his bed. He had a house he’d recently bought that was halfway torn up in a remodel. He had bills he couldn’t pay. He had a Siberian husky that couldn’t get out, and peed on the living room carpet. He had to declare bankruptcy. He endured two lengthy surgeries, the insertion into his body of fourteen inches of steel plate and seventeen screws. But the whole time, he was laughing because he was finally free. He didn’t have to quit. He’d already stopped. It was liberation without exposing himself to the usual critiques.

"The injury was The Great Precipitator," Rick told me. "The link in the causal chain. The accident could have made me need the money more. But I was looking for a catalyst."

He was going to have to start over no matter what he did. The only question was … where?

For twenty years, whenever work got frustrating, Rick’s retort was, "I’d rather drive a truck." He’d done so one summer in college, for a student moving company. So he fell back on this old skill.

"I needed to do something different," he explained. "I didn’t anticipate that I’d fall in love with the job."

We went out to the bulk terminal where Rick’s beast was kept. It’s a 1998 Century Class Freightliner with 450,000 miles on its 330 Cummings engine. He’s due for a new engine soon. On the passenger seat is a cooler, in which he stores sandwiches and milk. Behind that seat is a small closet in which he hangs several outfits. Behind his is a guitar, and behind that a mattress and bedding. Rick sleeps here rather than in motels, and he eats what he buys in grocery stores, avoiding fast food. He spends 60% of his life in this rig. His only indulgence is his stereo system; he listens to Steve Earle and John Prine. Rick makes 32 cents a mile, which at 3,000 miles a week works out to $52,000 a year.

Long-haul trucking has cleaned up its act. CB radios have been replaced by satellite computers and cell phones. It used to be about making a statement. Today it’s about making a living. In the old days, you could bank a lot more, but you took your life in your hands, and everyone else’s on the roads. A full tanker weighs 65,000 pounds, and that’s now considered a very serious responsibility. There’s a professional ethic taking over the industry. Recruiting is aimed at drivers who handle the clients well and the hazardous materials procedures with care. The company takes care of maintenance; drivers don’t need to be mechanics. Drivers can’t work more than twelve days straight; eight or ten days is the usual, then a few days off. They can’t drive more than ten hours straight, or sixteen hours out of every 24. Your permit logs can’t show you made it from Chicago to Tennessee in four hours; it has to be six hours, an average of 64 miles per hour. Always 64 miles per hour, or else the driver and his company get fined.

Rick’s employer is Schneider, which you will recognize on the highways by their orange cabs and their shiny steel tankers. Inside those tankers are liquid chemicals, like latex resin, oils, water treatment, or haz mats. Because of their dangerous payloads, tanker guys are the elite among truckers. Rick’s not in the strip clubs at night, and he doesn’t hang out in the truck stops telling war stories.

I met his buddies, an incredibly diverse group – a former accountant, a Southern bigot, a Ukranian immigrant, a former Wendy’s franchise owner, a former Army officer. They have in common only one trait: they don’t like being told how to do something. It took me a while to understand this. Because I would have thought if Rick’s sleeping in his cab, and he’s on the road 10 days out of every 14, his life is even more controlled by his job than when he was a lawyer. But Rick said no, and his buddies backed him up. The difference is, Schneider gives him an appointment: have this tanker in Jackson, Mississippi, by 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday. The rest is up to him. Rick decides when to leave, what roads to take, when he wants to stop, sleep, eat.

"Most jobs, you’re consumed by answering questions about why you’re doing what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. And in the hallways, everyone’s complaining about how they’re second-guessed by their bosses. In this job, we’re never told how to do it. Just make your appointment, drop the load, and relay home. I have autonomy. I have a window seat, with a view that changes every mile. Nobody ever comes into my office without asking. I enjoy this job, but I’ll be the first to admit it’s not like what you do. It’s not my passion. I’m doing this for the wages, and I’m doing this because it doesn’t eat me alive. So when I come home, I pick up Patrick and take him out to our house, and I’m 100 percent there for him. I have several days straight with no distractions. Can you see what kind of a turnaround that is, from where I was three years ago? He knows the difference. Patrick tells me all the time how much more he enjoys me now. Everyone does. I went to Rome for a wedding last month. The bride called me yesterday and said, ‘It’s amazing how relaxed you look in the pictures.’ I’m always being told that. My Dad tells me that. ‘You look so relaxed.’"

We hit the road for awhile.

I kept thinking how hard it was for Rick to quit – how it took having his leg shattered to get him out of there. It suggested how deep the need for prestige is rooted. So I asked him, once he’d broken the vise-grip, did that need for prestige evaporate? Or does it still haunt him? Does he struggle with being a "prestige dropout"?

"When I drive by the Golden Triangle, I never feel a magnetic tug toward those downtown buildings," he said. "I didn’t leave any unfinished business there. I had my chance. I was turned down for partner but I can’t say I never had the opportunity. Several times I was given the resources to become a rainmaker, and I didn’t have it in me. I had some good years. It was a good ride in life’s amusement park. I wouldn’t appreciate what I do now if I hadn’t spent so much time in an office. I wouldn’t appreciate Patrick so much if I hadn’t not been there for him earlier on."

I thought about the other truckers I’d met at the bulk terminal. "No disrespect to your friends, but do you ever miss the intellectual stimulation? Being surrounded by smart people?"

"Hah! People think that’s an issue, but really ask yourself, how many stimulating conversations have you ever really had in an office? You talk about work. My legal work was a glorified version of filling out forms. There was not a big intellectual challenge in it. I’m not trying to put down the law. My best friend is a lawyer, a good one, who hangs his own shingle and loves it. One man’s hell is another man’s salvation. So what I get in trucking is the benefit of perspective from very diverse people. They’re not brilliant, but they’ve seen things I’ll never see. I learn from how they see the world. I’ll take that any day over a bunch of other white, college-educated smart alecks like myself. And anyway, I get a lot of intellectual stimulation trying to teach Patrick about the world. Because he asks good questions. He asks more interesting questions than anybody I’ve ever worked with."

It always came back to Patrick. Almost every question I asked him, he’d work through his thoughts and evaluate what he’d said so far and gravitate, back again, to the thing that brought him most meaning. I could tell you more about Rick’s life on the road, or about how, months later, we were crossing Wyoming and saw a herd of a thousand antelope. Everything Rick saw, he wanted to show to Patrick. It comes back to Patrick.

They read Harry Potter every night they’re together. This helps, because Patrick is at a remedial level reading in school. He loves chess. He’s starting to sing in glee club. He’s a weenie on the baseball field, but he’s tough at hockey, taking after his Dad. He’s in the Scouts. Rick and Patrick bought a house together, picked it out together, a few months after that Saturday at The Incline. Patrick liked the peach tree in the backyard. Rick managed to hang on to it through his bankruptcy. It cost only $36,000, which boggled my mind. Patrick picked out the bathroom tile, and they laid it together. "We’re growing into it together," Patrick said. He has his father’s facial expressions, especially the upturned eyebrows, quizzical, as if I were about to say something, and he was waiting patiently for me to say it.

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