I am four months pregnant. But the baby is dead, inside me, and must be removed. I am devastated. I always knew this could happen, in the back of my mind. But you are never prepared for something like this to happen.

When I first heard the news, I did nothing. Cancelled every plan I had. Sat in chairs staring at walls, laid in bed hoping for sleep, and cried. And then came the day of the week when I had to either write my column or skip a week. Skipping a week, I thought, would probably be okay. But then I thought. Well, I'm not doing anything. I *could * write a column.

In the face of tragedy work is a weird thing. On the one hand, it becomes unimportant. I think back to the day before the day I knew. My sister-in-law called me and said, “How are you feeling?” I said, “Really rushed. I have two deadlines, and I don't have time to talk.” She said, “No, about the baby.” That day, work was so important.

On the day I found out the baby was dead I had scheduled three interviews. It was a tight schedule but I felt the interviews absolutely had to get done that day. But at the doctor’s office, when I was crying so loudly that I was taken to a room farthest away from the waiting area so as not to scare already jittery expectant mothers, I didn't care if the interviews got done. I know it is a cliche that a job isn’t life or death, but you see that truth very clearly when there is death.

Co-workers who, in the face of death, treat work as more important than death seem crazy. I know because of a boss whose mom died three hours before what was, admittedly, the most important speech of his career. He felt obliged to tell his direct reports the news so they would know why he was crying in his office. Word spread fast. Condolences poured in from co-workers throughout the company. Then he gave the speech. And no one could listen. We all thought, “Why doesn’t he go home? Why isn’t he upset? Why is he standing in front of us now?”

Co-workers who treat less serious events as if they were a death, seem equally crazy. They appear melodramatic and unreliable. For example, when a colleague’s boyfriend of one year walked out on her, she missed a week of work. That’s too much. I’m not sure where the line is for what’s too much, but a week is too much for that.

So where is the line for a dead baby that I never saw, but has been a part of me and is still inside? For two days I did nothing. But today I feel like work might be the best thing for me. For most of us, work isn’t just about getting a paycheck; it’s a way to connect with the world. I don’t want to be alone today, so I’m working.

And although I postponed my interviews, I won’t miss any deadlines. Not because I think the baby’s death is unimportant. In fact, in light of this event, I am sure people would be very sympathetic about my missing deadlines. But I won’t miss any because in the midst of personal tragedy, work is a way for me to maintain structure in my life and find not-so-tragic things to think about.

Thanksgiving. The start of the season of good cheer: Parties, shortened workweeks, year-end bonuses. For me, though, this season is also one of guilt — over what I actually give to the world. I know that if I flew to Somalia, I could keep a little girl from starving by personally feeding her each day. Likewise, if I spent every afternoon after school with an underprivileged nine-year-old on the brink of joining a gang, he would probably stick to his studies. I can do a lot of good in the world, but instead, I spend my time working at jobs that, let's face it, don’t save anyone.

I once tried to salve my guilt by way of my government surplus business. We planned to expand to a catalogue business, but the cost to organize the data was so astronomical that the idea didn’t make sense. But then someone mentioned India. “Data entry is cheap in India, and everyone speaks English,” he said.

I plugged Indian laborers into my P&L, and even when I accounted for a few U.S. managers, profitability for the catalog business was 85 percent. Too high, actually. I knew my board wouldn’t believe it. They would say my assumptions were wrong. So I spent evenings combing through the details of other catalog P&Ls searching for cost categories that I might have missed.

Then I read an article in Marie Claire magazine about sex slaves. Did you know that Indian cities are full of child sex slaves? They can be bought for $300 apiece. Here was my big chance to save a group of girls from a despicable existence. I added another 20 people to the P&L — they would be young girls — and then I included housing for them (above the rooms used for data-entry) and money for a school next to the cafeteria. I even increased staffing so that each data-entry clerk could spend an hour a day teaching the girls. One-on-one tutoring. Art classes. The Internet. My profit margins were 65 percent, the board's sweet spot.

I felt good going into the next board meeting. We brought up the India idea gingerly, focusing not on the Marie Claire article but on the cost savings and the shrewd worldview of operations. We presented charts and graphs outlining the economics of data entry in India. The board loved the idea. Before I could mention my save-the-world scheme, one board member gave me the name of a friend who had a company in India and and said the friend would do everything for me.

No flying to Mumbai. No rescue mission. No school. Instead I would be giving more business to the data-entry king of Mumbai who probably never thought about the sex trade in India.

So I gave money to AFESIP, the charity the Marie Claire article said rescues the girls. I gave a bunch of money because, at the time, I was earning a bunch of money. I told myself that making a lot of money working in corporate America and giving it to charity was better than actually working for a charity. My money, I reasoned, was worth more than my time would be if I were on the streets rescuing young girls from evildoers. I did some quick math in my head and figured that my earnings could pay for two or three rescuers, as opposed to me going to India myself.

I can't tell you that I gave a huge percentage of my income. I didn't. I kept some money to fund things like private yoga lessons and a new BMW. And I can't tell you that giving to charity made me feel 100% better.

But I live with a person who does, actually, get paid to save lives. (My husband implements programs promoting social justice.) And I can assure you that he never feels like he's doing enough, either. So I have a hunch that very few people walk through their workday guilt free.

But giving to charity does make you feel as though part of your workday, each day, contributes to helping someone who really needs help. Most people will not be able to turn a job selling widgets into a save-the-world gig, but you can feel like your job has more meaning if you give part of each paycheck to someone who needs it far more than you.

Learning to be a good manager requires that you perform a wide range of tasks from delegating, to coaching, to planning. When none of these go well, you need to perform the final task: Firing. Letting someone go is very difficult for most people – our instinct is to want to help people, or at least not harm them. But how you fire someone says as much about the firer as it does about the free.

In fact, the current job market encourages perfect hiring. Jobs are so scarce right now that a reasonable manager should be able to find a very good match for her needs. But first you have to fire the bad matches. My most difficult lesson in this arena happened when I had to fire a relative.

When my dad remarried, the first time we met our stepsiblings was at the wedding while we all waited to walk down the aisle. We exchanged names and marched. Only afterward, at the reception, did I realize that we had a lot in common. In fact, my new stepsister, Dana, was exceptionally clever and charismatic. She was leaving her job as an editor at a top New York publisher to seek work that would pay more. Since she had risen to the upper ranks of her prior company, I considered her a smart, detail-oriented person. And the fact that she wanted to make more money meant she was ambitious. So I offered her a job in marketing at my company.

My plan was a disaster. She was so detail-oriented that she could not see the big picture. Her perfectionism may have been appropriate for editing, but she wasn’t producing the volume that the position demanded. She would never accomplish enough to make an impact on the company. I changed Dana's job a few times to try to bring out her strengths, but she could never quite fill the role. Finally, the team approached me en masse and said that no one wanted to work with Dana.

I wasn’t surprised. Repeatedly, I had said things like, “You’re only as good as your team” and “Make your teammates look good because being surrounded by high performers makes you look good.” Also, I talked a lot about Microsoft and McKinsey having zero tolerance for B players. During performance reviews, Microsoft employees are ranked on a curve, and the lowest performers get the boot. McKinsey only keeps the top performers from its stable of entry-level analysts, and dismisses the rest.

I decided that if I wanted to be part of something as highly competent as these companies, I needed to get rid of incompetence on my own team. So I called my dad and said, “I have to fire Dana.” He said I shouldn’t have hired her in the first place — he knew it would never work.

Firing a B player is difficult, especially if you’re a good manager. You’ll likely respond to the person’s shortcomings by thinking that you failed to manage her or him properly, so you’ll try a few new approaches. When that doesn’t work, you’ll likely ask yourself, “What could I possibly have been thinking when I hired this person?” Only after you admit that you made a mistake will you be able to issue the pink slip. And even then, it’s difficult. You don’t have the same righteous indignation that you would if the person had stolen or harassed someone at work; instead, he or she simply wasn’t a star performer.

As I reluctantly prepared to fire Dana, I asked another person to join us, because the only thing worse than firing a family member would be getting sued for it. But she didn’t kick and scream. And she didn't even pick a fight at our first Thanksgiving together (though my brother joked at dinner that he wouldn’t work for me unless I gave him a contract with a good severance package).

If you plan to succeed in corporate America, you must be able to get rid of employees who don’t move or shake, even if they’re your relatives. Their work reflects poorly on you, and it doesn't help them, either, to be somewhere they don't shine. Dana may not have had vision as a software marketer, but she saw that, in the big picture, my firing her was the right thing — for both of us.

As the labor market slowly recovers from it's paycheck-killing slump, it's natural to hope for your next big break. But remember that when opportunity knocks you should open up cautiously. Beware of career opportunities that look like quick fixes because often they are really career derailments.

Figure out now what you want for your career so when opportunities pop up, you can judge them in the context of long-term goals you believe in. Managing a career is a difficult process — full of risks, disappointments, and feelings of hopelessness. People who stay on track are people who trust themselves to know what will make them happy and trust themselves to meet their goals.

Here are some examples of opportunities that derailed careers:

The family business derailment
Danny loved computers. He was an IT consultant for ten years and then he got a pink slip. He had never had to look for a job in a bad economy, so after he sent twenty resumes and heard back from no one, frustration and fear set in; Maybe he would never get a a job.

His dad, on the other hand, wanted to retire and sell his construction business. Danny saw a golden opportunity to avoid a prolonged job hunt, and he took over the family business. But Manny never wanted to run a construction company. He says he often finds himself fixing the company's computer network instead of building the company's client network. In hindsight, Danny says he could have suffered through a difficult job hunt and to remain in the IT. But at this point, he doesn't know if he has the heart to dump his dad's business.

The grad school derailment
As a college senior, my dad knew he wanted to be a history teacher, but he took the LSAT because his father wanted him to be a lawyer. My dad got a near-perfect score. So while he was applying to Harvard's graduate program in history, he filled out the application for law school, too. Harvard accepted him, but only for law. And my dad thought to himself, “Who passes up Harvard law?” So he went there, and he won a position at a top-tier law firm. But he never liked law and, frankly, he was never very good at it.

The gold rush derailment
Harry was an economic development wiz. He turned run-down cities into hipster destinations, and he had his eye on Los Angeles for his next big job. But then he saw people making millions of dollars on the Internet, and he wanted to make millions, too. So he dumped his government-pay-scale field for a dotcom. He hated his Internet company: Manic pace, pretentious twenty-somethings, and waffling management. He suffered though months and months with the hope of making millions, but the company went bankrupt. And then the economy tanked and most cities had some form of a hiring freeze. So the man who was a rising star in a field he loved became unemployed after spending a year doing something that made him miserable.

Each of these people knew what he wanted, but at a crucial point, diverged from the path he set out for himself. An opportunity is only as good as it's long-term effects on your life. Career focus will help you tell the difference between a good opportunity and a bad opportunity.

Career risks are good, but only in the context of career plans. So make a plan and then trust yourself to set goals and meet them. That way, when opportunity knocks, you won't budge for a quick fix or a big sellout — you'll focus on the path that is right for you.

In college I was such an introvert that when I went to parties (I had to be dragged) I brought a book. It was a lonely existence, but the pain of having to talk to people in an unstructured environment was too much.

So I was shocked a few years ago when someone told me, “Job hunting is easier for you than most people because you could sell yourself to anyone.”

That comment was testament to the fact that I had recognized you can’t get what you want in life without networking. Even though my natural instinct is to sit home and read, I worked very hard to learn how to talk to people. Luckily for me, books are a great resource in this regard.

I read everything I could find. I read that most introverts are scared they'll say something stupid or have nothing to say at all (both applied to me). So I read up on ways to feel self-confident in a room full of strangers and come up with things to say when I felt intimidated. (Here's a recommendation: You are the Message by Roger Ailes.)

I learned that people who are good at networking are interested in other people. And they are good storytellers. After that, I was able to go almost anywhere and talk with people. Good talkers recognize that there’s something interesting about every person, and it’s their job to get them talking about it. But you can't only bombard people with questions. You also need to reveal things about yourself. The best way is by telling fun and interesting stories that make you look good.

Not everyone can do this, though. After I had been dating my husband for about six months, I watched him print out a spreadsheet of names and phone numbers. “What's this?” I asked.

“It's my networking list,” he replied.

“But you never call anyone, ever.”

“I know, but networking is important, and I read that the first step is to have a good list.”

It was an extremely detailed list. For every name, there was a phone number and description of the person. For example, “Bennie Conover. High school music teacher — dead.” Or my favorite, “Penelope Trunk. Girlfriend.”

But my husband is an introvert, someone who loves details but hates talking to people. If you’re similarly introverted, you can still network even though you’ll never get excited about going to parties and learning interesting things about each person in the room. These tips can help.

Use email. Nowadays, you don’t have to speak face to face with contacts. You can write and rewrite your message until it’s right. And you don’t have to worry about saying something stupid because the person caught you off guard. Of course, you lose the intimacy of a personal meeting, but sometimes you can compensate for this by sending an extra e-mail or two.

Read everything. When something is published about someone you know, send a congratulatory e-mail. Incessant reading means getting gossip without having to gossip. Just be sure to act on it.

Go to parties rather than dinners. If you’re like most introverts, the problem isn’t the quantity of people, it's having to show up at all. You can kill more birds with one stone by making one of your rare social appearances in front of lots of people. And think ahead: Have a few things prepared and ready to say to other partygoers.

Write for trade publications. While you aren’t actually talking to people, you’re reaching them, making a point and hopefully being memorable. A reader may even write back to you: Miracle! You have just met someone without leaving your home.

Help others. For instance, send leads to jobseekers you know. You don't have to talk to them, but they'll remember the favor and view you as a friend. My husband maintains a list of specialized job sites that he sends to friends who have recently lost jobs. They're grateful for his help and the time it saves them, while my husband is grateful that he only has to research job sites instead of having to talk to people.

Send New Year's cards. Sending cards at year-end is tantamount to saying “You’re someone I care about.” So send cards generously. If you can, include a short note to each person. Sure, it's a struggle to find things to say, but since it's early November, you have two months to think. Write a few cards each day, and when you're stuck for words, remember the key to good networking: Be interested in other people and talk about yourself in interesting ways. Networking is one of those long-range, money-in-the-bank types of things; you never know when something you say will have a great return. So introverts, start writing!