When someone asks “What do you do?” a one-word answer will put your career on ice. You need to have a story. When you want to establish a connection with someone, a story provides social glue. When you want to impress someone, a story is more memorable and than a list of achievements.

Early in my career, I interviewed for a job as a user interface designer. The hiring manager asked me how I got involved in UI design.

I could have said, “I thought it looked interesting so I gave it a try and I was good at it.” But anyone can answer the very standard how-did-you-find-your-career question with that answer.

So instead, I told this story: An old boyfriend was a programmer, and he worked from home, while I was in school. He plastered designs all over our bedroom wall and our living room floor so that he could think them through. Finally, I told him if he was going to mess up the apartment then he had to be the one to clean it, and I handed him the toilet scrubber. We argued about who had extra time for cleaning and who didn't and finally he said, “Fine. I'll clean, but you do the UI design.” And to his surprise, I did.

I got the job. And every time I have been able to tell stories in interviews, I have gotten the job.

When it comes to your career, have a one-minute story ready. It's the story of you — how you got to where you are and what your achievements are. When someone asks a question like, “How did you get into advertising?” tell your story.

When you interview, tell stories. You know you're going to encounter the question, “What are your strengths?” Don't give a list. It's not persuasive. Tell a story about how you did something amazing by using your strengths. This way you tell the hiring manager something memorable and you get in a bit about your achievements.

Once you get the job, keep telling stories as a way to promote yourself within the company. The first month of your job, no one knows you, so they ask questions like, “Where were you before this?” or “What sort of experience do you have?” These are times to tell your story.

If you are funny, make your story funny. If you are not funny, be vulnerable in your story. For example, when people ask me how I became a writer, sometimes I start my story with how I was working just blocks away from the World Trade Center when it fell and my software company never recovered. This is not essential to my story, but the World Trade Center brings people into my story right away.

Your success at your job will depend on you finding someone to help you navigate the corporate ladder: You need to find a mentor; you need to get on plum projects. You need to show people you are smart and interesting so that they want to help you. Don't assume that your work speaks for itself. It doesn't. Most people will have no idea what you have done, or what you do now. You need to tell them. And the best way to tell them without sounding boring or self-obsessed is to tell stories.

Still feeling queasy about talking yourself up to people? Check out the book Brag! by Peggy Klaus, the master of self-promotion. Worried that you don't know how to tell a story? Give business books a break and take a look at Flash Fiction edited by James Thomas. This is an anthology of two-page stories that have similar pacing as those you'll tell at the office.

Spinning a good story is difficult. But building a career without a story is even more difficult. So you'd better start spinning.

In the early 1990s, when the job market was very bad, I had a college degree that was getting me nowhere. So my friend got me a job signing Esther Williams' autograph for fans.

Esther who? That's what I said. Esther Williams was an Olympic swimmer in the 1940s when the Olympics were cancelled, and she took her bathing-suit-clad body to MGM where she was the star of water musicals. If you've never seen a water musical think Ginger Rodgers with nose plugs. Esther was hot in her day, and believe it or not, she's still hot among nostalgic old people, young girls who like swimming, and gay men who like kitsch.

I worried that the job was illegal, but the person who hired me assured me this is a very common job in Los Angeles. After all, no one would squander life as a movie star by sitting around all day writing autographs for the millions of people who request signed photos.

At the time, I was very upset that the only job I could get wasn't even significant enough to have a title. (Question: “Uh, what do you call this kind of job?” Answer: “I don't know.”) But now I realize that even though I hated the job, I'd have to say that Esther Williams was my first marketing mentor, and I built my own marketing career around rules I learned from her:

Quality control is important.
During my first week, Esther gave me three copies of her signature (different pens, different sizes) and told me to practice. I submitted my best shot to Esther and she said, “Make the E's loopier.” I looped and resubmitted and then she gave me the go-ahead.

Give the customer what they want.
When I started working for Esther, she was well past 60, so when someone requested an autographed picture, you just knew they weren't asking for one she took the week before. So we had a stack of copies of old MGM promotional photos: Esther as Olympic swimmer, Esther as showgirl, there was even one of Esther in a sort of kiddie porn motif. But for the die-hard fans who requested it, I also had a photo of Esther when she was about 50 years old: A head shot.

Cut costs.
We had 8x10s, but I only sent those if the person enclosed postage. Otherwise, Esther instructed me to send a 5×7. Sometimes people would request an 8×10, and even if they didn't send postage, I'd send a big photo. I figured it would make a happy customer and it wouldn't break her bank — after all, she still received residual checks from Million Dollar Mermaid.

Stay out of court.
One guy sent three, pristine Life magazines with Esther on the cover. He wanted each cover signed, and he wrote a note that said, “The last time I asked for an autographed photo I am sure it was not you who signed it. You better not let anyone mess up these magazine covers or I'll sue you.” Esther had warned me to send professional requests to her, so she signed the covers.

As soon as I found another job, I quit working for Esther. But working for Esther Williams taught me that any job can help your career if you let it. Each person, no matter how weird, has something to teach you. And each business has a gem of genius because, hey, they're making enough money to pay you, aren't they? So don't be so upset about the crummy job market; you are about to start your own Esther Williams experience.

Your success at work is dependent on your accomplishments, not your ideas. So can everyone please stop being so petty about whose ideas are whose?

A very small number of you are strategists and inventors. For you, your ideas make or break your career. So don't bother reading the rest of this column. For the rest of you, face the music: You are not paid to come up with ideas. You are paid to execute them.

So let's say you're a marketing manager and you have a great idea to spam the whole world to get them to buy soap. Spamming is not an innovation, and selling soap has been done before, too. The person who is a genius will be the person who can make a spam campaign work. That would require direct mail expertise, figuring out which product is most likely to sell, setting up fulfillment capabilities.

Let's say the spam campaign is a success. Who's the genius? The person with the idea to spam or the person who actually increased soap sales? Let me tell you something, in this economy, few companies can afford an “ideas guy”. Companies are hiring people who generate revenue: executors.

Look, I'm not saying the world doesn't need ideas. Ideas are great. And in the perfect world, everyone gets credit for the ideas they have. But the world isn't perfect, and people steal ideas at work. And while we fight off large imperfections like fake (Enron) companies, race discrimination and massive layoffs, getting credit for an idea is pretty small peanuts.

Yet still, I hear people complain about a stolen idea as if it was their first-born child. And sometimes I think maybe it was. Maybe the people who worry about a stolen idea the most are the people who have the fewest ideas. Ask yourself if your problem is not really thievery but scarcity. If you don't have a lot of ideas to begin with then you shouldn't bother trying to be known for your ideas. It's not who you are.

Most people who complain about stolen ideas peg their boss as the culprit. If you're in this category ask yourself this question: Is your job in jeopardy because your boss thinks you have no good ideas? In that case you probably need to start documenting your ideas on paper. But I have news for you: your boss probably doesn't like you if she recognizes you so little as to steal your brilliance and accuse you of lacking ideas. In that case, you can grovel for credit, but you should probably try to find a job working for someone else.

And here's a tip for when you're looking for that next job: Don't bother listing your great ideas on your resume. No one cares. Employers want to see resumes with quantified accomplishments. Replace “thought of opening a new sales channel” to “opened a sales channel and increased revenue x%”.

Maybe your boss steals just a few ideas, but is generally a good boss. In that case, ignore her ethical transgression. You have a limited number of times you can tell your boss she is bothering you. Use those times for instances when you will make more money. If your bonus is tied to having an original idea, then by all means, point out the idea that your boss stole so that you can collect your money. But if the only thing that a stolen idea harms is your ego, then get over it.

Besides, the best way to get a promotion is to make your boss love you. And you can make your boss love you by making her feel smart. If your boss feels smart it doesn't mean that she thinks you are not smart. Don't be so insecure. It should be enough that you know that you have good ideas.

My husband and I didn’t argue about my son’s first name. We argued about the last name. At first, I didn’t have a strong opinion, so we gave my son my husband’s name: Rodriguez.

But then I got cold feet. I worried that our son would face discrimination for his name. My husband said, “Don't worry, I get it all the time. He'll get used to it.”

I was surprised to hear that my husband experiences discrimination. Part of seeing someone as a minority is seeing him as other. So, because he's my husband, I don't think of him as a minority. But here's an example he gave me: He works with a think tank that researches solutions to homelessness. Sometimes when he meets with leaders of homeless shelters, the leaders mistake my husband for one of the homeless. This never happens to his counterpart: Jay Alexander .

But my husband kept telling me it doesn't matter. He said that to me once a week for nine months until I believed him.

What did I know? I have never had a name that identifies me as a minority, so I don't know what it's like. My great-grandfather changed the family name so that it would not sound Jewish and his sons could get through Harvard's quota system. (The change worked, they got in.) In the family tradition of changing one's name for one's politics, I changed my last name when I was in my early twenties because I didn't want to be part of a patriarchal naming structure. (In this case, I'm not sure if the change did anything.)

My husband always says, “It's no big deal.” But now I am sure that it is a big deal.

A recent study from the University of Chicago and MIT shows that people who have names that are typically from minorities are much less likely to get a job. In this study, hundreds of fake resumes with very similar qualifications were sent in response to entry-level job advertisements. A resume from a name like Amy Alexander was fifty percent more likely to get an interview than a resume from a name like Latoya Washington.

This shouldn't surprise me — of course people like to hire people who are like them. And minorities are not running the show in corporate America. In fact, I am guilty, also. Even though I know that diversity enhances workplace success, I also know that managing someone like myself is a lot easier than managing someone who's not like me; it's so much easier to lead people who are already thinking in the same way that I am.

So I can talk until I'm blue in the face about diversity, but I have to admit that I have preconceptions about someone with the last name of Rodriguez and someone whose last name is Alexander. I don't want to have preconceptions, but we can't always control those things. So I thought of changing my son's last name, but then I thought, that's a cop out.

I want to believe that we can control how we approach resumes so that we mitigate our preconceptions by reading resumes without reading names. Each of us is more likely to interview more minorities if we do not read names. It's a simple process that will teach each of us something about our prejudices and ourselves.

While studies show that managing diversity improves one's career, people still resist hiring diverse teams. This means the issue of diversity is no longer convincing people it's good for the office, the issue is convincing individual people that they are part of the problem. And each of us is. So give name-blind resumes a try. See what happens. And who knows? Maybe one day, that resume you might have skipped will be my son's.

The current business climate encourages rule breakers. Not the kind at Enron — those are law breakers. Rule breakers break with convention. Sallie Krawcheck, for example, was a top stock analyst in the 90s. She could have gone to a big investment firm where the heavy-hitters gave stock advice that, in hindsight, seems to have been garbage. Instead, she stayed at a boutique research company, which she made famous for quality. Last year Krawcheck took an enormous career leap to become the CEO of Smith Barney precisely because she had broken with convention years earlier.

All great business people have had to break some rules on their path to huge success. But be careful: people who break all the rules all the time are not innovators or a breath of fresh air, they are sociopaths. Rules create order and process, and no company can operate in a state of anarchy. The key to breaking rules is to know which rules to break.

Break rules that matter.
You always take a risk when you do things differently, so make sure there's big payoff. Does your company have a dress code? Adhere to it. No one ever made corporate history by wearing torn jeans on casual Friday. If you follow most of the rules, then when you break a rule people will be more willing to let you go with it.

Weigh the risks.
There are a lot of rules that deserve to be ignored, but sometimes breaking rules is more trouble than it's worth. As a marketing executive in a software firm, I was required to have engineering signoff on every word on the front of the box. The process became an opportunity for code-heads to make illiterate proofreading comments. But I still got signoff every time, because while breaking that rule would save me a day in the box production schedule, it would cost me weeks of assuaging engineers' egos.

Know the reason for the rule before you break it.
The best example of this is the renegade barrista at Starbucks (if she has not been fired yet). She keeps changing the composition of standardized drinks. Lattes have a little less milk, Frappuchinos have a little more foam. I overheard her declaring that she gives customers what they want even though they don't know to ask for it. This would be a great idea in another company, but the charm of Starbucks is that wherever you go — Seattle or Milan — the drinks are consistent.

Break rules so that you can be more effective.
Andy Grove broke rules of convention by pioneering the idea of management by walking around. He didn't necessarily set out to break a rule, he just wanted to manage in a way that felt comfortable to him, and walking around talking to people suited him well.

Break rules that other people would be scared to break.
In 2000, when everyone was still running on Internet adrenaline, stock analyst Jon Joseph announced that the chip sector was in for a big fall. At the time, he received so many death threats that his company hired a bodyguard for him. Recently he was rewarded for going against the grain by receiving a top post at Smith Barney.

Good rule breakers spent part of their life as good rule followers. Jeff Bezos is renown for bucking the conventional wisdom that CEOs shouldn't micromanage. He does, and it works well for him. But before he was a rule breaker he spent the beginning of his career in consulting and finance positions where he followed the rules for entry-level employees and did what he was told to do.

If you think you've got a situation where you should definitely break a rule, remember that good rule breakers are good salespeople. You can't just break a rule and think it'll stick. You have to explain to people why your way is better. Get people behind your new way of doing things so that your new direction can have the large impact you hope for. Break a rule and people will gossip; lead down a new path and people will follow.

There came a point in my career when my company went bankrupt, the economy was in the dumps, and my network of friends and acquaintances was getting me nowhere. Like all job hunters, I had good days and bad days. On good days, I brewed coffee for that caffeinated, I-can-overcome-anything feeling. On bad days, I never got out of bed.

Finally, after a string of bad days, I called the phone number in a small ad I had come across in a bunch of business publications. The number was for WSA Resumes.

I told my contact at WSA that I needed a job. I told him I attribute my career success in part to the fact that I have always been able to write a very effective resume, but I have hit a wall.

WSA sold me the executive pack, which was $1000 for someone to rewrite my resume in three days. (They have less expensive packages, but I was in a moment of panic.) I talked to someone for a couple of hours, and she rewrote the resume in a way that smacks of a piece of direct mail: headlines, bullets, italics, and bold lines. The resume did not look like one I had ever seen. My friends said it looked cheesy. They said, “Don't send it.”

But I started to trust the writers at WSA because they noticed patterns and accomplishments in my career that I had not noticed. They phrased achievements in ways that I would not have thought of. They were able to frame my work life in a way that could open new fields to me. But most of all, I wanted to take a risk. I realized that I was getting nowhere and I needed to try something new and this was the only new thing I could think of.

To my surprise, my executive package came with a cover letter. It began, “If you can use my skills on your management team then I'd like to talk to you.” I cringed. I told WSA the letter is not my style.

There are actually a few more things I told WSA. You know how when you're spending a lot of money you get uppity? That's how I was. I argued about file formatting, I argued about hyphens and semi-colons. I'm sure I argued about more, I just can't remember.

Finally, I ran out of things to argue about, and, armed with my new resume, I started my job search again. I found no openings.

So I called WSA, and I was hoping they would not remember me — the person who argued about everything — but they remembered. “Yes, we can help,” my contact said.

They send out resumes cold. Which is, of course, in keeping with their direct mail perspective. So I signed up. It costs $1.50 a resume. My contact recommended sending out 8000 resumes. I wanted 500. He said direct mail is an odds game. I picked 500 companies. Then I changed my mind. Then I picked a new 500. Then I asked for some more lists. I was nervous. The cost worried me, but I took to heart the saying, you have to spend money to make money.

Finally WSA printed all 500 cover letters, stuffed envelopes, and slapped on address labels. Everything was ready to go. Then I sent an email to WSA with the subject head: EMERGENCY. I told them that I have a lot of direct mail experience and they should send the letter out on Tuesday, not Friday.

WSA dumped me. They tore up my letters and my check. They said I should find someone else to help me. So I took WSA's cover letter and the resume they wrote for me, and I spent a week finding email addresses for CEOs and I sent my resume myself – cold – to 500 CEOs. And guess what? I got fifteen responses and two job offers.

So I recommend that you hire a company like WSA. You will get a standout resume, and you will see yourself differently, so you will summarize your career differently, and you have a new chance at landing a job. And this is the other thing: unless your network is coming up roses for you, job hunting is, really, an exercise in direct mail. Once I admitted that I was not above a direct mail campaign for myself, things started happening.

I think WSA hates me, but luckily, I am not proud, so check out their web site: www.wsacorp.com.

(Update: WSA no longer exists. But the woman who oversaw my resume overhaul is Elaine Basham, and she’s still in the resume business today. Send her an email: elaine@theresumegroup.com.)

Each month my husband selects a concert for us to go to. I used to pick, but I would select music I knew, like Beethoven or Mozart, and my husband, the over-educated music student, would scoff at my pedestrian tastes. Now I am at his mercy, and I endure the type of music that requires a specially tuned piano, or a specially trained ear.

So I was thrilled to hear we were going to a Bach concert. Finally, a composer I had heard of. What I didn't realize was that it was a lecture. I grumbled, “Who goes to a Bach lecture without getting course credit?”

I brought a magazine to the lecture, but after five minutes, I put the magazine away. The guy who gave the lecture, Robert Kapilow, was amazing. I learned as much about public speaking that night as I did about Bach. Here are some things Kapilow did that we should all do when we speak:

Know your audience
He said, “I will use Bach as a basis for introducing the fugal procedure.” (This meant nothing to me.) He said, “How many people have listened to the Art of the Fugue.” (Everyone raised their hand.) He said, “How many people have studied it?” (My husband a couple of others raised their hands.) Kapilow pitched himself toward the majority. (Thank god.)

Pick a good support team
The Brentano quartet played. For those of you who have never heard of them, they are very good. Not your standard quartet. Surely playing a lecture is a more maddening gig than playing a wedding, and tickets were cheap so the musicians couldn't be getting paid a lot. Kapilow must have worked hard to get these musicians to play, but it was worth his effort — everything he described was more interesting with the Brentano Quartet as exhibit A

Perfect your body movement
Even though the topic was dry, Kapilaw moved around the stage like it was a Las Vegas show. When he described the “radiant glorious major version” he reached his arms out. When he said, “Then we go back in minor and it's dark” his arms tucked up close to his side. He made arcane music look exciting through his gestures, and his excitement was catching.

Be conscious of audience limitations
By the fourth fugue, he said, “Listen for the bing-bing or the down-up. If you're a really good listener you can listen for all four things, and we'll discuss after this lecture if that is humanly possible.”

Then, at one point he decided we needed a confidence boost. He said, “Stretofugue is very similar to Row, row, row your boat.”

By the end of the lecture I loved Bach. I even loved the stretofugue. And really, what is the job of a public speaker but to get you to love his topic? Many people give themselves permission to be sub-par speakers because of an unwilling audience, or an untenable topic. But Kapilow proves to me that anyone can captivate an audience if they have the right skills.

For those of you who have an opportunity to speak to a group, remember to aim as high as Kapilow. For those of you who want an opportunity to see Kapilow in action, look for his “What Makes it Great” series.

Next up: Bach managing the brand of Bach. Did you know that the subject of Bach's last fugue are the notes B, A, C, H?

You can keep your career on track by going to the gym; The same attributes that drive someone to succeed at the gym are the attributes that drive someone to succeed at the office. In fact, going to the gym will even help you develop personal tools for coping with unemployment. Here are some places to start:

People who work out at the gym regularly earn more money than couch potatoes. One reason this is true is that the gym is training ground for ladder climbing in corporate America. The skills required to get oneself to the gym on a regular basis are the same skills required to impress upper management on a regular basis. In fact, going to the gym will even help you develop personal tools for coping with unemployment.

You can keep your career on track by going to the gym. The same attributes that drive someone to succeed at the gym are the attributes that drive someone to succeed at the office. In fact, going to the gym will even help you develop personal tools for coping with unemployment. Here are some examples to inspire your gym dedication:

The hardest part about starting a workout regimen is getting yourself to the health club. It's always easier to go home after work and eat pizza in front of the TV. Even the unemployed, with seemingly endless days, find a way to make it difficult to make time for the gym.

By the same token, if you can't get your work done at the office, you'll never be able to move up the chain of command. And the same nagging voice that says, “I'll never find energy for the health club” nags at work, “I'll never write the report as well as my boss wants me to.” Self-discipline is what forces you to overcome the negative voices and take action.

Setting goals
If you go to the gym without a plan, you'll accomplish nothing and then stop going. People who workout regularly set goals. Some people aim to lose weight, some people train for a marathon. Whatever your goal is, it will keep you focused so that each day you go to the gym you know exactly what you're there to do.

You need goals for your career, too. If your goal is to become a managing director, then you can map out the steps you need to get there, and you have focus for each of your days. Whereas gym goals may look like number of laps or amount of weight, work goals will look like projects finished or skills learned.

Bouncing back
Everyone skips a day at the gym sometimes. Even Andre took time off tennis training to see Steffi give birth to their son. The important thing is not to get discouraged. People who workout regularly think of themselves as people who workout even when they are ditching the gym and eating ice cream.

The career-equivalent is losing a job. People who get laid off can still see themselves as successful, innovative employees. Maintaining this vision of yourself will make you much more effective in your job hunt. You can practice seeing yourself as a person who bounces back by forcing yourself to go to the gym even when you had ten beers the night before.

Doing something that's fun
If swimming doesn't rock your world, don't bother trying to convince yourself to do it three times a week. Find something you like — it'll make for much easier motivation when the pizza beckons. The more fun you have in your chosen activity, the more likely you will be to keep a regular workout schedule. In fact, if you really love what you're doing, you might workout more passionately than you ever expected.

The same goes for your chosen career. Pick something you love, and you'll do it with passion. You know that complete energy drain you feel when its time to go to an aerobics class but you hate aerobics? That's the same energy drain you feel when your alarm goes off and you hate your work. Find a career you love and you're likely to love the money that follows.

So get yourself to the gym today. For those of you lucky enough to have a job in this economy, you probably won't see a huge raise after two weeks of the Stairmaster, but you will notice, over the course of months, that people treat you differently when you run your life differently. For those of you who are unemployed, the gym will make your days feel more productive; When people say, “How's your career going?” you can say, “I'm taking steps to improve my earning power.”

Good decision-makers are good information-gatherers, but in the end, they trust their gut.

When a few people were infected with SARS from skinning frogs alive or working among chicken carcasses, China might have contained the problem. Instead, China made a very bad decision to cover up the disease.

In hindsight, it's easy to say which problems are insane to try to cover up, and SARS turned out to be one of them. But don't be so smug that you cannot learn from China's mistake. After all, each of us struggles regularly with the choice to either ignore a problem or fix it.

In the face of a big problem, coming clean is usually the easiest thing to do. Covering up often requires a lie, and then another lie, and then, before you know it, you are talking about an alternate reality that even you cannot keep track of.

But day after day we have to decide if a problem is really big or just a minor blemish in an imperfect world. For example, software publishers always launch software with technical problems. Microsoft would have no products if they insisted on shipping problem-free software. The issue for a product manager is to decide if she's launching her product with problems so big that they will undermine sales.

In these instances, you must gather as much information as possible in a reasonable amount of time. But know that in the end, you will have to go with your gut.

The World Health Organization would have told China to quarantine. But China chose not to involve the WHO until it was too late. Microsoft engineers surely declared the company's server software too rife with security flaws to bring to market. But the product managers went with the product anyway, and frankly, Microsoft has made a mint off this server software. When weighing risk, Microsoft and China both, in the end, have to go with their instinct. But Microsoft does a more honest job of gathering facts to inform its decision.

For your own decision-making process, remember that people who feel powerful do not hide from the information that is available. When you take a calculated risk in the face of a significant problem, act like you are a powerful person — Gather as much information as possible and then trust your instinct.

Brian Arbetter, an employment lawyer at Baker & McKenzie, reports that clients started calling him as soon as the US media started reporting on SARS. This is because Arbetter's clients are big and rich (after all, Baker & McKenzie is expensive) and they feel powerful. Arbetter's clients feel like they have the ability to solve any problem that they can understand, so they call their lawyer to gather information.

Companies that dealt with SARS quickly and decisively are models for your own decision-making. Arbetter says many companies asked employees just back from Asia to stay home from work for ten days. At least one international company held a board meeting without members who live in Asia.

People who worry that a problem will crush them are more likely to hide from a problem and hope it goes away. So even if you don't really feel powerful, act like you do, and power might just come to you. Face problems head on. If you can't afford Arbetter, call a friend. Get advice, and then take action.

One more decision-making lesson from SARS: Be careful when you act selfishly. Sure, business is a game, and everyone is competing for market share. But you can't compete if no one shows up to play; we are all dependent on each other. Microsoft, for example, made a lot of money on server software, but Microsoft caused worldwide wrath when email exchange was brought to near halt due to lack of security on Micosoft's part. Both this example and the rapid spread of SARS remind us that we depend on each other to act ethically — to keep the interests of the community in mind.

That's a lot to balance when making a decision. Now you know why most of us start off our decision-making careers as copy machine technicians: Should the page be darker or lighter? Is it faster to hand-feed or automate? Think of these annoying entry-level questions are a warm-up for the SARS moment in your career. And then vow to make it a moment when you use your power to support community interests.

Don’t wait until you bottom out. The worst thing about big change is not that it's so hard to adjust. The worst thing is that we usually have to bottom out before we make a big change; we wait until there is no other choice before we give in.

I bottomed out in the car, during my commute between San Diego and Los Angeles. When I took a position near San Diego, I was so excited to have a paycheck that a two-hour commute back to LA seemed fine. And for about three weeks, the commute was interesting. Then I got bored. I tried listening to books on tape, which only served to ruin the experience of reading. I tried talking on the phone, which caused me to miss exits constantly and nearly double my driving time.

But the job was so good that I persisted with the commute. I started leaving my apartment in LA at 4am. No traffic meant an abridged commute, but also an abridged social life because I had to be in bed at 8pm. After a few weeks, I fell asleep at the wheel and woke up to the blaring horn of a large trucker saving my life before I crashed.

So I went back to my two hours each way. But on rainy days it was 3 hours each way. And finally, on a day of torrential downpour, just a few miles away from Disneyland, I lost it. I pulled to the side of the road and threw pieces of the inside of my car into a ditch. Then I went to Denny's and ate three pieces of pie. Then I called each of my friends to tell them I was quitting.

“Finally!” was what they all said. That's the thing about big change. By the time we are ready to do it, the need for change has been apparent to everyone else for months. Maybe years. It's easy for everyone else to see someone else's need for change — they don't have to make it.

Later, reading the want ads at my kitchen table, I was excited to find another job, and I lamented all the hours I wasted in the car. In my apartment it was clear that the job was not worth the commute. But that's how it always is: I always wish I had made the change sooner.

So here’s what to do with that information: Cut yourself some slack if you’re in a bad situation and not getting out. But get out. Sure, research shows that people have a proclivity to stay in a bad situation, but you can be an overachiever. Get out before you have your own version of tears in front of the Magic Kingdom. Force yourself to change before things get ugly.

It's impossible to see your own life as clearly as others do, but it's a good goal to aim for. As soon as you hear other people say, “Why don't you do [insert change here]?” give the question serious thought. Put that thought on your to do list, so it's right there in front of you.

Still not moving? Close your eyes and imagine what life would be like if you made the big change: Maybe it's giving up some responsibility at work, or quitting, or switching careers. These are the sorts of changes we put off and put off, but once we do them we feel huge relief. These days I try to focus on that relief; I still wait too long to instigate change, but I'm hoping my days of being on the bottom are behind me.