Figure out what you really want by writing letters to yourself

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People often tell me that I should answer more questions from readers. I do actually answer a lot of questions, but I don’t put them in a Q&A format. People say they like the Q&A format. But I don’t believe people like it as much as they say they do.

I confess, however, to really liking Dan Savage’s Q&A column. But I think he makes up his own questions. Which makes me feel free to do a Q&A column where I make up all the questions myself.

Question #1

Dear Penelope,
What should I do to look more like a leader?

Penelope's old boss

Dear Sir,
Stop biting your nails! Remember that Monday team meeting when you tried to get us excited about sales goals? When we asked about looming layoffs, you started biting your nails in between the it'll-be-okay sentences. I remember you putting your fingers in your mouth, trying to get one more millimeter. Bloody tips. I knew I was going to be laid off.

You are a nice guy, and so smart, but you seem to have no knowledge of how you come across to other people. Biting nails does not convey self-confidence. And no one wants to be lead by a nail-biter. People who bite their nails at work amaze me: Do you think biting nails is any more appropriate than pulling out hair at work? It is psychologically the same thing: compulsive, nervous, unrestrained.

Do people keep up this habit when they are feeling great about themselves? No. In other words, leaders don't do this stuff (and if so, never in public). You think nail biting is small, innocuous. But really, you kill your credibility. And you did it way before the layoffs, mister.

Question #2

Dear Penelope,
How did you do so well in business when you got an F in my chemistry class?

Penelope's high school chemistry teacher

Dr. Mr. X
First of all, you were so incredibly good looking that you must believe that I really did want to get to class. I just couldn't fit it into my schedule. I had a free period before chemistry and all my friends had a free period during chemistry. I was compelled to think of those two periods as a double-header block of time to hang out.

And thank you for trying to give me a D, really. Your efforts were valiant, especially when you gave me the smartest guy in the class for a lab partner.

Fortunately, study after study shows that kids who do poorly in school can do very well in the real world. The things that really matter in the real world are not chemistry lab tests (unless you want to be a chemist.) The things that matter are perseverance, passion and risk-taking – all attributes that, quite frankly, I exhibited as I ditched chemistry class.

Question #3

Dear Penelope,
You are so talented and insightful, but I am just a little more talented and insightful. So I'd like to mentor you. Can you please send your phone number to me so I can start investing my time and energy in you immediately?

Your Fairy Godmother

Hold it. Why does no one send this mail? Getting a mentor is hard, even for Penelope, who constantly writes about how important it is to get a mentor and is always on the prowl. This shows why the Q&A exercise is a good one for everyone: If you write enough letters you'll discover what you’d most like to receive in the mail.

And you will realize that it will never arrive. But before you can reach any goal in this world, you have to know that you want it. So take the first step, and write yourself letters until one strikes you as especially important. And that will help you to focus on what you really want right now.

6 replies
  1. finance girl
    finance girl says:

    To Question #2: I certainly agree, and wonder why Google still looks at GPA in hiring criteria…when I saw that I thought to myself “oh how quaint, I haven’t been asked/nor thought of my GPA in, oh…17 YEARS….”

    * * * * * *

    Ha. Yes, they still check!


  2. Jacqui
    Jacqui says:

    It was my sophomore year in college, and I was so busy trying to build the foundation for a career in my free time that I wasn’t pulling the grades I managed in high school.

    Then, one day, I realized I was collecting a lot of great experience and contacts and that none of them asked me about my grades – the “real world” really didn’t care about my honors diploma.

    It was one of the most freeing moments of my college career.

  3. Shweta
    Shweta says:

    Also I was just listening to Seth Godin in an interview and he very relevantly mentioned that
    “there are two boys at school, one gets 6 Bs and one B+, and the parents are ok with that – you’re not in trouble. The other one gets one A and 4 C- and you’re in big trouble. Though there is a greater chance that the second student would do way better than the one with all Bs (who’s well rounded).”
    What matters is what you do best even if it is at one thing. You don’t need to ace it all.

    * * * * * *

    Thanks for bringing this up Shweta. I just looked through the Tom Rath’s new book, Strengths Finder, about how to locate your strengths and focus on using them instead of overcoming weaknesses. Your comment makes me think I should look at the book more closely. It’s an important topic.


  4. Dan Savage
    Dan Savage says:

    I don’t make up my letters… I’m waaaaay to lazy. I do, however, edit and condense them, which can make them seem… a little pat, at times. But there’s only so much space in the column, and I like to get at least three letters in. So… edit and condense I must…

    * * * * * *

    Oh my gosh. This is so exciting! Dan Savage is commenting on my blog. Dan, I love your column. I’m sorry that I accused you of writing your questions. But look, if I hadn’t, maybe I’d never had heard from you, right?Everyone, check out Dan’s column — it’s a sex advice column and it’s so fun.


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