There are a lot of rules for first-time managers. For example, never hold a meeting without an agenda, because if you don’t know what you’re going to do there, then no one else will know what you’re doing, either. But the rule about agendas is a great example, because, like most rules for good management, it is about being kind.

Your job as a manager is to make sure your employees are growing and learning and enjoying their time at work. Bringing them to a meeting without an agenda is wasting their time, and that is disrespectful. A meeting without an agenda is like saying, “My time is so much more important than yours that instead of taking time to prepare, I’m going to figure out what we’re doing in real-time, and you will sit here and watch me.”

So the first rule, and probably the only rule of management, is to be respectful. A lot of questions I get from managers can be answered the same way: ask yourself if you are really being respectful.


Manager: My employees are totally unmotivated. What can I do?

Me: Do you give them work that respects their intelligence or is the work you give them crappy?

Manager: There’s nothing I can do. Someone has to do the low level work.

Me: People are much more motivated to do totally boring work (as a favor to you) if they feel respected by you in other ways. So give them good mentoring and pay attention to building their skills. In return, they will want to help you, even if it means sending 400 faxes.

I receive lots of email from people who have just become managers but who are still figuring out what their new role really means. One of my favorites comes from Kristy, in Canada:

I got promoted to being a manager last year. . . .. I have really struggled with trying to teach others, because coming from a background of life really being about myself, my own learning, and satisfying my own personal growth, making the switch to feeling like to have to now do that for others almost feels like you are giving something of yourself away. It has only been in the past few months that I have really come recognize that providing others with the opportunities that I have been given actually feels good. . . and that I am still growing, just in a different way.

Kristy admits what most people won’t: that management requires giving so much of yourself that it’s disconcerting. Most people who are new managers just sort of disappear. They pop out of their office from time to time to tell people they are doing stuff wrong, or to let people know about new goals or new procedures. But that is not managing. That is being a human memo. A piece of paper could be that kind of manager.

Real managing is about growth and caring. It’s about taking time to see what skills people need to develop to move in the direction they want to move, and then helping them get those skills. This means that you need to sit with the person and find out what matters to them. And then you need to sit with yourself and figure out how you can help the person. Most people don’t see management as listening and thinking, but that’s what it is. Because that’s what caring about someone looks like.

A good manager pops up all the time, just to check in. Not because you are micromanaging and you don’t trust anyone around you. But because you can’t know how to help people if you don’t know how they are doing. And take time to chat when things are going fine, because that’s when it’s clear that you’re just talking because you care as much about the person as the work they’re doing.

Once you get to the point where you are connecting with the people you manage, and you are helping them get what they want from their job, you are in a position to change the world. Really.

I had a big moment in my own career as a manager when I realized that I could change the world, in a small way, just by being more open-minded and generous to the people around me. I was a very young manager, and found myself interviewing people much older than I was. Seeing those people from the point of view of my mom, who was working for someone my age, made me change how I approached my job as a manager. And I know that people today are trying to do this as well, because this post is four years old, and it was one of the most popular on my blog last month.

All this reminds me of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As a psychologist, he developed a theory to describe the path people take to address first their core needs, and then eventually to achieve their ultimate need for a life of self-actualization:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

1. Physiological — food, water, sleep

2. Safety — security of body, health, resources

3. Love and belonging — family, friends, sexual intimacy

4. Esteem — self-confidence, respect of others, respect by others

5. Self-actualization — morality, creativity, problem solving

I think this pyramid applies to work as well. You start off just making sure you can get a job, and you figure out, eventually, how to use your job to make the world a better place.

Pseudo-Maslow Hierarchy of Job Needs

1. Physiological – Take care of keeping yourself fed and clothed.

2. Safety – Work on feeling secure that you can keep yourself employed, if something happens.

3. Love and belonging – Figure out how to get a job that respects your personal life.

4. Esteem — perform well at your job because you have the resources and the security to do so

5. Self-actualization — help other people reach their potential through creative and moral problem solving

So really, management is an opportunity to self-actualize. Some people will self-actualize by being artists, or writing code. Some people will self-actualize through management. Some, a combination.

But the point here is that being in management is an opportunity to grow spiritually and give back to the world in a way that is enormously fulfilling. If you allow it. You will need to set aside real time to make this happen. And you need to give generously. No big surprise there, though, because why else are we here, on this planet, except to give to each other?

One of the most dangerous things you can do in your career is to think you are different from everyone else. The biggest validation of that idea comes in AA meetings — it is widely understood by this group that thinking you’re different is just an excuse not to get help, an excuse to think you live outside what we already know to be true. It’s a dangerous way to live because you are reinventing the wheel for yourself and you risk just spinning in place.

Yet we jump through hoops to convince ourselves that we are different from everyone else and the experience of others does not apply to us. Daniel Gilbert found, for example, that most of us think we are worse jugglers than average, and most football players think they are better than average, but most people really are — surprise — just average. Gilbert has also shown that we are terrible at making decisions for ourselves, in part, because we think we’re special.

If you stop thinking you are so special, then you can learn from watching others, you can take advice from people who have been there before, and you can make decisions based on tried and true methods.

So finally, here's an example of this problem in action: a blogger gets on the cover of the New York Times magazine, Emily Gould. She talks about how her boyfriend hates that she blogs about him. Of course this hits close to home. But, it’s old news. I’ve already spent 20 years only dating/marrying/then dating people who will put up with me chronicling their every move.

So here’s another way for Emily to think: Instead of thinking that she’s so special because she’s blogging about her own life and everyone is knowing her through that, she could look at what has come before her. Women have been writing about their relationships forever, in transparent ways. It’s what women write about. And sometimes, it destroys relationships. But for forever, some women have been absolutely driven to put their life in words. They can’t stop. Emily is part of that history.

And so am I, so I know the history pretty well. Anne Frank did it, too — in the face of war. And Edith Wharton did it — risking the wrath of her high-end social circles. And Colette did it — with any guy who would put up with it, including her editor.

When I was a child, Anne Frank spoke to me not because she was documenting war, but because she understood that in some people, the drive to write down what is happening is stronger than anything else.

I told this to my divorce lawyer last week when he told me would not represent me if I didn’t stop writing about my divorce. He told me that he can’t represent me if I am undermining my case in my blog. I told him there is nothing worth saving more than my ability to document my life. I told him that somewhere, my husband understood this, because I published weekly documentation of our courtship — which focused on him never going down on me and me being pissed off–and we still got married. At that point, there is nothing left to hide. I told my lawyer it’s how I run my life, and I don’t know how else to do a life.

In the history of documenting one’s life–I hate to be snippy–but Emily Gould is no great example. The stakes are not very high for her. And relative to what other women have gone through, the stakes are not high for me, either. After all, I married someone who had already signed up for this life. Heather Armstrong is maybe a good example of the stakes being very high, because her blog, Dooce, includes her daughter so often.

But the poster-child for a woman going through hell in order to document her life is the photographer, Sally Mann. When I bought her monograph, Immediate Family, I had no idea it was controversial. I only knew that I was mesmerized by how the photos of her children captured the pain of adolescence, the edgy gross innocence of childhood and the closeness of a family’s bond: All at once. Every photo.

But stores wouldn’t sell it. They called it pornography. And people accused Sally Mann of child abuse for making pornography from her kids.

In Sally Mann’s eyes, she was just documenting her family life, and her love for her kids, and the fun of childhood. And with an open mind, you can see that in the photos. Wait. I’ll link to some (probably not safe for work).

Herman Melville is another great example of the stakes being much higher than Emily, or me. Melville had many children, whom he did not really support. He found his family depressing, and he thought his writing was too important to be distracted with the task of family life.

The history of obsessive writers destroying lives around them is not new. The history of writers feeling an insanely huge need to tell something to the world at all costs is not new.

So back to careers. In the New York Times, Emily portrays her career as anomalous, eccentric, and so difficult to manage that she needs to quote magazine articles to her therapist in order to describe her life. But if you put Emily in historical context—which I would have expected the NYT magazine to do—there are a lot of people who have paved the way for her. She can learn from lots of people who came before blogging, how to manage one’s career as a blogger.

And this is true for most of us.Very few of us ever have a totally unique career problem. Most problems come down to five or ten situations that happen all the time. I think we get clouded by the specifics of our own story, and that makes us unable to see why we are just like everyone else. Each person’s details are different, but the problems we have repeat themselves over and over again—especially in careers. That’s why a community of people helping each other with their careers works so well. That’s why I love my blog.

So take time to figure out why you are the same, instead of focusing on why you’re different. There is a community out there who can help you. This is true for everyone. Anyway, it’s not that interesting to operate as if we are the only person like us. None of us should reinvent the wheel by ourselves. Ever. It’s too lonely.

My career is built on branding. The first time I tried it was in beach volleyball. Like many professional sports, the way to make a living is from sponsors. While other people changed partners every week trying to trade up for someone better, I picked someone shorter than I was, so she’d stick with me. Then I focused more energy on branding us as a team to sponsors than I did on winning tournaments. We stood out because other people marketed themselves as individuals, not a team. So let me give a shout out to Dance France, for all the logos they had me splash across my butt: Victory for brand management.

Today, of course, I’m all about brand. I am constantly trying to figure out how to make the Brazen Careerist brand stand for the network instead of for me. It’s sort of a game. And the game feels really fun when I read about other companies playing with their brand, like Under Armour marketing cross-trainers: Fascinating to me.

I also go ballistic about my brand. Like when my volleyball partner dumped me because I didn’t have a killer instinct. I ranted about how winning one more match would not change her life, but having the sponsors that I got her was a big deal. We were in the top five teams in the country when it came to the number of sponsors we had. (She didn’t care.)

And I went ballistic this week when the social media guru we hired used the Brazen Careerist brand name for twitter without considering that I am completely enthralled with twitter and without considering that there would be brand confusion if there is a Brazen Careerist twitter that is not me. I left threatening messages to Ryan on his cell phone during long layovers in faraway airports, trying to regain control of my twitter brand before it imploded.

So, this is all to say that I love a good corporate branding moment. There are lots of ways to enhance your brand. I did a beach volleyball commercial for Budweiser, for example. But I didn’t feel all warm and fuzzy. So I really appreciate times when people manage their brand by being warm and fuzzy, like these:

1. Google’s art contest for kids. The kids riff on the theme “What if?” There are a lot of what if Google made world peace? But there are really cool ones like, “What if everything I drew came to life?”

2.  The Westin Spa in Scottsdale has everyone wear a name tag that has not only their name, but also their passion. I love that this is a nod to the fact that people are not defined completely by their job, but by what excites them in their life.

Each name tag reminded me to see the person, not just the job, by revealing something about them that went beyond the work I saw them doing. Passions I remember: Piano, computers, learning. Passions that people probably edited: Sex, drugs, money. But still, just that there is something else there besides the name, even if it’s G-rated and maybe not true, serves a purpose and makes me like Westin more.

When people ask me to explain what the Brazen Careerist company does, I always have a hard time answering. Bad, right? What CEO doesn’t have a pitch? The answer I usually give is that we help companies connect with young talent. But the pitch I believe most is the one that makes me feel warm and fuzzy: we help amplify the voice of young people online.

I wish I could say that more often without feeling like a cheese ball. In corporate life, it’s always safer to talk about the bottom line, and then, far away from the boardroom, when no one’s looking, you sneak in a nice touch that allows everyone to feel good about what they are doing.

I wish it were the other way around. But someone’s gotta fund those name tags, right?

Let me first say that my lawyer is not happy when I blog about my divorce. But now that I’ve been in a front-page article of the New York Times for blogging about the divorce, I think we’ve passed the point of discretion.

And anyway, I think it’s okay to blog because I am the transparent type, so it would be weird for me to have this huge thing in my life and not write anything about it. How is this blog at the intersection of work and life if I cut out the life?

Also, I noticed that Nino has started commenting on my recent divorce posts, and he seems to be updating my family about our divorce via Facebook, so at this point I feel that all is fair in social media. And maybe working out one’s divorce is going to be the killer app for Twitter.

So the first thing I’ve done to make sure the divorce doesn’t undermine my career is that I’m not pretending that it is irrelevant to my career. But here are some other steps I’ve decided are important for trying to keep both the divorce and the career on track.

1. Surround yourself with smart people. They’ll help you make faster progress.
I hired the two top attorneys. As if there is top anything in little Madison, Wisconsin. But alas, in any sea, there are big fish. I spend most of my time worrying that Nino routinely complains of me stealing our marital assets. Like, he’ll mention it while we’re watching a soccer game, or under his breath taking the kids to violin class.

Usually this accusation is reserved for men who buy a yacht and a condo for a hot little mistress and twelve first-class airfares to see her. So the accusation won’t hold for me. But still, my attorney decided that our best strategy is make sure that Nino has a great attorney so it is two smart lawyers who are used to negotiating with each other and things will go faster.

I hope this is a good strategy. If my site starts loading slower you’ll know that the lawyers have been so expensive that I had to cut back on bandwidth.

2. Be consistent — be the same in the divorce as you’d be in your work
Our first official divorce fight was Nino refusing to refer to me as Penelope in his emails. I told him he has to use Penelope, but I tried to say it in a nice email so that we were not having animosity. In my heart of hearts I still believe the most important thing is to be nice.

So we tried. He wrote a long email about how my old name—which I’m not even writing here because I’m so done with it—is more appropriate. I ignored the email. He ignored my pleas. It’s like we’re still married. Oh. Wait. We are.

3. Keep a sense of humor — it gives you fresh perspective.
Surprisingly though, our efforts to downplay the divorce animosity are paying off. For example, on Mother’s Day, Nino agreed to go on a hike with me and our kids and our eight-year-old neighbor who spends tons of time at our house. It was a big favor for him to do because I’m the one who really wants the kids to feel like we’re still a family, and I’m the one who likes hiking.

On the hike, the boys comforted me by being their normal boy selves, and they turned mud piles into cannon balls and every long stick became a sword. We sat down to rest at a campsite.

Nino said, “Wow, they have everything at the campsite, even a place to chop wood. If you have a hatchet.”

The eight-year-old neighbor says, “We have a hatchet at our house. My mom’s boyfriend bought it for her last Valentine’s Day.”

Nino and I looked at each other, incredulous, and smiled. And for one, small second I felt like we were a family—the parents sharing an inside joke while the kids try to kill each other.

4. Be a good time manager; the divorce takes time, so manage it well
Ignoring the fact that my lawyer’s time is probably more expensive than mine, I had him meet me at McDonald’s. I had breakfast with my two-year-old and then, while he was crawling up and down in Ronald’s Playland, I gave my lawyer a summary of our debts and assets. My son asked two or three times who the guy was. I said, “It’s my friend, Allan.” And as I said it I thought maybe this would make it so I get the hourly rate for friends. (Do divorce lawyers have any friends?)

My son offered Allan an ice cream, which he declined, (and then Allan’s clock ticked in Playland while I bought my son the most expensive ice cream ever purchased.) Then my son asked if Allan wanted to go down the slide. He asked if Allan was coming to our house. All this made me wonder about eventually bringing home some guy to live with us. Though honestly I can’t wrap my head around integrating another man into our life beyond some guy coming to Playland with us.

But I know it happens. I know that somehow women work this out in their lives. And since I learn so fast from stories, could people write stories in the comments section about how they introduced a step-parent successfully?

5. Be honest. If you are shady about your divorce people will think you’re shady about everything.
It would be so fake to tell you that I’m not worried. I’m very worried.

I’m worried that I’ll never fall in love. That’s normal, right? I mean, I know it’s normal if you are fifteen and get dumped, so it must be true now, too.

I’m also worried about money. How does anyone separate their career from their divorce? A divorce comes with a promise to earn a certain amount of money. All the things I’ve done in my life to insure that I have flexibility to do whatever career I want could be going down the tubes. I’m very scared about that.

I also worry that you are only reading this stuff because I’m a train wreck. People like reading about other peoples’ divorces because they feel better about keeping their own marriage together. So, okay. I hope I can make some of you feel smug today, because sometimes I write posts and I’m the one feeling smug. We should all get our chance.

The transition from college to adulthood might be the hardest one we make in our whole lives. After we spend twenty years learning how to get good grades, we go into a workforce where those skills are largely irrelevant.

In fact, the skill that is most important in adulthood is self-knowledge—knowing what you like, what you need, and how you make decisions based on that information. Self-knowledge is hard, though. Even for someone who’s been in the work world for decades.

To make matters worse, Dan Ariely, behavioral economist at MIT and the author of the book Predictably Irrational, finds that we are pretty bad at making decisions based on what we want, and we are easily influenced by extraneous issues. So here are some mental potholes to look out for when you’re steering your own path.

1. Taking action is more important than taking correct action.
I’ve written before about how the soul search is not a good thing for a job hunt. This is because when we are job hunting and we perceive that everything is available, it’s nearly impossible to make a decision. So we don’t. We tell ourselves we’re figuring things out, but really, when presented with tons of choices, our preference is to do nothing:

Ariely describes a study someone did about buying jam in a chic-chic grocery store. Researchers gave free samples of twenty-four jams one day, but only six samples the next day. More people took samples with twenty-four jams to choose from than when given samples of only six. But when researchers gave people a coupons for buying jam in the store, 3% of the people bought jam on a day there were twenty-four jam samples, but 30% of people bought jams on a day there were six samples. “It’s just sugar and fruit,” says Ariely, “but twenty-four jams is just too much to choose from.”

In a job search, if you tell yourself you have a gazillion choices, you do yourself a disservice. Instead, force yourself to just take a job, any job. Because after a week or so on the job, you learn to naturally limit what you would consider next—you see things you don’t like about your current job and you say I’ll never do this again. So the best way to zero-in on what you want to do is to force yourself to do something—to do anything.

And if you are reticent to take this advice, pretend you’re at the jam counter, and you should arbitrarily knock 18 jars on the floor.

2. The worst time to go to graduate school is when you don’t know what you want to do.
One of the biggest problems with grad school is that people graduate into the work world, which is an open, undefined road. It’s scary to see that you will probably go through your twenties having no idea what you’re doing and trying a lot of stuff.

The worst time to go to graduate school is when you are facing this problem of feeling lost, because the confused feeling of going through emerging adulthood makes you very likely to instead take what used to be a default course for life after college: Law school, business school, getting a PhD.

Ariely found that if you are confused but you have a default choice, you’ll take it. He makes this point by showing the rate of organ donation among people in various countries. At first blush, the chart makes no sense. Less than 10% in Germany and nearly 100% in Austria, for example. Or about 20% in Denmark and nearly 100% in Sweden. These are culturally similar countries with drastically different donation rates.

It turns out that it depends on the form that people got about organ donation. In countries where you have to opt out of donation, there is nearly 100% donation rate. In countries where you have to opt in, there is typically less than 10% donation rate.

The tendency to choose the default option is not because people don’t care about organ donation. In fact, they care so much—because it deals with their own death and also with ethics—that they don’t want to think about it. Ariely says that if there is a difficult decision and a default option, people go with the default.

So back to grad school. When your parents were graduating, grad school might have been a safe choice, but today, it’s actually a really risky path. This makes it even more dangerous that people have a proclivity to choose grad school because we naturally look for a default in the face of confusion. To make a good decision about graduate school, do it when you are feeling safe, focused, and certain about what is right for you in life.

3. Take pride in making bad career moves.
The truth is that even when we think we have a good understanding of our preferences, we totally overestimate our ability to control our lives in relation to our preferences.

So now it makes sense that most of us have made terrible career decisions. It also makes sense that people who have not made some terrible decisions are not living, not trying to find what’s best. The only way to have a perfect, straight and narrow path is to not open yourself up to your own irrational decision-making process. And if you are not making decisions for yourself, then what are you doing in this life?

So today, let’s celebrate all the times we went down the wrong path. That’s our nature. That’s how we know we’re really guiding our own careers.

The first time it hit me how important mentors are is four years ago, when I interviewed Ellen Fagenson Eland, former professor at George Mason University. She gave me stunning statistics about how important mentors are to your career.

Eland gave me a seven-step plan for finding mentors (yes, you need a small group of them). And since then, I’ve written about other aspects as well — mostly as a way to keep myself focused on the task because it’s so important and so difficult.

Getting mentors is difficult because it’s just like dating: You have to invest a lot of time in a lot of people to find the ones who will really change your life. Over the years, I’ve had lots of different types of mentors. The eccentric CEO who showed me that success does not preclude weirdness, and my secret mentor who popped up unexpectedly. But the one I am feeling best about right now is a guy in Palo Alto, Chris Yeh. He turned out to be a real gem, so I’m going to tell you how it happened.

1. Recognize someone who thinks in ways that complement you.
I was interviewing a guy for my column in the Boston Globe, and I asked him, as I often do, if he had any friends who would be interesting to talk with. He gave me Chris Yeh’s name. I was immediately struck by Chris’s ability to talk on a wide range of topics that I care about a lot. And as a Harvard Business school grad living in Palo Alto, he brings a fresh perspective to my own.

2. Do favors. Again and again.
I immediately thought to myself, what can I do for Chris? I asked him what he is aiming to do next, what his plans are for the future, where he’s headed. He said he wanted to write a book about fatherhood, so I put him in contact with my agent.

3. Stay in touch continually.
I did not actually do this myself. Chris did. He would call at random times, just to say hi. I know very few people in business who do this. Most people email or IM, or, if they really want to talk on the phone, we schedule a call. Chris was different—I was not really his friend, and we were in different time zones, so he made the effort to figure out when I was most likely to be able to talk. Now I see that this as a super smart approach I should have initiated myself to build the relationship.

4. Ask for a formal relationship.
When I started my company, I asked Chris to be an advisor. He said yes, and then he told me the best way to use advisors, based on his experience at his own companies: Call at times you know are easy for them to talk, keep them up to date, and ask them what you should be asking them about.

The first time I asked Chris, “What should I be asking you now?” I felt silly. After all, it’s a line he fed me. But now I use it with him all the time, and it’s actually an invitation for him to tell me what he thinks I’m missing, which is information I wouldn’t get if I directed the conversation the whole time.

5. Invest time.
I had talked with Chris for hours and hours without meeting him in person. When I interviewed Edward Hallowell about his book, Crazy Busy, he described his research about face-to-face contact—how meeting for a just a few minutes changes the nature of a relationship. So I decided to meet Chris in person. On a trip to Los Angeles, I decided to fly to Palo Alto especially to meet him.

The trip took a lot of time, but I discovered that, true to what Hallowell says, meeting in person makes the relationship feel qualitatively deeper by virtue of the fact that you get that whole other layer of nonverbal communication.

Addendum: I called Chris this morning to make certain it was okay to use his name in this post. And he said “Sure, and tell people if they can’t find a mentor, they can ask me questions”?and you can link to Ask the Harvard MBA.” So there’s the link. And see, I told you—you have to keep doing favors.

I am trying to figure out what is the right kind of guy for me to be dating now that I’m getting a divorce. As an incorrigible go-getter — with all things I do — I am getting a jump start on dating. So if it’s offensive to you that I’m dating before I’m divorced, you should probably stop reading. But I want to warn you that you are probably from the same contingent of people who do not approve of looking for a job from your current job, and I’ve got news for you: Everyone’s doing it. Both.

At first I thought I should be dating people who are recently divorced. You know, shared experience. So I went out with this guy who was married for sixteen months, and his wife is getting about three million dollars in the settlement. Of course he is very upset about the whole thing. But mostly because he thinks she’s crazy.

My alarms go off immediately. I think he might be crazy. Because, as my divorce lawyer says, “A ten never marries a one.” Which is to say that you get what you are.

I ask my date why he’s so upset that she’s getting three million. Because, after all, he earned way more than that while he was with her. (Yes, true.)

He says that she is a raving alcoholic and he didn’t know that when he married her.

Then he orders his second Jack and Ginger.

I have had so few drinks in my life that I don’t even know what Jack and Ginger is.

But here’s what happens: We go out on one date, and I drink. It only takes me about a half a glass of wine to be way more easy-going and flirty than I could ever manage if I were sober. And he asks me out again.

On the next date, he has four beers and I don’t drink, and it is obvious to me that things are not going well.

And it is also obvious to me that he will marry another alcoholic. He likes that in a girl.

But he still complains that he can’t believe he married someone who is so unstable. I can’t believe he doesn’t see what marrying that person says about him. I do not tell him that people who have four drinks on every date marry alcoholics. I do tell him, “A ten does not marry a one.”

The wisdom falls on dead ears.

But I know this is true because after our marriage counseling ended up in our divorce, I went back to the marriage counselor to understand why I chose my husband in the first place. Really, all the things I loved about my husband when we got married are still there. I just need to understand why, of all the things I could love in a person, I picked those to marry. There are millions of reasons to marry someone, really, like that the person is a genius (my husband) or that the person is fun when drunk (definitely not my husband).

It’s easy to judge other people for what they pick. But to be honest, all reasons have their pluses and minuses and we’d do best just to understand why we do what we do. My friend married a woman because she had little world experience and he could show her what he knew. Lame, right? But the marriage is working. And another friend married someone because he’s the male version of Mother Theresa. Great, right? But the marriage fell apart because in the end, she wanted someone to pay attention to her, not save the world.

So I try to not complain about my husband because there’s a lot that is good about him. I try instead to focus on how to be better at understanding myself. Because who you pick to be around says a lot about who you are.

And this is true for a lot of areas in life. Like, look at your friends. Good-looking people hang out with good-looking people. And who you hang out with is so influential on you that fat friends make you fat.

It’s true at work, too. A former boss used to tell me that you should always hire A players because one B player brings everyone down — teams perform to their lowest performer. I think that’s true. I also think that when an A sees a B on the team, the A doesn’t want to come.

So if you are complaining that you are in an office with people who are terrible at what they do, ask yourself why. And instead of broadcasting that you chose to be with terrible people, do some self-reflection and figure out why, so you don’t do it again.

It’s very hard to avoid duplicating the same mistake over and over again — that’s why most second marriages fail, and that’s why people who work at lame companies generally make their next move to another lame company. But if you are really honest about your own responsibility for choosing lameness, then you are less likely to choose it again.

Now, if I can only get as good at choosing dates as I am at choosing companies…

Do you want to know what you should do right now? Do you want to know what your best bet is for your next career? Look at what you were doing when you were a kid. Nothing changes when you grow up except that you get clouded vision from thinking about what you SHOULD do — to be rich, or successful, or to please your parents or peers — the possibilities for should are endless.

When I was a kid, my brother and I went to Hebrew school every Tuesday and Thursday. It didn’t take me long to realize that the classes were absurd. Parents didn’t make you do your homework, and teachers just kept teaching the same thing week after week. At some point I realized that all kids would get bar or bat mitzvahs as long as we showed up on a regular basis. So I stopped paying attention.

Except for the best class ever. That was the class when my teacher told us to close our books and she described her time in Auschwitz. She talked in a thicker German accent than usual. And she showed us the number the Nazis tattooed on her arm. I remember every second of her story.

The second best day of Hebrew school was when I convinced my younger brother to ditch with me. I had to sell him on the idea: First that we wouldn’t get caught. (I had a plan to be back in time so that we could walk to the parking lot with the other kids.)  Second I had to convince him that we would have a good time.  (I brought money to buy ice cream at the store five blocks away.)

He was really not happy about the idea. He kept telling me that it wasn’t so bad to go to Hebrew school and that it was over in an hour, and in that one hour you could ask to go to the bathroom two times.

I prevailed.

This is what’s true about me in my Hebrew school story:

I have no patience for group learning.

I love a good story.

I enjoy trying to convince people to see things my way.

I’m a risk taker.

And all those things are true of me today, as well. That’s why I think that you can figure out who you are and what you should be doing by telling yourself the stories of your childhood. In fact, in almost every story I can think of, I’m trying to convince someone to do things my way.

Here’s another thing you can do to figure out what you should do with your life: Close your eyes and think of a great memory of childhood… Do you have it?

In my own, haphazard studies of this test, you can always learn something from the moment you pick. The first time I did this exercise, I thought of playing in my grandparents’ huge front yard. Of course, I was telling all my younger cousins what to do. Probably telling them why croquet was a great idea and I was going first. Something like that. But the bigger thing I learn from the story is that I am connected to space and nature and running around. All still true for me now, but it took me years of living in big cities before I could figure that out.

It’s nearly impossible to eradicate our life of SHOULDS, because we all want to make the right decisions. But I think I could have figured out right decisions for me a lot faster if I had realized how much we reveal about our true selves when we’re young.

Recently I have fallen back into my evil habit of writing a to do list and then ignoring it because I don't think I can get it done. I know from past experience that the best way out of this rut is to read research about productivity. Even if I don't act on the research, taking the time to think about productivity inspires me to be more true to my to do list.

Here are four ways to get out of a rut and start making progress again:

1. Pay attention on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Tuesday is our most productive day at work, according to a study from Robert Half International. Apparently, Monday is the day we get our lists in order, and Tuesday is the day we plow through them.

Bill Driscoll, from Robert Half, recommends that you recognize your peak performance times, and schedule as few interruptions during that time as possible. This is one of those pieces of advice that makes sense, but very few of us manage our calendars so carefully that we are actually implementing the advice.

But also, what about being as gung ho about Wednesday and Thursday as you are about Tuesday?

2. Stop obsessing over your choices and just decide.
Most people overestimate the regret they’ll experience after making an emotionally charged choice, according to research from the University College London. In fact, Karim Kassam, a psychologist working at Harvard, shows that we figure out how to justify most of our big decisions, no matter how good or bad they were. He calls it our “psychological immune system.”

The Harvard Business Review also reveals that we are not good at making decisions with a lot of data points involved. Which means that frequently, the longer you spend on a decision, the less productive you are. This research, maybe, gives you the temerity to take a leap, knowing that your decision won't get smarter or easier to live with if you take longer.

3. Go to church.
Lisa Cullen reports that girls who go to church work harder than other people. Maybe you think this is because church girls are so bored in their upstanding lives that they can’t think of anything better to do than work. But I think it actually has something to do with optimism.

People who go to church regularly are more optimistic people in general, and optimism makes people feel more positive about their work. If you feel like you will affect your work in a positive way, you’re more likely to dig in and do it. (Here is a small study to support my claims. There are a ton of these studies, and I’m hoping the Christian bloggers who read this blog—there are a lot, surprisingly enough—will aid in this cause with some more links.)

4. Put a treadmill in your office.
People think better from getting a little exercise. Not the kind of exercise where you feel like you are going to pass out. But the low-level, reasonable-pace type of exercise. The difference in mental capacity while we are active and passive is huge.

Leverage this knowledge about yourself and do your work on a treadmill. I thought I was a genius taking work calls at the gym, on the elliptical trainer, (until the manager told me absolutely never again because people were sick of overhearing my calls.)

But now everyone’s got an idea for working while walking, and there are workstations designed especially for use on a treadmill. Ask your boss to buy you one. They're $3,000, but that's a great company investment if you can get your to do list done every day.