A list of gifts that’ll help your career


It’s true that I am publishing my gift suggestions too late for the biggest gift-giving season of the year. But I think it’s okay, because the gifts are totally impractical.

In fact, I think this is actually my wish list—stuff I wish I had been given over the years to keep my career on track.

1. A hall monitor for emails.

Email provides a chance to sidestep the problems of reading facial cues, which is what people with Asperger’s want. And email provides a chance for introverts to collect their thoughts before they talk to extroverts, which is what introverts want.

The problem with email is that the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology says that emails are misinterpreted fifty percent of the time.

So, people who are really tone deaf, like people who have Asperger’s, they won’t know they’re being an emotional idiot in email any better than they’ll know face-to-face. Also, people who are the most incompetent with social skills are the most likely to believe that they are doing fine.

This is why we need an emotional intelligence safety net in the form of software: Tone Check. The New York Times reports that the makers of Tone Check eventually plan to allow clients to prevent employees from sending e-mails that violate their “tone policy”. But really, this is already happening: People get fired for bad tone today, the verbiage is “you’re not a good cultural fit.”

2. Off-label psychiatric drugs.

Caffeine is a completely sanctioned drug at work. So if you feel like you want to curl up in a ball and sleep, if there’s no company culture to support that, and no office door to shut, you should probably try caffeine instead. For the hard-core few who don’t want to just stay up, but want to get a lot done in a short time, get a friend with Adderall and take it off-label.

For the other end of the emotion spectrum, like if you feel a surge of energy when you imagine killing the co-workers you hate, try Xanax. Some of you—probably the ones who totally abuse caffeine and tell yourself it’s not a drug—snub your nose at Xanax as a go-to drug of choice. You all will be good candidates for new-to-market relaxation drinks: Slow Cow, Vacation in a Bottle, and Mary Jane’s Relaxing Soda. The drinks ride on the backlash of the energy drink craze; if you trade in fast food for slow food, why not do the same with your soda?

3. A company.

Really. It’s a trend. Parents are buying their kids a company to run, according to Sue Shellenbarger, writing for The Wall Street Journal.

This makes sense. Gallup reports that 70% of kids want to start their own company, and author Scott Gerber has made a career for himself out of telling his Gen Y peers that they should Never Get a “Real” Job. A small franchise is relatively easy to set up, and it’s better than a stupid, entry-level job. And Richard Settersten’s book Not Quite Adults is a great explanation of the research showing how kids benefit in both the short-term and long-term from parents being overly involved in their kid’s early adult life.

For those of you who think buying a franchise is too expensive, Zac Bissonnette points out in his book Debt-Free U — the smartest book I’ve ever read about funding college — that you’re better off using college savings to buy a kid a business than to pay for an over-priced college education.

4. An insanely expensive chandelier.

Here’s the one I’ve been coveting. It’s $4000 at Jak Home, in San Francisco (via More Ways to Waste Time).

I’ve looked at it from a few angles, and I decided it would be something I could make.

Then I tried to get all the lights wired together, and I nearly electrocuted myself. Then I tried to get an electrician to do it and he said he doesn’t have enough insurance to cover such a cockamamie scheme. He did not say cockamamie—there are no Yiddish speaking electricians in Southwest Wisconsin. But it would have been easier for him to say that than to spend an hour-and-a-half trying to wire stuff and trying to break it to me that my idea sucks. People tread lightly here in Wisconsin.

The thing is, if someone bought me this chandelier, I think I would probably return it. And get cash. Or I’d get a store credit and get something more practical, like, I don’t know, $4000 of light bulbs. Because I’m not really sure what else this store would sell that is practical.

Wait. Speaking of store credits, I just learned a new phrase: Gift Card Laundering (via Urbandaily) It’s when you have a gift card and you spend a little of it, and then you use it to buy a different gift card and you give it, fresh, to someone else. That’s probably what I’d do. I’d divide my $4000 credit into a bunch of gift cards and save a lot of money. (Or piss a lot of people off because there’s nothing at Jak Home store for less than $4000.)

When you buy someone a gift like this, what you really are trying to buy them, I think, is that feeling that they deserve to have something so gorgeous and glorious and expensive as that in their lives.

Does anyone deserve that? I don’t know. I know that every piece of research in the world says that buying experiences, not things, makes us happier. So I guess the gift recommendation really is to buy the experience of waking up to a gorgeous chandelier every morning.

5. A coach.

Sometimes, when I’ve thought my kids were going to starve or at least have to live without electricity, I’ve thought, “Well I could always fall back on coaching.” There is a huge market, for example, for getting paid by parents to coach their twenty-something kids. But I always end up telling the parents their kids are fine, just be emotionally supportive. And I coach a lot of people, but really, the thing that makes me is a good coach is that I love being coached myself.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks so much about how hard work makes you great, but the hard work has to be focused and productive, which he says comes from good coaching. So I can’t stand doing anything when I don’t have a great coach.

So you will not be surprised to hear that I found myself a coach for taking pictures. I mean, I already have an editor for my blog—with an editor I can take huge risks because the editor will always tell me if I’ve gone too far. If I were a good enough photographer, I’d call my coach an editor. But right now, I think she’s still coaching me. Telling me what photos to throw out. (Which, by the way, is how I learned to write. I handed in a page of writing each week and my teacher would either edit it or write “no” at the bottom of it.)

Here’s how I know I have a great photography coach: one of my favorite photos from my coach’s website. It inspires me to look more closely. And that’s really what we should aim for in every gift we give: inspiration.

36 replies
  1. Cassie Callan
    Cassie Callan says:

    I think this was your best post… I really loved it and truly laughed – it reminded me a little of Molly Erdman’s blog ‘Catalog Living’. Have you seen it? Some of the older posts seemed a little self-indulgent and would have probably been enjoyed more by people who know you personally.. But, what I really like about your blog is that YOU’RE DOING IT, and from my vantage point (a reader who doesn’t know you personally) I see your courage and vulnerability – and that is very refreshing and inspiring.
    So, carry on, my dear! Cassie

    • Rick C.
      Rick C. says:

      I agree (best post ever)! P, the more I read you, the more sense you make. Yikes! That may not be a good thing… ;-) But it helps me in my own life. Thanks!

  2. Roberta Warshaw
    Roberta Warshaw says:

    Cockamamie is a Yiddish word? Really? I did not know that. Live and learn.
    A lot of interesting stuff here. I need to come back later and follow some more links. I especially liked the section on buying your kid a company. Now there is the ultimate helicopter parents dream gift to their child!

  3. Paul Basile
    Paul Basile says:

    This was a terrific post with good (and, as usual, funny) ideas, not unlike your one (yesterday?) about gifts to the boss. I agree. “Not a good cultural” fit is the reason 80% (yes, not a typo) people leave their job, voluntarily or otherwise, and that’s a recruitment failure not management. We can know people better – in terms of fit – and know the job/company better – in terms of fit.

    It’s also rarely pointed out that the only feasible way (ok, there are exceptions, but they’re rare) to be an entrepreneur is to be “rich”, and just a little rich will do. Parental funding for example.

    Anwyay, end-of-wishes, not necessarily gifts, are appropriate in more or less all nationalities and cultures. Have a great 2011.

  4. Brad
    Brad says:

    Perhaps parents are better off buying their kid a franchise instead of a college education. But I’d bet nearly 100% of the parents doing that are paying for both. Absolutely nothing beats a rich daddy.

  5. Glenda P
    Glenda P says:

    Penelope – once again, in the very last moments of your article I find that 1 thing to really “like” about your posting – (there is always something, but…)

    And that’s really what we should aim for in every gift we give: inspiration.

    You inspire me and I’m wishing you & yours the happiest of holidays and a wonderful & prosperous 2011 – Give the farmer and kids a hug from Granny in Phoenix!

  6. Van
    Van says:

    Looks like you chose an amazing coach. I love these two photos:

    Invites us into his world. Excellent texture, soft, warm, inviting. I like the vintage vibe.

    Beautiful display, excellent warm photography to showcase the good design.

    Your post reminds me of an important lesson I’ll take into 2011. You can’t do it all, and everyone can benefit from training. This year I’ll invest in school/couching. I miss it.

  7. lb
    lb says:

    “Cockamamie” is Yiddish ?

    No wonder I didnt understand what some UW Madison students were trying to order way back when I waited tables at a kosher-style deli on State Street.

    Two girls: “Do you have knishes?”

    Me: …

    (Me thinking to myself): ‘WHAT THE HELL’S A ‘KNISH’ …?”

  8. Chris M.
    Chris M. says:

    Penelope, I would love to have a “tone check” that actually worked, but having done research in artificial intelligence related to language in the past, I fear that it will take a long time to happen.

    Sure, Tone Check does seem useful, but it barely touches the tip of the iceberg. I can tell from experience that the worse misinterpretation by email are not “machine detectable”. Here is one example:

    A manager innocently wrote in an email to peers, “Thank you so much everybody for being on time for our last meeting.” The message deeply offended another manager who wasn’t in the meeting but had arrived late to a previous meeting, thinking the comment was a about her.

    Now, it would be impossible for a software to predict the unintended consequence of what at first would appear to be a positive comment. The only solution we found at work to avoid misunderstandings was to use email mostly for conveying simple facts, and phone and in-person conversation for anything requiring “non-verbal” signs to be interpreted the right way.

    Unfortunately, this solution doesn’t seem to work for people with Aspergers…

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      I like and am in agreement with this comment … especially the ‘unintended consequence’ example. I went to the Tone Check website, looked at the demo, read various reviews and came to the conclusion that while the software is in beta, the technology is in the alpha stage. Therefore the idea of using software (Tone Check or any other) to institute “tone policy” is not a good idea in my opinion. However I think it’s fine to have the software available to the employee and to let the employee decide if it’s productive for them to use it.
      Also I’m always cognizant of the fact that words can be misconstrued and evoke strong emotions unintentionally. With this fact in mind I will ask for further clarification of an email or other written document when necessary and at the same time try to give the sender the benefit of the doubt before arriving at a conclusion. This is what I call a productive conversation or dialog – an exchange of thoughts/ideas back and forth between two parties until both parties understand what each other is saying. Therefore multiple emails on the same thread may be necessary or another option such as the telephone or face to face meeting may be in order.

  9. Michael Gill
    Michael Gill says:

    Speaking of the secondary market for gift cards, check out: http://www.mercardi.com/

    It was started by graduates of the top-ranked University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Really sharp people. And the business seems to be doing really well, which can happen only if customers are satisfied.

  10. tari
    tari says:

    OMG! don’t know what I love more!I’ve always said “if most people showed up at work that high on anything else(meaning caffeine), they would be sent home”!Going to a starbucks at 7AM on any given day, is like walking into a nightclub at 1:45 at last call, stark sober,ARRGHHH!!..As for the precious children…MAKE THEM MOW THE LAWN..WASH THE CAR. Raise them to be self assured little bastards, not self intitled! Love your pespective! YEA YOU!!

  11. Laura "Ole" Olesen
    Laura "Ole" Olesen says:

    Finally made it here after being recommended by a friend for months. Glad I made the trip! You’re now in “the feed”. As for the lamp…. I bet you could find something similarly cool, maybe for less. Me? I’m an antique nut. If I find that special piece that makes my heart sing, I sit on it for 24, 48, maybe 3000 hours (if it’s pretty darn pricey)… and then if it’s still in my heart, I just might do it. Then, when I bring it home I make sure to cultivate that joy for it and appreciate what it means. Happy Hols everyone!

  12. Carole Dixon
    Carole Dixon says:

    Your photos are improving! They no longer make me want to crop and photoshop them! Light and power to you. Merry Christmas (loved it when you said “Only Christians feel enough authority over the holiday to say it is not Christian, which is proof that the holiday belongs to Christians.)”

  13. Janice
    Janice says:

    I am spending my night exploring the beautiful world of bloggers. So far I have found two blogs that I simply love, yours and one called Crazy Rambling Thoughts. ( http://www.outhereinmyworld.blogspot.com ) I am not sure how I got here but am enjoying my lostcapade. I am definitely going to have to look into the gift card laundrying especially after receiving some “interesting” gifts yesterday.
    Be-lated Merry Christmas!

  14. Emily
    Emily says:

    Hi Penelope,
    I feel like the first suggestions in this post are all a little tongue and cheek, but the last suggestion (about a couch) seems for real. Unless you’re really talking about how we shouldn’t need coaches (like we shouldn’t need expensive chandeliers) but we do because that’s just how our mind works; sometimes we need objects or in the case of the coach, people outside of us, to remind us that we’re valuable. In that case I agree!

  15. Laura "Ole" Olesen
    Laura "Ole" Olesen says:

    Penelope, Check out today’s Remodelista 10 Easy Pieces: Modern Glass Globe Chandeliers for some alternate chandelier options! I have no association with the site but for some reason, remembered about you and your chandelier craving and, when I received my daily email from them with this entry, thought you might enjoy their selections….some are much less expensive!

  16. squatter7
    squatter7 says:

    Perhaps parents are better off buying their kid a franchise instead of a college education. But I’d bet nearly 100% of the parents doing that are paying for both. Absolutely nothing beats a rich daddy.

  17. Prime
    Prime says:

    “In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks so much about how hard work makes you great, but the hard work has to be focused and productive, which he says comes from good coaching. So I can't stand doing anything when I don't have a great coach.”

    -I stopped subscribing to your blog a few onths ago, because I just cant stand the negative vibe or the posts which I think are either false/crazy/delusioonal. But after reading this, i decided to subscribe again if only because, like you, I love having a coach (I cant afford one before so I seeked out mentors and went to workshops) and I think having one is a good career investment. I’m now hiring a wonderful writing coach to help me write again from the heart after 15 years of “writing from the mind and for the money” business journalism

  18. Steve
    Steve says:

    I wish my parents had bought me a company for Christmas, I did get a piggy bank which my mom had to raid once of twice, saying that as the CEO of my piggy bank, she would repay with interest. It´s been around thirty years since then and I haven´t seen a dime – Oh well, maybe it shows that I´m not a great CEO.

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