How to tell a new story about yourself

You know you’re in denial when your bio still says you live a thousand miles from where you really live. That’s pretty much where I am right now.

Also I couldn’t do obsessive late-night purchases on Anthropologie because I couldn’t remember that I still had the farm address on my credit card. And then I thought I didn’t have money because my card didn’t work. It’s messed up. I need to just get a grip on reality and update my address.

Try to to guess the one link on my site that gets the most clicks. Well, actually, it’s mailbag, and now that I’m writing this, I’m going to have to put a new question there. I have no idea why it’s so popular, but before I start getting friendly with quick money lenders,  I should focus on monetizing that section.

But after mailbag, the most popular link is the Photos of Penelope link. For the five people who read this blog and have never clicked on it, it’s here, but it’s also on the bottom of every page. And I used to really like the page a lot. It’s pictures of me having fun and being thin and feeling in love. And pictures of me using my startup funding to pay people to do my hair and my makeup to get me ready for a fancy photo session.

Now I look at that page and it’s mostly pictures of me on the farm. Crap.

Also I look so happy. Crap.

Also, as I write this my whole body is heating up, getting sweaty and woozy, which means just thinking of those pictures triggers a hot flash.

Something about hot flashes: after you have one you feel like you just worked out. There’s sweat everywhere. So I am trying to train myself to treat my hot flashes like Pavlov’s bell, and soon dopamine will come on command and I won’t have to work out to get the psychological benefits of working out. I’ll only have to have a hot flash.

Anyway, someone just asked me to send over my bio and a headshot. I sent them the picture on this post as my headshot. And I wrote a new bio. I told myself just get it written now, fast, and think about it more later.

Writing the bio felt like breakup sex: it’s easy to be great when there’s nothing at stake. So now I think I might just have this as my bio:

Penelope Trunk was named by TechCrunch as one of the 25 most revolutionary women in tech. Inc Magazine called her the world’s most influential career coach. BusinessWeek called Penelope’s blog a must read for Generation Y. Penelope has Aspergers, and probably so does everyone she’s ever been close to in her whole life, but people have a hard time admitting that she is right about this.

It’s short, for sure, but Melissa sent me a piece from McSweeney’s that makes fun of what it’s like to try to hire a Gen-Xer. And the description of the Gen-Xers who only sort of wants to work sounds exactly like me. Melissa points out that it’s a largely negative portrait of Gen-X, but I don’t care. If people want a longer description of who I am, they can read McSweeney’s.

I am thinking that there comes a point in every woman’s life where she should retire the idea of a headshot and instead use a picture of her living room. Forget you needing to see my full figure. My love language is quality time so you should imagine yourself caressing my couch.

My kids are also having to rework their bios.

Not that kids usually have a bio. But of course my kids both have bios.

This is because my younger son is a cellist, and you don’t practice music five hours a day without having a bio. And my older son has decided he wants to go to some fancy science school even though his mom makes a living writing about how dumb school is.  So, because I’m a good person I got on board with his goals even though they are not my goals and I wrote the bio he will use to get into college so that then we can work backwards from there.

Really. It’s not a mystery what bio gets a kid into a great school. So why not write the bio like it’s a to-do list?

For those of you who are getting impatient that this blog post does not apply to you, write your resume to get your dream job. Then work backwards to make it true. This is the type of strategic planning that gets you a great career.

It’s hard to do. If you can’t do it, you should be like my son and have me do it for you. But you’d have to pay me.

I can’t bear to write my bio because I just want to lie to you: Penelope had a very successful career and never gave it up for kids. Then Penelope raised kids who are exceptionally successful but she never gave up taking care of herself.

There will be a photo to illustrate this bio and it will be from Sports Illustrated. Not a naked one, but maybe one from an article about sportscasters. Because they present that magical combination of hotness and intelligent questions.

Actually, by the time you reach 50, everyone’s bio is the same: Worked. Had kids. Constantly underestimated how much happiness money can buy.

Should I say in my bio that I have two ex husbands and both left me and that I was in complete shock in both times? Who is so dense that they are completely blindsided by divorce. Twice.

By the way, this last time it was not divorce. Because in Wisconsin if you are living together but not married then it’s treated like a business partnership. But it doesn’t matter, because I still lost almost all my stuff. I just couldn’t get a grip fast enough to get my things. In fact, the amount I left there is so significant that I will show a big loss on my taxes this year. Which in a way will end up saving me tons of money.

So maybe my new bio should actually say, Penelope has had a wide range of different jobs and four startups, but she found that her most natural gift is taking a tax write-off from failed ventures.

41 replies
  1. Erin
    Erin says:

    I’m glad you’re writing about this bc I think it’s part of you processing it & also one step towards you getting back into the groove of writing other things. To me, this post is you trying to not take yourself so seriously, and that is, in and of itself, a sign of healing. And confidence.

  2. MBL
    MBL says:

    I had seen all of the photos, but had never clicked the link. I wonder who the other four readers are. The photo that I remember most from your wedding is the one with marigold egg yolk. All of the photos were great, but that yolk, wowza! And yes, you do look so very happy. Sigh.

    I have found the love languages thing to be invaluable regarding parenting. I read the book years ago and was glad that I was able to get past all of the religious references and focus on the useful parts. Two days ago I was having coffee with a friend and she was at her absolute wit’s end with her 15 year old step daughter who lives with them half of the week. I highly recommended she read the book and hope that she does. From there we went to see the movie Lady Bird knowing pretty much nothing about it except that it has a rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Given that it was about a mother daughter relationship, I kept elbowing her (I am super fun at movies!!) because so much was relevant to what we had just talked about.

    Now for the review portion of my comment. Lady Bird is one of THE most perfect movies I have ever seen. Everything about it is perfect. Writing and directing by Greta Gerwig (age 34!!), casting, acting, soundtrack, costuming, everything. If it doesn’t get nominated for a slew of oscars, especially Saoirse Ronan, well…
    Again, it was perfect. The “failing” NYTs agrees with me.

    • Amanda
      Amanda says:

      Hi, one of the five *waves*

      And now not one of the five.

      Completely agree with Erin. Keep it real P, we have missed you

  3. Poppy
    Poppy says:

    I clic on the mailbag page often to see if there’s something new, as I get the updates from the regular blog on my mail and I know I won’t find anything new in there. So for me it’s a way to get my Penelope fix more often.

    You know, yours is literally the only blog I follow in which I read every post as soon as it arrives to my mailbox, or as soon as I can. I saw today’s mail right after waking up (I live in Spain) and I had to refrain myself to read it immediately on my iPhone; instead, I reluctantly woke up, made some breakfast and then read it slowly while eating and drinking my coffee. What I mean is, your blog is my treat, and that is so rare in today’s world of spammy writing. And what I mean is I’d totally pay for a subscription to read more of your stuff more often, if you’re thinking about ways to monetize.

    It doesn’t look like you’ve arrived yet to a new and satisfactory way to tell yourself that story about yourself, but I’m sure you’ll get there. For what it’s worth, the story I see from where I stand is one of a woman who fought bravely and strongely to save her marriage and raise her kids and have the best possible family and life. Maybe things didn’t pan out the way you’d have liked them, but that’s because unfortunately, relationship stuff is not under our total control. We can do a lot, but we can’t do everything.

    I know these are platitudes, but I read somewhere that platitudes are truths that have been repeated too often.

    Take care.

  4. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    While you are writing bios, here’s an unsolicited reference:

    Penelope is top of my list of most revolutionary women in tech. She has saved me from wasting alot of time on the wrong things in my tech career. Then, when I was ill-prepared to transition from working woman to working mum Penelope’s writing helped me cope with my struggles. She is the most influential life coach I have had. Even when suffering from burnout I could write to Penelope’s mailbag and not only get a polarising answer that helped me move forward, but also the perspectives and experiences of her wise community. I used to think the best things about Penelope were her off-the-charts IQ and EQ but now I know it is her boundless generosity and determination which I always aim to emulate.

  5. Jen
    Jen says:

    I’m one of the 5 as well. Also after reading penelope’s blog for several years I only came across mailbag literally a couple of months ago. And as Poppy said I too read it now and again to get my penelope fix. Plus I also agree with her about saving a post from this blog as a treat; as I too have waited till I’m eating breakfast or snuggled up and cosy in bed before reading the most recent post.

    Plus I like the idea of using reverse engineering by creating a CV for your dream job. However I dream of working for myself, and running my own company, so I’d never be sending out my dream CV in the first place. If that makes sense.

  6. INTJ Professor
    INTJ Professor says:

    Another one of the five.

    I come here every day, to click on Education, Careers, and Mailbag. I do admire anyone who can cut to the chase, and nobody does that like Penelope in a Mailbag answer.

  7. Genna
    Genna says:

    The difference between web analytics and true insight. Ppl know whether there is a new post either from email or visiting your url. The only other button that may reveal something new is mailbox, so I keep clicking it too, especially if there is nothing new from you for weeks.
    So it is not the most popular, your writing (whatever it is) is the most popular.
    Action: add mailbox to email, open it up in the url so no one needs to click the button.
    An idea for you – many of us so rely on the community, we would love to get some answers from each other. Add a community mailbox to keep the site active even when you’re not around. Then surprise us with your comment – that’s a bonus!

  8. Kim
    Kim says:

    Why did your divorce blind side you? I finding it interesting the 2 times I went to counselling for my marriage my husband said. Nah nothing’s wrongs its great. I was like REALLY DUDE?

  9. B.Noir
    B.Noir says:

    Another one of the 5… and Im still not going to go look at your pics. I love your writing. I feel like I have had my shit together and made lots of money and I have been so poor even charity couldn’t save me. I have 2 failed loves, one amazing kid. I’m brilliant and yet I’m far from ever living to my fullest potential. Wtf? But knowing there is more people in the world that have lives, feelings, and experiences as I have makes me feel less depressed that I haven’t done my life in the socially acceptable way I feel one must to be stamped a success story.

    Happy Thanksgiving!


  10. Janet
    Janet says:

    Hey Penelope – You have been in my email in box for a few years now and I regret to say I haven’t opened many of them to read. However…..after reading your latest blog post I’m thinking dang! I shoulda been reading this girl all along! Thanks for such a timely post in my world right now. I’ll be going back and reading your posts. Best! Janet

  11. ruo
    ruo says:

    maybe you don’t need to tell a new story, you just need to re-tell the same story to yourself that it’s okay the more things change, the more they stay the same.

  12. Maria
    Maria says:

    …love Melissa’s Gen X article. So true and yet more telling of the corporation’s management than of the Gen X.

    So, Penelope, how much would you charge for redoing my resume so I can apply for CEO and senior management positions?

  13. Gillian Rose
    Gillian Rose says:

    Great idea, writing the resume for the job you want.

    Glad you got away from the abusive farmer.

    No one see’s it coming – my ex husband didn’t and he was a forever cheating, dominating, controlling asshole. I said I was going to leave forever. And one day, I just did – without even planning. They say he balled up in the fetal position on the kitchen floor and cried for hours. Hahaha

  14. carmen
    carmen says:

    This isn’t a new story as much as it is you reflecting in hindsight. You didn’t know you needed a new bio until you needed a new bio.

    There’s a risk in telling restructured stories prompted by new information. Things we didn’t know in the past make us sound like frauds and liars when we try retelling our stories with a new bent. The realization that being believed is precious and valuable is stultifying. Makes you want to give up.

    You’re emerging. That’s more hopeful and true, I think.

  15. Mike Wilson
    Mike Wilson says:

    You know, that new headshot looks a lot like Melissa. It’s kind of strange, and I’m not sure how you did it.

  16. me
    me says:

    Another of the 5 readers who never saw that photo page (and I’ve been following the blog for 8 years!).

    I hate endings. Especially when I (selectively) look back & think of how happy I was (or thought I was). When I start to wallow, that’s the time I tell myself:

    “Forget what you had & face what you’ve got.”

    It doesnt always help right away, but what else can we do … ?

  17. Laura
    Laura says:

    Very thought provoking. I feel like I’m constantly re-writing my story these days and still haven’t quite figured out how to explain it to others. I like the idea of crafting a bio for the job you want. Might help me move forward better.

  18. carmen santiago
    carmen santiago says:

    I’m 46 years old. I’ve been coaching people and consulting businesses for, maybe, half of my life — at least 20+ years. Putting my freelance transcription work aside, there are no problems having people from my past see me as a counselor of sorts. I’ve always been more so about listening to people’s problems and having opinions since I was a small mouthy brat. It’s why I almost became a lawyer. I win arguments too.

    Many people, like myself, reach out to coaches when they’re entering a new phase in their lives. They need a new generation or new audience or new demographic of people to connect with. So it isn’t a “new” story we’re telling. It’s more like taking our old story and trying to recycle it so that it will take us through the next 10 years.

    That’s really all I’ve been trying to do. I’m not some arrogant kid with a chip on his/her shoulder. I started my first reincarnation in 2004 after my mom died. Then I tried reincarnating again with blogging from 2011 to 2013 and beyond with online content. All experiments.

    Now it’s time for a new chapter. Not a new story.

    Oh… and fame? The last thing someone my age wants is fame. If you’re famous, good for you. You can have it. I never knew you were famous. I admired your writing, but no one else I knew ever heard of you.

    What I want is peace and to feel good about what I’m doing in the world. I know enough people. Finding ways to help them as we get older is where I’m at.

  19. Jean
    Jean says:

    I’ve followed your blog for 7 flippin’ years, tell people all the time about your blog, and still never clicked on that photos link – which shows you can really love something and still get blindsided with details you weren’t paying attention to.

    It happens to the best of us.

  20. Karelys
    Karelys says:

    I feel like a 50 year old woman in a 30 year old’s body.

    I have made the full circle of realizing I wanted career as a shortcut to satisfying my insecurities. I got that worked out and now working hard at a career to climb the ladder feels… something I don’t want to do.

    I don’t want to do work as much as I want to work on the stuff that I like.
    And so I decided to go for it.
    And soon I will be ready to launch services.

    I made myself a story where it says that Karelys was a great mom who raised chill happy kids, had an awesome sex life, solid positive friendships with women until the end of her life, and took care of herself as well as others in the entire process.

    Working backwards I realized I was willing to give up a lot for the sake of that being true. I sold my house. Moved into someone’s basement (that’s like a 2 bed apartment), made a deal that I wasn’t mowing lawns or shoveling snow.

    I have enough money and time and energy to humor my kids and indulge their whims, a park a block from the house to go running on, my job is 10 minutes away from my house, and I have more time to grow friendships and myself.

    Sex life is pretty hot.

    For right now, the bio is true to form.
    And when life stops working out well, I will change things to make sure the bio continues to be true.

    Because nothing is as valuable as this for me right now. And soon my kiddos will grow from needing constant attention to not want to be around me. And then I can go after other pursuits that require my full attention. But I don’t want to start taking care of myself and work on setting up a good sex life until then.

    I don’t need the recognition from a job title, I don’t need more money although I’d always welcome more. My job provides enough satisfaction about making connections and providing resources in people’s lives.

    What I do need and want right now? vast amounts of time to just be. To meditate and think. And to do things just because I want to, not because I need to. Like pottery. Like playing guitar. Like teaching all the 5 kids in this house a play for Christmas.

    All the things that need time and do not produce money as fruit. Just fun and memories and satisfaction and stronger bonds.

    That’s all I want right now and I have demolished and rebuilt my life so I can afford to do that with money, with time, and with energy.

    • Robin
      Robin says:

      Thank you. I’m in the middle of this process now and your post helped something click. I’m 41 not 50, though!

  21. Tatianna
    Tatianna says:

    Another brilliant post. I never clicked on the mail bag or photos, but will definitely check both out now. Absolutely never miss a post. I’ve been a faithful reader for 5 years. Like another reader mentioned in an age full of vaporous content your writing is something to cherish.

  22. SarahL
    SarahL says:

    I am another one of the 5 (but not anymore). I live like it’s still 2008 on the internet and come here when there’s a new post in my feed reader. I guess I should have looked around more because I never knew about the mailbag section either. Mind blown–I spent most of yesterday reading and I think I’m still in the questions from 2017. Your kids (and mine) watch enough YouTube that you know the future is walking hand-in-hand with video. You could monetize the mailbag by making videos out of a question and your answer. At the least, it might drive revenue through new coaching clients. Whatever you do, please keep coming back and posting here!

  23. inthetrunk
    inthetrunk says:

    Count your blessings, P. You look GREAT for your age, and very cute in those glasses. When you’re 70 you’ll look at this picture and realize you didn’t appreciate how great you look.

    You have two intelligent kids who love you.

    You are a gifted writer.

    My best guess is your biggest problem is you need laid badly, and I personally know what a bitch that is.

    • B.Noir
      B.Noir says:

      Awesome sex is a bitch these days… who would ever think women would proclaim that as an issue, but yeah. Leaving a 23 year relationship with my lover this past May has me realizing that crappy sex was better than zero sex. It didn’t help that my lover was super satisfying in this department for most of the 23 years. Granted it got boring in the later years of our 23 years but jeezus the reality of how much I would miss this taken for granted activity once I couldn’t have it whenever I wanted it good, bad, or boring truly sucks when it’s no longer there for the taking…. and no- my hand, a toy, the showerhead… doesn’t make for good substitute. Pondering if I could become a 50 year old one night stand seeker 5x a week slut and it not have negative consequences on my reputation! Lol… that seems too good to be true. Lol! B.Noir

  24. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Definitely update the location on the Bio! I would think that writing a new and updated bio would be fun! Take your own advice and make a great bio. I have to do a new bio every time my middle child does a new theater production. It actually started out pretty skimpy, but now that I know how to do them they are a lot of fun. While I love the photo and think you look amazing, I would try to get a better headshot that is less like a selfie. When is Melissa visiting? I would ask her to do a quick headshot session for you.

    First thing I did when we relocated our family from L.A. to Minneapolis was update all our addresses with every financial institution and online shopping site. Second thing I did was purchase an additional coffee pot! Relocating is a very draining process. Eight months later and it’s slowly starting to feel like we have always lived here. But, our walls are still bare so the fact that you keep changing paint colors floors me.

    P.S. Thanks for the Yale book link. I feel like they keep coming out with new books every year. Does the advice change much?

  25. Kate Nonymous
    Kate Nonymous says:

    I don’t think the McSweeney’s piece is a negative portrait of Gen Xers. I think it’s a negative portrait of what too many jobs are like. What the McSweeney’s piece points out is that Gen X gets that this is what work is like, and is resigned to it.

  26. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Today on Facebook I saw a memory from 2010: 7 years ago I shared one of your big posts on my timeline ( It was a delight to see this memory because it’s a post I’ve thought about a lot over the years and I couldn’t remember where it came from (sorry). Anyway, it led me back to your blog, including this post from November 2017. I hope you are doing well as 2017 nears an end, and that you continue finding meaning in the interesting, if not always happy, life. Thanks for giving voice to what so many of us experience.

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