What a good career coaching session really looks like

People who are not my kids think it’s really interesting to listen to my side of a coaching phone call. In fact, lots of people say they’d pay to hear both sides, but it’s clear to me that if someone knows another person is listening to them the call gets useless fast and sounds more like a job interview.

My kids have had enough. And now that my youngest is home alone with me he has taken to pausing his video game to yell out a personality type. Just from hearing my side of the call. Really. That’s how easy it is.

What I want to do in coaching sessions is say, “This is your personality type, here’s your real problem, here’s how to fix it.” But people tell me I can’t possibly know everything from personality type, and they complain that I’m not listening to them about their uniqueness. So instead I don’t tell them about personality type and the person thinks I’m a mind reader.

If the person has Autism, I want to say, “You have Autism and your parents and siblings have Autism. You will marry someone with Autism if you haven’t already, and your kids will have Autism.”

I know this will surprise you, but no one wants to hear that from me. So instead coaching sessions feel like magic because I already know what people in their family are like and what they did as a kid and what they eat for breakfast now. Then we solve their problem and we are Autism friends.

I like coaching people who have Autism because they’re like me. This is lucky because most of you have Autism. Okay not everyone. Some neurotypical men read this blog. But I doubt there are any women reading who don’t have Autism. Even me just writing something like that would piss off any normal woman. An Autistic woman who disagrees with me thinks to herself, “Fuck Penelope,” and waits for the next time I post.

My son has spent so much time listening to me tell people how to see Autism in themselves, that he can sit on a college campus and pick out the people with Autism. He tells me he wishes he knew as much about the gay community as the Autistic community and he feels really lonely. I tell him Covid is hard for everyone, read a book.

I want to be a compassionate mom. Autistic moms are challenged. We have to be more intentional than other moms. So I tell him we can sit on campus and watch for gay people.

He tells me people watching does not help loneliness. We make hand shadows under the moon until we are interrupted with a coaching session I forgot I scheduled, which is every session, really.

The problem with transformative coaching is no one asks for it. In fact, they specifically hate it. It makes people cry. Or hang up on me and have their boyfriend call me to get a refund. But mostly it makes people cry. I was talking to a guy recently who told me, “You just tell people the truth without thinking they might not want to know the truth. Everyone doesn’t need to know everything that is true.”

Okay, that’s probably true. What people want from coaching is an upgrade to the life they can see. But sometimes people are totally screwed. So I have to tell them. I have to say, you think you are on a path that is difficult but your path is nonexistent which is why it feels so difficult.

We cannot talk about nonreality because all the options in nonreality look really great, so then my realistic options will look terrible. In that sense, the guy was right. I’m just telling people the truth to make it easier for me. So our conversation can move on to something more interesting than fairy tales.

I always take crying as a good sign because I only cry when my own make-believe scenes dissolve right in front of me.

I have known intuitively that people who are not crying are resisting the shock of reality, but I have not had proof. I just know that I’m seeing clearly that someone is in trouble and I am telling them and they are calmly asking clarifying questions to something that is already very clear.

But recently, I got proof that crying is best. Remember Whitney, the woman who annotated my blog post to show the white privilege? I talked with her a lot. She told me I have a white savior complex. I argued with her and when I realized I was arguing I was like, Crap. I’m a Karen. So then I switched to asking for clarification in argumentative ways.

I’m only admitting this now, okay. I didn’t admit it til, like, hm. Yesterday. Yesterday my son and I went to an ice cream place for our daily foray into the world that is not our apartment.

I didn’t wear a bra, which he pointed out.

I said, “It’s misogynist to tell women what to do with their breasts.”

My son is reading Hood Feminism. He told me that people think if a Black woman doesn’t wear a bra then she’s sexually available, so it’s white privilege to not wear a bra and escape that judgment. He told me if I start talking about how women are being harmed, I need to separate Black and white women because the Black experience is so much worse.

I said fuck it and put on a bra when we got home. And I’m reading Hood Feminism.

My son wants everyone who might be reading this post and judging him for college or a music competition or God knows what else that he told me not to quote him directly here. So I am not quoting him directly. This is exactly why it doesn’t work to do live coaching calls: people are surprising and fascinating in private. It takes being a little bit crazy to want to be surprising and fascinating in public.

I want everyone to know that Whitney was right. She was telling me I have white savior complex because it’s so easy for her to see. During our last phone call, I was the person who couldn’t handle transformation. I wanted Whitney to tell me something to change that would be in the context of the life I can see now.

I did what most people do who hang up after a coaching session with me. I let the new information settle at a pace my heart and head could handle. Then I called Whitney to say thank you and tell me more. I still get impatient with people who cannot process the new information as fast as I’m dishing it out, but at least I understand what it feels like to be bowled over by the truth.

67 replies
  1. Sarah Wolfe
    Sarah Wolfe says:

    FWIW I’m not autistic (although my sister and some friends are) but I’m a female INTJ. That’s the tiny other demographic on your blog, I’m betting. But am I brave enough for a coaching call? NOPE. lol

    • Nora
      Nora says:

      Same. INTJ woman. Caroline Myss says that people call her “blunt” but really the situation is that she says truth faster than their defense mechanism can block it. I think Penelope has the same dynamic. But if people are paying her then maybe they are ready to confront uncomfortable truths. I prefer Penelope to the whole Brene Brown/Gretchen Rubin/Glennon Doyle con game: “you’re life is a mess because you’re so giving and selfless, you book-buying goddess who has never been praised enough.” Penelope is beauty in the Keats sense of the word: truth

      • Cheryl
        Cheryl says:

        I’m a female INTJ too, and I’m so glad to be able interact here with other female INTJs. I once had a therapist who, in retrospect, didn’t want to treat me. She dismissed me and tried to con me with “There’s nothing wrong with you, you’re perfect just the way you are!” I think this was her way of preventing me from badmouthing her when she couldn’t help me.

  2. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    I remember two things about the coaching session I had with you. One that I was annoyed that you said I was autistic, and probably married someone who was autistic, and probably had autistic kids. That’s not what I wanted to talk about. You controlled the agenda for the meeting and I didn’t want it to be that way.

    You ended up being partially right: I accept that I’m autistic, and I do have one autistic child. My wife is not and neither is my other child. I wrote about this here: https://blog.jimgrey.net/2020/04/24/live-life-own-terms/

    If I had known going in that you would beat me up I would still have signed up for the hour, I would just have been ready for what I got. It took me a few days just to get over being beat up. I wasn’t able to hear anything you said in the moment because I was busy blocking and trying to jab back. Of course, I’m no good at that and you’re very practiced at it and so you kept me pinned the whole hour.

    I don’t even remember what else you told me because I was so busy either trying to defend myself, or being kind of curled up into a ball so the punches wouldn’t land anywhere that mattered.

    But it’s nice to know I’m autistic. It makes a lot of stuff in my life make sense. I like it when things make sense. I don’t even have to _like_ the thing that makes sense, it’s just satisfying when things make sense. Which is totally an autistic trait.

    • Ruo
      Ruo says:

      That’s nice to know you weren’t the only one who felt bulldozed on your coaching call. It takes a few days to recover. Sometimes I think penelope can do these calls in 30 min and get even more efficient to the point but that would leave no time for crying and some more defensive back and forth.

    • Claudia
      Claudia says:

      It’s a really common term in my world. It’s extremely relevant to the nonprofit field I’ve worked in and many, many other things.

  3. Lis Brodie
    Lis Brodie says:

    I’m not autistic, I’m female and I love your blog. I also think it would be fascinating if you could tell me what I can’t see about myself, especially if it made me cry. I’m an INTJ also so maybe that’s something.

  4. Minami
    Minami says:

    I agree with Whitney. I think it’s very easy for people of color to spot white privilege being displayed – especially if you come from a low-income background. I’ve seen it on your blog plenty of times, haha.

    We don’t often point it out, because it almost always results in defensiveness that’s exhausting to argue against. For Whitney to be willing to point it out to you, and have a whole conversation with you about it, was an act of generosity on her part. POC only do that for white people we feel might care and actually listen. And whom we care about. So I’m glad you thanked her.

    I enjoyed my coaching call with you a lot, from years back. I didn’t cry, but it did move me to finally get medicated for anxiety. I remember telling you not to talk to me about getting medicated because “I already know I need to do it, so don’t bother.” And you started pushing me on it anyway, and you made me realize not only that I had to do it, but that I had to do it as soon as possible. It’s changed my life. I’m really thankful to you for that.

  5. Tara
    Tara says:

    INTJ and autistic here, so what’s left to coach?? LOL Occasionally a Karen, though I try hard to suppress her. Thanks for sharing your struggle to process the things in other people’s time.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s a good question: what’s left to coach if you already know you’re autistic? I actually find that for a lot of people, just discovering they are autistic solves a huge number of problems in their life. This is because if a person is autistic and doesn’t know it then their self-knowledge is the blocker in most situations where they feel blocked.

      The answer to the question of what’s left to coach is the answer one would expect: each of us needs outside perspective when we’re stuck. But people with Autism get really stuck because we see other people so clearly that we assume we can see ourselves as well. But we can’t. A lot of times I find that I don’t realize where I’m stuck until someone with Autism is so direct with me that I can’t ignore it.


      • Tara
        Tara says:

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

        Now, I am questioning whether I’m stuck! I think I’d know.

        Honestly, I participated in a multi-session online video thing with you years ago, and I loved it. I am not sure I personally need coaching now, but I’m sure glad you’re out here offering it. It benefitted me, and heck, I’d pay to chat again. It’s likely a much better use of my time than so many other things.

        Anyway, thanks again for the thoughtful reply.

  6. RK
    RK says:

    I paid for a coaching call with Penelope because there was a discount once and then I forgot all about it. Finally I arranged the call and when I rang, she had forgotten about it! I rang to ask about my career so it was shocking to be diagnosed on the autism spectrum instead. I could accept everyone in my family had it (big family) but not my sister who seems to be perfect. But the clincher was when Penelope asked “well what does your sister and her husband do?” Then I realised they work on their own start up…and everything that I’d been reading on this blog and Penelope was saying fell into place. It wasn’t easy accepting it at first and I did think “fuck Penelope she just thinks everyone is on the spectrum” but the more I thought about my life, family and my current workplace (full of other women with ADHD kids) the more it made sense. In a strange way it has made my life easier and I am a lot more patient with myself and others.

    • Joy
      Joy says:

      Hi! I am INFP and had a coaching call with Penelope in December 2017 because she offered a 50% discount. I logged in halfway of the time because I had technical difficulties. I asked her if I should remain in my job. She told me that I did not need to work in a job that required much confidence. If I need alone time, I should have a job that left me alone, or a job that I can work for 9 am to 5 pm only. I earlier sent her a list of questions about working and dating. She replied that I might be autistic, and I could have inherited it from my mother. I said that I worked in a job that is hard for me so that I can help my family. She was kind to say that I have a good family because we help each other.

      The insight from the call eventually made my life easier. I accepted that I may have autism, though I am not diagnosed yet. I work in a job that is from 8 am to 5 pm, Mondays to Fridays, sometimes Saturdays. If people ask me to do something hard, I do the best I can. I think of myself as a child in an adult body, or an alien on planet earth, always learning how to be better. Thank you again, Penelope, for this post and your coaching call.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        Awww, this comment makes me so happy. Thank you. I feel like a child in an adult body as well. That’s a great way to describe Autism. And every time I have to be a grown-up I feel like I’m doing pretend because I have no idea what I’m doing — still, in my 50s, I’m watching other people to see what to do.


        • Doug
          Doug says:

          I’m very much feeling this right now. I’m also in your age demographic. I appreciate your calling this out.
          I’m also very much feeling a meme that I saw recently:
          “Having ASD is like playing an MMORPG where you’ve rolled up a character that you think is really interesting. Then, one day, you suddenly understand how the game works and realize that you did it all wrong.”

  7. Kitty Kilian
    Kitty Kilian says:

    I really have nothing of interest to add, but I just wanted to say hi ;-)
    I have missed your quirky thought processes in my inbox.
    May be I should schedule a coaching session just to have a chat.

  8. Tracey L Pate
    Tracey L Pate says:

    I really enjoyed this post. It almost makes me want to call and have you tell me how you see my life but I think I have a pretty clear picture as most people think they do. I don’t think I have a fantasy about what the future is bringing, which means I probably do, right? I know many of my limitations. I’m almost 60 and I think that the extended midlife crisis I’ve recently had has helped me come to terms with a lot. I’ve also stepped down out of a responsible and stressful position into something that is making me less stressed, not happier, for less money. Maybe I have unrealistic expectations about when I will retire or what my life will be like at that time but hey that’s okay for now. I’m writing to say I really enjoyed reading this column. I don’t think I’m autistic and I don’t want to tell you to f*** off because you said I probably am and I enjoyed your son’s non-direct quote comments. Hope you’re well thanks and bye.

  9. Tracey
    Tracey says:

    Ok, so you got me thinking and I just took a random, UK-based Autism screening test online. Here’s what it said about me, “These results indicate that…
    you have the same score as most people do when completing this test and probably don’t have an autistic spectrum disorder.”.

    Interesting info, and I certainly share some qualities. Again, loved your column this week. Maybe I will sign up for a session. 😁

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      ARRRGGGHHHHH so frustrating for me. I write on this blog once a week that the tests online are for men. Those tests do not work for women with Autism which is why 90% of women with Autism are undiagnosed.

      I wish everyone who wrote a comment about how they don’t have Autism would make their email public. Because for almost all of you it took me five minutes on google to see that you have Autism. I am saying again: once you understand what to look for it is so easy to see which women have Autism.

      Autism in women is a good thing — it means that you’re gifted, good-looking, often the most intersting person in a room, often successful in a STEM field. It’s just that having Autism gets harder and harder for women as we age, so it’s important to know if you have it as early as possible.

      I’m saying this so women are not fearful of finding out about Autism.


      • Tracey
        Tracey says:

        Point taken. I have no problem or fear of an Autism diagnosis. I’ve worked with K12 people on the spectrum. Super great if I am autistic or not. Didn’t know that most online quizzes, and that’s all they are, were geared towards mean.

      • anon
        anon says:

        Penelope, you said: “. . . once you understand what to look for it is so easy to see which women have Autism.”

        If it’s that easy, just exactly what is it that we are supposed to look for? Exactly. In brief, because it’s so easy.

  10. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    I want to reiterate that there is no one who is officially trained to diagnose women with Autism, and there is no official test. The tests you see online are for men unless they say otherwise.

    To diagnose you someone will ask you questions you can ask yourself. They don’t have any great insight that you can’t have. For example, if I ask you if you were in a gifted program as a child and then dropped out or got kicked out, if you say yes, it will become clear to you that Autism is what made the gifted program such a bad fit for you. You don’t need someone else to tell you that.

    It is SO EASY to diagnose yourself once you understand what Autism in women looks like. Autistic women already lived half our lives waiting for someone else to notice what’s wrong with us. We do not need to wait anymore, the mental health industry is completely behind on this. Also, we are really high-performing and the more the mental health industry gives us misguided information the more sidetracked we get from our inherent gifts. The literal definition of Autism is gifted — our brains are uneven and gifted is better brainpower than most everyone else in something. That’s brain unevenness.

    Also, while I’m on a tirade, here are diagnoses that tell you your therapist has no idea what they’re doing:
    1. Bipolar and you read this blog. No. It’s Autism they just don’t know what Autism looks like in women.
    2. ADHD and you read this blog. No. People who have ADHD and don’t have Autism have low IQ.
    3. Narcissist parents to describe your crappy childhood. No. Narcissism requires remarkable social skills to manipulate people to reach a goal. Parents with Autism are oblivious to other peoples’ needs and always trying to get out of doing stuff they don’t want to do. Your parents were Autistic. Your therapist doesn’t see because Autism is genetic and your therapist doesn’t think you have it.


    • Gauri
      Gauri says:

      Penelope have you come across Dr.Tony Attwood’s on autism in girls and women? I have found it helpful. It will be interesting to know what you make of his work.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        I have read some of his books. He is very behavioral: here’s what to do to help your kid. For the most part, none of those tactics have been proven to make a difference long-term. And it’s clear that stuff doesn’t work because we have seen a generation of kids who got behavioral interventions in school.

        So I stopped reading stuff like that and focused on what people are finding that can make a long-term impact. Simon Baron-Cohen is much more current than Tony Atwood. Baron-Cohen focuses on the unique impact of being a female with Autism. Lots of research about Autism is focusing on how mothers deal with children since it’s clear that the disorder is genetic and so Autistic mothers and dealing with Autistic children.

        Tony Atwood is telling Autistic mothers how to manage their kids’ Autistic behavior. But the first thing that has to happen is Autistic mothers have to understand Autism in themselves. Otherwise it’s difficult for us to see what needs adjusting within our family. Families with Autism have a history of poor parenting. The parents are overwhelmed trying to figure themselves out and they don’t realize they’re ignoring the kids, and then the kids grow up not understanding themselves and the cycle persists. To break the cycle the parents need to understand Autism in themselves.

        Tony Atwood isn’t great with that. His kid is in prison. I’d expect after he missed seeing Autism in his kid and his kid went to prison that he’d start writing more about how parents need to first understand themselves in order to help their kids. But that point is lost on him.


    • Sarah M
      Sarah M says:

      So, as the 4th? 5th? woman to comment as INTJ and not autistic (I don’t fit your 1-3 here and no autism in the family), I’m curious if you just think all of us commenting like this are.

      “But I doubt there are any women reading who don’t have Autism. Even me just writing something like that would piss off any normal woman. An Autistic woman who disagrees with me thinks to herself, “Fuck Penelope,” and waits for the next time I post.”

      I’m not pissed off but I’m not “fuck, I’ve been waiting to see what’s wrong with me” either.

      But I am always waiting for your next post…

  11. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    ENTJ. I’ve been reading for well over a decade. I’m not autistic but I work with young people who are and I love your insights. I disagree with you all the time but I don’t mind.

    • Tracey
      Tracey says:

      Funny, I sometimes disagree too but Phoebe is open to our comments and I really appreciate that. A long time reader and I love Penelope Trunk’s insights too.

  12. Pamela
    Pamela says:

    This post is interesting to read. I’m a neurotypical woman who has read this blog for nearly a decade. I finally scheduled a coaching call with you at the very beginning of the pandemic and swore you off afterward, because it was so harsh. I badtalked you to everyone afterward. You told me that I wasn’t an ESFJ and that my husband would leave me if we didn’t have kids, and that I should quit my self-employed job and just have kids. While I don’t think my husband would leave me, he and I are quite happy, we did end up having a child and you’re right, all I want to do is be with her and not go back to work. You were spot on in that assessment. I’m a very nurturing mother and supportive wife and think this is probably the best I’ll ever be at a job. Sad for someone who thought she’d have a career, but fine for someone who realizes that being a stable loving parent is the greatest gift I can give to my daughter and any future children.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I LOVE THIS COMMENT!!! I LOVE THIS COMMENT SO MUCH!!!! I love it because so many women put off kids because they first want to have some great career. But for almost everyone, a great career doesn’t come.

      I get emails like this one all the time. But few people post it as a comment. Thank you, Pamela. Also, it’s because of feedback like this that I’m able to keep telling women to have kids. It’s a public service. It’s too much to tell women they have to do something great before they have kids. Why? It’s messed up. So thank you thank you Pamela. Your perspective is going to help a lot of people be braver about pulling the plug on a career.


      • Jules the First
        Jules the First says:

        Thought I’d pop in to say that I had the big career and then I had the baby and honestly? (Here in this safe place where my boss won’t read it) the baby is by far the better achievement. I always thought women were bullshitting when they said that having a baby was the best thing they’d ever done (stay at home moms were justifying; working moms were living up to societal pressure…) but here I am saying the same thing. I made partner the same week my pregnancy was confirmed as viable and while I honestly and genuinely love my job, being a mom is so much more fun. If I could just figure out how to pay the mortgage without going back to work, I’d have another baby and wouldn’t go back to my job. So I find myself in this weird position where young women ask me how they should balance the big career and a baby and I’m all “screw the career. Have a baby. Do it now!” Which is funny because for years I have rubbished Penelope for saying exactly the same thing on the grounds that you can have a big career and a baby. You can – it’s just that once you have the baby, you go all meh about the career, so really you should just save yourself a decade of stress and a whole pile of cash on fertility treatment and just have the damn baby. (I’m an INTJ in a job that was created for me and perfectly tailored to my interests and skill set. If it applies to me, it applies to everyone. Have the baby now. Thank Penelope later.)

  13. Tatyana
    Tatyana says:

    I wonder if I will be assaulted by truth bombs during a coaching call?

    I am autistic, my kid is PDA autistic, I am married to an ND guy, my mom is on a spectrum. That’s not new to me but surprises my friends and coworkers all the time. I am well adjusted, partially, because I did not grow up in US.

    4 years ago I e-mailed Penelope with an opening question before I scheduled a coaching call. My question was which master’s program I should pursue. Her answer was: do not go for a master’s program. It was a logical answer for the regular and expected life.

    It did not fit my context. Firstly, I could have landed any corporate job without going for master’s. I already have a bachelor’s degree from a non-US college which means nothing in the US without connection. I am incapable of making social connections. So I had to put myself in a position where the social network was built for me. This meant I had to become a student again.

    Now, I am considering a pivot in my career. I can benefit from a very critical eye to reveal to me my blind spots.
    But is it possible to expect from the person with similar blind spots to mine?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oooh. That’s a really good comment, Tatyana. Such a good example of my weakness. I am great at seeing the problem someone has, and almost no one can see their real problem. It takes longer on the phone call to figure out how to solve the problem. I have to learn to separate the two.

      As someone with Autism, I can safely say that no one has the same blind spots as I do, because my biggest blind spots are me. For example, I can see when my older son needs to shut up with the jokes, but I can’t see when I need to shut up with the jokes. I mean, I see it, for me, but way too late.

      What I need to overcome my blind spots is someone who has Autism who can be completely blunt and direct with me so I hear the feedback. A neurotypical person could never be blunt enough to get me to believe that I’m blind. Similarly, when I am coaching someone I often say something totally obvious that everyone but the person who has the problem. But most people won’t tell you honest feedback.

      Here’s something someone just told me. I wear sequined headbands all the time. And people say, “I like your headband.” My Autistic friend just told me that neurotypical people say that when they are caught staring at something because it’s weird. Once I understood that, I noticed it. Like there was a girl with blue hair sitting next to me, and I watched her catch someone staring and the person said, “I like your hair.” But really, I mean, I’m sure the person was not intending to approach this girl and compliment her hair. So what I learned: people think my headbands are weird, but they don’t like the headbands. Wierd and like are very different to neurotypicals.

      So back to coaching. I don’t see how a neurotypical can coach an Autistic person because the neurotypical doesn’t understand how totally alien it is to say “I like your xxxx” when they don’t. Subtle is very very bad for people with Autism.

      Is this meandering and boring? I don’t know. No one edits my comments. The worst thing about living with Autism: needing someone to tell me if I’m boring yet it can only happen AFTER the fact.


      • Tatyana
        Tatyana says:

        I can relate to the “nobody edits my comments” statement! I saw so many typos and one glaring grammatical mistake AFTER I pressed the “post” button. ( my post should have said: “I could NOT have landed a corporate job..”)

        I can also relate to your autistic experience: I too cannot edit my behavior in the process. I can see myself somewhat clearly after the fact. For example, I know I interrupt my coworkers and my boss every time I understand their point in the first few seconds of them explaining. I hate wasting time. I try to be patient, but many times I just can’t stand the inefficiency of hearing a person out. Now, I am used to apologizing. I also do not always modulate my voice correctly. But my accent covers it up and people usually attribute my inappropriate inflections to being a foreigner.

        I know what I lack and what I have. Watching my child grow and struggle in restrictive American systems helped me to know myself.

        I tend to info dump also which puts me into boring territory sometimes. So, I can relate.

        What I still need to understand is how to move up in the corporate world when I do not do “people” well. Is there a “special” path for Autists? I tried to leverage a professional mentor at my job. It was useless. I was more interested in solving his professional problems and he could not help me much outside of praising me for my intellectual capacity.

        For a long time, I thought my special path is being a narrow specialist. But I have not found even one good example where deep knowledge of one thing is rewarded in a corporate environment. I am doing shallow work. Most people around me are doing shallow work. I think academia would be perfect for me. But I cannot afford 5 years in a PhD program with a kid in college.

        So, I must navigate the corporate world like a maze that hides a big pot of gold just around the corner.

        • Sam
          Sam says:

          Tatyana, as a male with a Ph.D and postdoc in STEM I can say that the narrow specialist being rewarded seems far fetched. Even if you avoid becoming a manager, as you get promoted on the technical ladder you’ll quickly shift focus from doing actual work into spending time on task forces/committees, writing documents about technical/business strategy, and overseeing the people doing the work.

          Here’s my take on why things are the way they are:

          Companies aren’t altruistic, so they compensate people who are perceived to generate value for them. A narrow specialist (say, top 5 in the world in their area) is only valuable if they solve a problem that is important for the company. Figuring out the technical solution is important, but the problem isn’t solved for the company until that solution is implemented. Your immediate boss has a million things to accomplish and very limited resources, getting him or her to allocate some resources for you requires a relationship where they trust you and believe in you. In large companies there might be other stakeholders to acquire resources from, but they are even farther away so you only have their ear if you have built relations and trust with the right people before that. The bottom line is that nothing will be accomplished without the support from others, no matter how brilliant a specialist is.

          So what about academia? Matt Welsh was a professor at Harvard and he wrote a blog post called “The secret lives of professors”. My take from that is that there is a lot of time spent on teaching, service, building relations/getting support for your ideas and not much time spent on doing research. He ended up getting tenure and being promoted to full professor so his story can’t be dismissed as him being an academic failure. His experience at Harvard a decade ago isn’t unique, if you go to an academic conference now you’ll hear pretty much the same story from any academic at a European/US university.

        • Karen
          Karen says:

          Hi Tatyana,

          I agree with Sam’s point that the academia only provides the narrow expert-focus that you describe looking from the outside-in. Inside it hasn’t been that way except in exceptional circumstances for at least 2 decades.

          However, I have seen a few people carve out successful (well-paying) careers based on deep, if narrow expertise. All of them had one thing in common: They worked in consultant positions. Some worked in big companies, but for the department that was given the “odd cases,” that was called upon when the standard approaches didn’t work. One works as a one-off second-set-of eyes. He has carved out a semi-managerial position but he doesn’t manage the people, he manages the projects. He has made himself invaluable by being the second set of eyes on every project, questioning his colleagues and catching lots of mistakes before projects advanced too far. Took a lot of work carving out that niche and figuring out how to critique and create value, but he has worked it out. Yet, some others work for a boutique firm that’s top-of-the-line for something and called in by fortune 500s when their in-house expertise in that something isn’t enough. They get to work with a range of cool projects but never have to worry about fitting in. Key for such a boutique firm to work out is, I believe, having a high-IQ NT boss who knows how to manage the ND human capital and be the bridge between the consultants and the fortune 500 firms.

          Anyway – my five cents.

          • Sam
            Sam says:

            I agree with Karen, the specialist consultant position can work and provide a salary enough for comfortable life, I’ll outline a few thoughts on what might be happening behind the scenes of Karen’s examples below. Comfortable life in this context means enough to survive without having to worry about every expense, we’re not talking about levels of wealth to employ a butler to oversee the property.

            I want to start with tossing the idea of managing ND human capital out through the window. There is no filter, and you have zero guarantees that people are thinking of anything even remotely related to or suitable for the meeting. I’m sure other people are equally unfocused in meetings, but they don’t always insist on sharing it.

            Looking at the examples, I’ll start with the middle since I see some commonalities between the other two. There is plenty of literature on how the cost of mistakes increase the longer into a process you are before they are corrected, so even if the cost only doubles for each step it’s pretty easy to convey the value generated from catching mistakes early. The technical part of finding mistakes is straight forward, but the entire situation sounds like a political nightmare: regardless of delivery, people don’t like having their mistakes pointed out to them (or to their managers) so they are unlikely to do anything to rectify the situation unless they are forced to. If the workforce is forced, the auditor will be alienated even more, and even if the auditor has thick skin, someone higher up will continuously have to deal with fallout, an obvious example is someone trying to shut down the department of the auditor.

            The remaining two examples are about becoming the last resort, so when everything else has failed for something that is critical they come to you. This gives some leverage, so fitting in might not be strictly required, but you are most likely talking to middle-management and they still need to get buy-in from their colleagues and direct manager to bring you in. Anything that adds friction will make it harder for them to give you their money.

            The notion of critical for a company does not coincide with common sense, there are so many inefficiencies in a large organization that things are constantly on fire. You get used to that after a while, so there is always an option to do nothing and be no worse off than yesterday. I find this part deeply puzzling, but most large companies don’t go bankrupt so the competition can’t be much better. The option to do nothing about a problem means that if you cause too much friction after you’re brought in, you won’t be their last resort in the future.

            I’ll reiterate that I believe me and Karen are in complete agreement, I’m just pointing out that most likely there are also significant political forces at work behind the scenes to keep the bills paid. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the specialists have quite a lot of social skills for this to not blow up.

      • anon
        anon says:

        I didn’t find this boring at all. I feel bad that you didn’t have someone to teach you that people do this. I found this out from either my older sister, or from the career stuff in Glamour magazine in the 90s, or from the Dress for Success books… maybe all 3, I don’t remember. I had to learn to tone down my makeup because I learned to do makeup growing up as a teen in the 80s in the Southern US, but then I found out the way I was doing it was intimidating and irritating to many of the non-Southern people at my university, and it was hurting my chances for dates and friendships. I found out that if someone comments at all on the makeup, it’s probably too much for most situations (except maybe a party with an 80s prom theme). And I eventually I realized this was helping me prepare for interviews.

        I’m glad you wear sequined headbands. I would probably actually like them.

    • Ann
      Ann says:

      Hey Tatyana. I can relate to you on “wanting to further your education for a better corporate career.” I’m an INTJ (I think). I don’t think I’m autistic but I have a love and hate relationship with Penelope. She ticks me off and I’ll unsubscribe and then I’ll keep on checking if she’s written a new post. I probably should schedule a call with Penelope.
      Nice meeting you here Tatyana, I’m also an immigrant.

  14. Lia in Lima
    Lia in Lima says:

    I had a coaching call with you at the beginning of the year. Similar to some other comments here, I also believed the call was going to take a certain path which it absolutely did not. Your recommendation was to be a SAHM. I thought to myself, “What kind of career advice is that?” Rather than autism, you told me you believe I have Aspergers. I have no idea if I have Aspergers as I have not investigated it further tbh. In-line with your post above, I definitely cried during our session, multiple times (and I am not a crier), and I needed about a week to process everything. I definitely felt like “F- Penelope” but here I am, reading your post and replying! You were brutally honest but I cannot be more grateful for that wake up call. Thank you.

  15. ruo
    ruo says:

    i thought transformative coaching didn’t make sense when i was looking to talk to someone. either you know what to do, or you don’t. then you are paying for information from an insider and then they move on or you are paying for someone to make you feel good in a coach/therapy.

    given most of us are a by-product of a structured education system, it’s transformational to feel like you don’t need to prioritize work ahead of your family. even your parents might over prioritize education and work.

    in one of my old jobs, there were always rollouts of new projects and every team needs to appoint a ‘transformation leader’ to lead the change. it was basically to attend all the high-er up meetings to pass the message back down to everyone else on the team. the leader is required to live and breathe the new doctrine they hear. that’s how i learned you have to drink the right kool-aid to stay on promotion track. and the kool aid gets stronger and stronger at every stage.

    the one thing i still have trouble holding conflicting thought in my head is why do i still need to read so much for information gathering. useless information gathering. potentially useful information gathering. and these days, i am learning about emotional management so i can teach it to my preschooler. i am basically a coach.

  16. DB
    DB says:

    I love this whole post & discussion. Longtime follower of yours, female, reasonably sure I am not autistic, but am high-90s% confident we have undiagnosed autism/Aspergers in my family. AND, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear I’ve got some spectrum-y traits in there, as I match quite strongly with your checklist (including dropping out of a gifted program (lol) + have had a career for the last 20 years as a top performer in the tech industry.) And you know what I just realized as I’m typing this…some evidence that I may have one foot in both camps…I do marketing & similar roles for tech companies, which in essence is translating technical things so they are meaningful and compelling for “regular” people…hmmm….

    I’m also an ENTJ, so another bit of evidence for that pattern. (Flipped in my 20s from just-over-the-line-I to just-over-the-line-E.)

    Finally – I really do want to do a coaching session with you. Have wanted to for a long time, actually. It’s tough getting called on our own internal narrative (BS) but so powerful…. Maybe I should do it in the evening and have a cocktail first so all that truth goes down a little easier? :-D

  17. Megan
    Megan says:

    Huh. We had a coaching call once years ago and I remember thinking it was helpful and interesting. I thought you were nice (although disorganized :))

    I remember saying that I just wasn’t able to do my high-powered job the way other people were, and you said that it was bullshit, and that everyone was giving up something to work in the industry I did–whether it was health or marriage or whatever. It was a very good point and I’ve used it myself with many people I have coached.

    I was not told I have autism… but maybe you just weren’t there yet?

    I have wondered occasionally if I might be on the spectrum (or that far on the spectrum)… but I have generally come to the conclusion that I may just be very introverted and need other people less than average? I’ve always done well academically and I get praised for my EQ at work… but I’m no expert.

    Very interesting post – thanks.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Megan your comment makes me happy. Thank you.

      You remind me that the reason I scream about Autism here is that I love this community. I have coached hundreds of you in one-on-one phone calls. I learn from each person I talk to, and I learn from watching what you do next. I love the idea that I helped you to see you are performing well in a high-powered job, and then you can help other people to see that.

      I hope that’s a microcosm of this whole community. I scream in the comments, but I love our discussions so much.


      • Megan
        Megan says:

        Actually, I quit that job because it required everybody to give up too much of themselves, and now I use that same advice to tell other people that there’s no way to do it without sacrifice so that they can decide if it’s really worth it :)

        Either way – we’re doing good in the world.

  18. Mark O.
    Mark O. says:

    I am curious whether you advise the people whom you phone diagnose with ASD’s to hide or openly declare their underlying spectrum condition with employers or in public settings in general?

    Follow up comment – many of us on the spectrum are brutally honest and direct. How doesn’t this end up with you crying too? Does that ever happen with these consults?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      When it comes to telling an employer, I think it’s a case by case thing. But for the most part, knowing you have Autism helps you to adjust to the world more effectively. Employers aren’t going to be able to accommodate the wide range of difficulties that we bring with us to an office. But if we understand our own difficulties, we can learn to work around them. The earlier we start teaching kids to understand their strengths and weaknesses the more practice they’ll get creating accommodations for themselves. Instead of teaching kids they need to learn to put up with any situation, we can teach kids to pick their environment carefully so they’ll succeed.


  19. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    I’m definitely not autistic. I read this blog for one reason only:. I get a chance to get an idea how some people think. I have no desire or expectation to relate to Penelope or any commenters on any subjects.
    I’ve used the MBTI for decades. I’ll bet you can guess my type.

  20. Daniel
    Daniel says:

    What a great post! And yes, as a POC, and as a 27-year-old cis straight male reader of this blog, I have to agree with Minami’s comment earlier in this comments thread. I’m also glad you thanked Whitney, and that you are aware of your argumentative response to her criticism. While I do agree that ideas should be processed in the long term and that uncomfortable ideas can be debated, a white person arguing that they don’t have a white savior complex is very Karen-like, because if you are white in this country (and really, all over the world, thanks to colonialism), you have privilege that is structurally reinforced, as well as socially normalized, at the expense of POC, and it’s very poor taste to be defensive rather than reflective and introspective in light of these realities. So glad to see that you’re realizing your clients are not the only ones who have been buying into fairy tales, and recognizing the need, at some point, to just admit it and not make excuses, and just do the work. This country has a vaaaaast racial wealth gap, for example, and it’s not a coincidence. It’s due to structural racism, past and present. Also kudos to your son for reading books on these kinds of topics. So many people are so resistant to reading and challenging their own views and their privilege. As a POC I encounter white fragility constantly, and I make sure to read books and articles and listen to podcasts to challenge my own male, straight, cis, non-disabled, etc. privilege as well.

  21. KC
    KC says:

    How does autism get harder for women as we age? I’m pretty sure I am autistic by your definition. Gifted, STEM etc. I didn’t drop out of the gifted program but I did quit a full time tenure track faculty position soon after my son was born. (Best decision ever.) My husband thinks I am the most interesting person in the room. :) I have a boy diagnosed on the spectrum and a girl who probably is too, excellent at math, doesn’t understand her friends tween behavior. It’s definitely in the family.

  22. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    Penelope, I’ve been getting e-mail from Jenna Smith (four so far) who says she’s in partnership with you, for helping folks with their blogs, in a company called Fix The Photo. In case other commenters get contacted, you could let all of us here know if this is true or false.

  23. Henry D
    Henry D says:

    Penelope, are there contraindications (or false negatives) for autism for highly perceptive and relational types, like INFJ’s? How do you diagnose those cases?

  24. Jenna
    Jenna says:

    Hi Penelope! I’m not autistic, I’m an INFP, and I’ve been reading your blog for more than 10 years now. I found your blog while trying to google how to handle a micromanager and tried — but failed — to implement your advice in that blogpost. I haven’t been offended by your writing because I think you’re right about a lot of career/life advice, especially for women… even though I’m doing everything wrong. I’ve always wanted to be a SAHM but work grueling hours in a support role at a Big Law firm. I have 3 kids and I love being their mother. It is my biggest regret in life that I’m not a SAHM but it seems that you need a supportive husband to quit your job and mine isn’t going to step into that role. I feel so stuck on a hamster wheel constantly keeping everything spinning. Now that my oldest is entering middle school I wonder if I’ll be like the moms you describe who quit when they see vividly how little time they have left with their kids. It seems like my only way out is to do an Atlas-shrugged move and see if other people pick up the pieces.

  25. Caitlyn
    Caitlyn says:

    I’m a college sophomore and I’ve been reading the blog since I was in middle school. I’m a woman without autism but I learn something new every time I read a new post and love your bluntness and hearing your perspective on the world. It was really interesting for me to be going through the college admissions process somewhat around the same time as your older son and to see how the articles and statistics you shared related to what I was seeing.
    Also, I loved Hood Feminism and always appreciate you admitting your weaknesses and when you’ve been wrong. Even though realistic advice can be upsetting, I think it’s ultimately freeing to understand that it isn’t possible for one person to do everything. Thanks for being a background voice to my teenage years and I’m always excited to see what’s next for you.

  26. Dale
    Dale says:

    Braless white women are seen as (advertising their) sexual availability. Men will comment about to each other openly. Of course, if they are with teenage boys they won’t get on…

  27. Scarlet
    Scarlet says:

    You speak the truth. On so many levels, we want the truth and yet there are so many truths we would rather avoid. Certainly when possible we tend to want things sugar coated and presented nicely but that won’t always help us see the problems or change our behaviors. And sometimes we just can’t take the truth because it would break our hearts so we’d rather not see it all. What an interesting job you have as a coach. I always think it is good (at least on some level) when something comes full circle and I can see what the view was like from the other side.

  28. Kay
    Kay says:

    You coached me – i have ADHD and couldn’t remember my personality type, so i guessed. You were so focused on the incorrect personality type i gave you you couldn’t hear what i was saying. Now you know another one of your blind spots.

  29. Hugh Pickens
    Hugh Pickens says:

    neurotypical intj male here. Don’t think I am autistic. My wife, a psychiatrist, diagnosed me as severely dyslexic at age 50 but said I was so well compensated that no one would be able to recognize it – not even me.

  30. Denise
    Denise says:

    I am a female ENFP, long-time reader, and I don’t think I have ASD. Maybe I just don’t know what I don’t know. :) Although now that I think about it I am often misunderstood and miss some social cues. How do I deal with potentially being on the autism spectrum and not knowing until I am in my mid-50s? How do I find out if I am on the autism spectrum? Will finding out really make my life any better? Oh wow, I see why there are tears on these calls.
    PS – My best job is wife and mother, and if I could pay the mortgage by doing that I would in a heartbeat. I didn’t know that was a valid option anymore.

  31. Jon
    Jon says:

    Crikey- am I the only person who had a 1hr call with Penelope and absolutely loved it, found her engaging and wasn’t at any point diagnosed with autism? Since the call tho both my wife and eldest child have both been diagnosed with autism, soooo…
    And she had forgotten about my call too when I called her tho and she didn’t ever reply to my follow up email so don’t worry, I don’t feel too special!

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