Most frequently unspoken thought while talking to a therapist: Just fucking tell me what to do! A good therapist is a sounding board but a good career coach tells you your best career path. The best career coaches know the right answers because they see patterns, and autistic people are the best at seeing patterns. That’s right. When you look for a career coach, look for someone autistic.Here are some patterns I’ve seen.

What someone wants to do is the barrier to doing what they’d like doing. Personality type is patterns of personal motivators. Thinking of it as 16 types feels overwhelming. Thank goodness — I make a lot of money because of that. But if you think of personality type as four types, it’s easier: SJ, SP, NT, NF. Everyone is primarily motivated by one of these four things:

NTs: questions

SJs: answers

SPs: fun

NFs: connection

Once you know what motivates a person you can rule out almost everything they say they want to do. The more someone wants what’s not aligned with their motivator, the more difficulty they will have hearing the right answer.

Most people in finance are failing. The job’s too hard for almost everyone. So, for example, people in finance who start in London or New York and go to Asia were desperate for a promotion and couldn’t get it without going to another country. They think people will only notice the promotion and not the outlandish relocation they had to do to get it.

It’s not a relocation problem though. It’s a problem across the industry. People who invest money struggle to be innovative enough, or consistent enough, or raise enough money. Everyone who is not investing wants to be.

Great careers don’t happen at a single company. Think about people who are developers at the same big company for 15 years. These people are like car mechanics: the only thing they know how to do is fix stuff that breaks. The company keeps them around because they’re the Millennial equivalent of a COBOL programmer. They tell people they’re working on really cool ideas, which is probably true, because they can do whatever they want while they wait for something to break.

People who are always learning and love a challenge change companies because the learning curve goes up each time. Blind is the network where those people hone their company-changing skills.

Most glamorous careers require a pile of money. That’s why it’s glamorous. For example, people who are art dealers or horse breeders. How could you ever start to sell your own inventory without having a pile of money?

So these careers are really a job in money laundering. Instead of having to talk about how you got your pile of money you can talk to people about your new career you bought with your pile of money and imply the pile emerged from that career. 

Social media stars had a hook to get their traffic. A hairstylist told me she wanted to be an Instagram influencer like Heather Chapman. I had to dig down to the beginning of Heather Chapman’s career to find her hook. But I knew I’d find it.

She traveled every weekend doing in-person training and had people post their braids on Instagram with her hashtag. After a few years she got workshop sponsorships, and a few years later her primary income was from Instagram sponsorships. The lesson: If you can devote your whole life to travel and hashtags before you have money you can be Internet famous.

People who work for themselves are good at selling themselves. If you work for yourself you have to do everything. If you’re great at working for yourself you can hire people to do what you’re not good at. The question to ask someone who works for themselves is how many full-time employees do you have? If the person has no full-time employees working for them then something is very wrong — their job is more like a side gig.

People like where they are in their career just fine, but they’re scared to see it.To check that I ask the person who they want to be like. People say there is no one doing what they want to do, and then I tell them that’s because it’s a dream not a reality. Or they will tell me someone absurd. Like, seriously, someone told me they want to do what Sophia Bush is doing.

I said, “What is she doing?”

The person said, “She’s a philanthropist supporting her favorite charities.”

“Are you kidding me? She’s an actress and a poster girl for harassment in Hollywood. Do you want to be an actress for 20 years so you can support your favorite charity? Because that’s what she did.”

We’re all like the people I coach. We just see them more clearly than we see ourselves. In hindsight I hoped my frequent moves hid the dwindling headcount supporting my website but some days my site was so small I felt like I was running an online hobby farm. Now my kids are grown and I ask myself who do I want to be like? There’s no mother in the world with as few assets as I have at my age launching a startup. But still. Here I go. No more clear-headed than the person who wanted to be Sophia Bush.

19 replies
  1. Minami
    Minami says:

    Man, what DO single moms whose kids have grown up do if they haven’t remarried? Especially if they’re autistic? I guess my own mother would have just done the Asian thing and just lived off me into her old age, but she up and died before I could find out for sure. So now I’m watching you, Penelope, to see what you do. It really does seem like there’s no blueprint for whatever your next moves could be. You’ve got to have a lot of courage to be taking it on.

    Reply
    • Minami
      Minami says:

      Come to think of it, my mother might have let herself die in large part because she didn’t know what she could do next. Reminds me of how you say autistic women kill themselves a lot.

      So I’m glad you’re alive.

      Reply
      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        Thanks, Minami :)
        You bring up an interesting point that I wonder if autistic women killing themselves from loneliness is undercounted because of crafty techniques like non-compliance with doctor’s orders. I have to think about this… I am noncompliant a lot because of executive function. Like, I need a booster shot for Covid, and because I had Covid before the vaccine and it was awful, I think I’m probably more likely to have a bad time if I get it again. So I can see how noncompliance looks so stupid and intentional that in some circumstances it could look like killing oneself. Just thinking out loud now… I have heard you, Minami, express that as the kid it feels like your mom’s noncompliance is like killing herself whether or not she intended it. So I just realized that for a kid, a mom’s noncompliance is really messed up, whether or not it’s because of executive function.

        I wonder if this soliloquy will finally make me a more compliant patient?

        Penelope

        Reply
  2. J
    J says:

    You sound like me. I talk up the “interesting” aspects of my life to disguise the fact that my life is low key a train wreck and has been for my entire adult life. I moved all around the country, went on lots of adventures, tried and failed to be a pro ultra runner, learned to code, won some screenplay contests (they liked my dialogue), served probation for a serious-sounding crime after naively thinking my testimony would *help* the quote-unquote victim, as my attorney puts it…but the truth is I’m single, childless, career less, broke, and would probably be homeless by now if not for my parents (late 30’s, yeah I know it’s not cute).

    What is there to live for if I can’t get myself together? What are we supposed to devote our lives to when all of life feels so difficult and painful? If I had a kid I can see myself thinking I’m being doting but actually being neglectful. Even just empathizing with my cats to try to meet their needs seems to take the whole day.

    Pattern recognition is something I’m great at. But this has not translated to success. I See, but I don’t Do.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I was talking with a professor of neurology at University of Virginia who studies autism and he told me the combination of pattern recognition and not doing is called autistic inertia. That is, we see great stuff to do that is interesting and meaningful and we can’t stop laying on the sofa or scrolling through repetitive reading on our phone.

      You wrote: “f I had a kid I can see myself thinking I’m being doting but actually being neglectful.” Yah. That’s pretty much the problem for every autistic mom. Me included. Like right now. I told my kid to clean his room. Then started reading comments, which is way more fun that chasing down a kid to clean his room. And I will still give myself credit for spending time trying to get him to clean his room. Such BS parenting. But I am not sure I have it in me to do something better in this very moment.

      Reply
      • J
        J says:

        It’s a moral conundrum I find impossible to answer: have kids to feel like my life’s on track, knowing I may not be able to avoid neglecting them, or live a family-less life, lonely and aimless but resting assured that my life is the only one I’m ruining.

        Not having it in me to do the beneficial/correct thing in this very moment is the root of all my despair. The gap between potential and outcome for autistic people is so painful. To have so much insight + intellect yet be unable to apply it. What could actually fix this problem? A communal living situation where we keep each other on track? Or would we drive each other crazy since we all have our own rigid notions of what a comfortable environment looks like?

        Suicide is the permanent friend whispering in my ear. I know I’m healthy when I can genuinely say “not today. Not this year.”

        Funny story, I majored in Neurobiology and Behavior at UVA. But I was a terrible student. Took double the normal time to finish the degree.

        Reply
  3. Bernadette
    Bernadette says:

    I love that you are posting more often, Penelope!

    I wonder, where do our troubles come from when perceiving ourselves? Do we all have blind spots when it comes to ourselves, or is that only certain types? (I’m guessing certain types struggle more than others…all the SJs I know seem to be perfectly content in their lives). As a NF I feel the tension between what I want to do vs who I am so strongly. I wonder where that pressure comes from, and why I’m giving myself the hardest time about it.

    Reply
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Everyone has blind spots. Personality type is a great way to understand someone’s blind spot because it’s hard for us to understand the way people think with those two key letters that are different from ours. These spots are nuanced, though, and because everyone has them, they don’t seem egregious.

      However, people on the autism spectrum have blind spots that are so huge unexpected that we get a bad response from people around us. It almost seems that we are pretending to have a blind spot so huge because the person responding to us can’t imagine that we really don’t see it.

      Like all things autism, everyone has issues with the way they respond to the world, but people on the autism spectrum have outsized issues that not only get in the way of everyday living but often seem to dictate it.

      Penelope

      Reply
      • J
        J says:

        I think autistic people are so good at being interesting and bright, dare I say charming, that people assume we couldn’t possibly be as inappropriate (socially dumb) as some of the things that come out of our mouths are, and thus it must be intentional.

        Reply
    • J
      J says:

      SJs really are content, aren’t they? I’m related to several and the ease with which they go through life is a point of both envy and skepticism (aka contentment seems to co-occur with a lack of curiosity, which sounds like a boring life). I guess all S types are somewhat incomprehensible to me.

      Reply
  4. Cheryl
    Cheryl says:

    “What someone wants to do is the barrier to doing what they’d like doing.”
    I’m having trouble with this.
    Can you give me an example of what you mean?
    Thanks!

    Reply
  5. Denise
    Denise says:

    Just so you know—whatever you do, I will happily read everything you wrote. Your blog is top of my reading list whenever a post appears in my RSS. As someone said above there is no blueprint for the next phase—but you have always set your own path so I’m excited to see what you discover.

    Reply
      • Cheryl
        Cheryl says:

        I’ve been a long-time reader of your work, dating back to the online publication “Business 2.0”.
        After the pub ended, I was sad that I couldn’t read your columns anymore–then I found your website!

        Reply
  6. harris497
    harris497 says:

    Penny,
    Hearing the truth is what most of us need. But how do we know where to go to hear it, and how do we get the courage to ask for it, and how do we motivate ourselves to comply when the pill is bitter…
    We need to sort ourselves out internally so we can efficiently sort ourselves out to the world. But when you are not there yet, the best thing to do (it works for me) is to keep putting one foot in front of the other and choose a direction. Bit by bit we come to see the light… sometimes.
    Mytwocentsworth,
    D
    P.S. What Denise said above. I will happily read anything you wrote. (Even though I oftentimes disagree with you.)

    Reply

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