When I announced I’m doing research about autism at Harvard, people said, Academia requires too much patience! You’ll lose your mind!

Undaunted I came up with a new paper every week for the first year. The papers were awful, but as a writer I didn’t mind writing to learn. So it turned out that my transition to academia was, indeed, an exercise in extreme patience: for my co-authors. Read more

Lessons from the bottom rung of academia

Golden Ladders by Yoko Ono

I’m scared to talk about my job at Harvard because of imposter syndrome. But I know from experience that writing here and talking about myself incessantly is the way to beat it.

If I post about things that make me nervous, then the people who are going to call me out will do it right in the comments sections. You know that adage keep your enemies close to you? It’s sort of like that.

It’s also like when I got a job writing a weekly finance column — my brothers told me I shouldn’t even take the job, because people will find out that I cashed out my 401(k) to pay for childcare, and I’ll get fired so fast it wouldn’t even be worth the trouble to start. I took the job and wrote my first column about that. And I never worried again that people would think I’m financially incompetent.

Just kidding. I know I’m financially incompetent. And I worry all the time that I look reckless trying something totally new when I am too old to be messing with income. Because I am reckless.

What no one tells you about Harvard

I’m in a lab run by a professor who is the best manager I’ve ever worked under. I want to put her name here, but shockingly, not everyone thinks it’s an honor have their name on my blog. She is amazing at motivating and inspiring people to do the work she wants to do. And she’s organized. She published an incredible number of papers while she had kids and I’m always asking questions that are too personal to figure out how she manages her life. I wonder if anyone has written their dissertation on their advisor’s life skills?

Perks of being on the bottom rung

Being an expert in your field makes it really difficult to ask hard questions that generate new insights. In a new career everything is a surprise.

For example, in a conversation about whose name is going on a paper, I asked, “How are you deciding which order?” The answer was that one person is outside the country and can’t be paid, so his name will go first and the person getting paid will go second, and the person who is most important goes last.

I’m not even sure if that’s right. It’s like trying to speak another language you don’t really speak, where you nod continuously and wish for understanding.

Blogs are still the best resource to learn a new industry

Even though very few people still keep a blog, the ones still left standing really really know their topic. PhD Comics is a primer on academic claustrophobia. Tyler Cowen’s blog is a masterclass on disrupting academia. My blog is a cautionary tale about the insane hubris it takes to switch to academia after basically building a career on berating people about being in academia.

ChatGPT is an important tool for entry level work

At the bottom of the ladder you know nothing, so in many cases, ChatGPT can do your job better than you can. This is not cheating, this is a service to the people above you so they don’t have to slog through your reams of entry-level crap.

Six months ago there was no grant proposal that ChatGPT couldn’t write. But as I got smarter at knowing how to add nuance, ChatGPT got dumber about where to find information. Or maybe ChatGPT has imposter syndrome too, but is less willing to tell you when it doesn’t know something?

On the other hand ChatGPT is happy to tell you when it doesn’t want to tell you things. Ask for information about women in the workplace. ChatGPT pleads ignorance — somehow women working has been relegated to the same off-limits category as building bombs.

I told my mom I used ChatGPT to write a conference proposal. She’d already honed in on all the downsides of my draft, so I know I was egging her on. But I thought it would be a challenge to her to have negativity in an area where she knows nothing.

She was up for the challenge. My mom can finish the Sunday NYT crossword before she finishes her pint of ice cream. She saves the acrostic as a treat. She gave me the ChatGPT version of “you’re gonna get get fired.”

Learn which rules are sacred

To her point, I’ve been fired a lot. But typically I get fired for being a self-starter in things that shouldn’t start. Academics usually get fired for stealing or lying, which is not really my thing. Still, I read DataColada prophylactically. The blog’s tagline is thinking about evidence and vice versa, which I would totally want to plagiarize if plagiarism was my thing.

I found the blog because Francesca Gino, who I’ve quoted here, just got fired from Harvard’s Business School, and the guys at DataColada wrote a four-part series about how she lied about her results. You can read that starting here in DataFalsificada Part 1: Clusterfake. I wish I were having another child so I could have these people come up with a name.

At the beginning of your career a mentor matters the most

My mom does not joke about having kids because she got fired from a job she loved, so she got pregnant with me.

Then right away she got another job, and then she was upset that she was pregnant, and on top of that when they realized she was pregnant they fired her. She tells me it was okay the second time she got fired, because she got another job and her boss liked her so much that that they let her work from home. In 1966.

Me: “How did you work at home with a newborn?!”

Mom: “I wanted to have my own money. You know my family never had money. I didn’t want to live like that.”

I asked ChatGPT what Penelope Trunk should write about her mom. It spit back: Life is short, and time with our loved ones is precious.

See? I told you ChatGPT is getting dumb.

Changing careers is like relocating your home. The scenery is different but you’re still the same inside. I always want to know how women manage their careers and their kids. And I always ask questions that put me a little too close to trouble.

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. Read more

My son Z started getting crazy from the pandemic around the fall of 2021. He’d made very few friends in Boston before Covid, and the friends he did make from music lessons stopped coming to Boston from the suburbs. And he couldn’t really meet new kids, because Covid. Read more

How to find a new career

I’m carrying water from the spigot at Northeastern’s playing field across the street and through the park to the garden I planted, probably illegally. I used to think of myself as a community activist. Then I received an email from the state that they would run a lawnmower over my roses and I felt more like a guerrilla gardener. Then I came to water the garden and my hose was gone and the water main was turned off, so now I wonder if I’m a neighborhood pariah.

I try not to take it personally. People warned me that it gets turned off some time in October. And maybe someone thought it was the city’s hose. When people see me working on my garden they always say, “You guys are doing such a great job,” as if somehow I am working in an official capacity. Like the Boston Commissioner of Obsessive Gardening.

The first part of the garden I water is the farthest away from the spigot because if I wait til the end I might decide it’s too far to schlep the water. I created this part of the garden first, and it is a miniature version of my oval-shaped garden back at the farm. There are roses and azaleas but also a few tests tucked in between:

I planted blueberries to test if the rabbits will eat them. The rabbits only ate dwarf highbush, so I left it there and now they leave the rest of the bushes alone: we have reached an understanding.

I planted expensive hydrangeas to see if people would steal them. They didn’t.

I planted daisies to see if people would pick them, and they did. But I was so happy to see people enjoying the garden that I just added more.

While I walk back and forth I sing to myself because I can — this is the first time in 20 years that I’m alone so much of the time. I sing the same song over and over again. I just sort of start with one and then stick with it for the rest of the day. I try to sing softly near the tennis courts but still my black garden buckets swing a little too freely when I walk by the kids waiting to play.

My bucket doesn’t fit right and the spigot sprays all over, so I wear clothes that I don’t mind getting wet. The people around me do not. While I wait for the buckets to fill I toss a couple of stray tennis balls back into the court so I look more relatable. I also look up at my son’s dorm. The building is next to the athletic fields, diagonal from my park. I find his dorm room by counting five windows down from the top and four windows over from the right. He told me it’s crazy how much I look up at his dorm window. But I know he doesn’t think it’s that crazy because he never closes the shade. Anyway, I can’t really see anything — I can only see the light.

If I am too interested in what the other kids are like and whether any of them know my son then I might spill too much water. And if my younger son wants alone time and I have to take my dog with me then I have to take one bucket and not two. Not because I need to hold the leash — I don’t. She knows the garden routine just fine. But when she finds a tennis ball she insists on a game of catch. All the Northeastern kids want to play catch with her. She only plays with me though. That’s the price you pay for a dog who can be off leash in a big city. Nothing is free.

Someone posts a notice that says the garden must be removed and the transgressor must resod.

I continue to water the garden and every time I water I add more things to the garden. Digging is like drawing because I get to make new lines, and putting in new plants is like painting because I can imagine the colors and how they’ll come up next year. The dog digs holes for her tennis balls, and I dig holes for plants, and sometimes we like it so much we do it long after my son has gone to bed.

At 2am I am filling buckets at the spigot and the dog is finding tennis balls in the bushes. I tell myself I don’t need to try to look normal as we cross the street — her prancing with her ball, me splashing with my bucket. No one looks normal at 2am.

In the shadows behind the hydrangeas a guy pops out. I’ve seen him before, watching me garden.

He says, “Why do you do it?”

“The garden?”


“Well. I’m not sure what else to do instead.”

My son supposedly writes a story every day. We didn’t start this way. We started when he was supposed to write essays to practice for the European AP history test and instead, he wrote essays about how the topic is inherently racist and imperialist and we probably need another French Revolution. Read more

The number of high school seniors applying to MIT this year is 60% above last year. That means there are 12,000 more applicants. Harvard’s applications are up 30%. Duke is up 20%. Most Ivy League schools are up 20% at least. Read more

I learned about bouncing back from the diet industry. This is not surprising. All the best research about personal development comes from the diet industry because there’s so much money to be made if you can figure out how to help people lose weight. One study that I have never forgotten is that if you are trying to lose weight and you have a bad eating day, you’ll be fine if you just tell yourself “I’m good at my diet” and you go back to eating well the next day. Read more

Last night at midnight, our theoretical family bedtime, we were listening to the most recent episode of our favorite podcast, Chapo Traphouse. And they started screaming at listeners to go to  New Hampshire to get people to vote for Bernie. “Go to Durham, New Hampshire! Bernie needs your help in Durham!”

I said to the kids, “We’re going. We’re going to Durham.”

The kids ignored me.

I said, “No really. Pack up your stuff. Boston is about an hour away from Durham.”

I had to look really firm in order to get the kids to believe me, but here is the thing: My oldest son thinks he wants to study political science, and he loves Bernie, and I don’t want him to try politics after he spends four years studying it. So I called an Uber and told the kids to pack Cliff Bars for breakfast and we left.

With the dog, one more important endorser of Bernie:

My youngest son said, “Wait. Am I bringing my cello?”

My older son said, “You’re an idiot.”

The Uber driver, “I need to stop for gas.”

I said, “Fine.”

I woke up when the car stopped. We were out of gas. At 2am in the middle of nowhere New Hampshire where gas stations were all closed. The Uber driver walked a block to a man sleeping in his truck. The man said that if we had cash, he would take us somewhere for gas.

My son said, “We’re leaving right now.”

I was so proud to have kids that could not only campaign but save their lives in an Uber disaster.

Even though I know you are always supposed to pack for the car breaking down, we didn’t. I gave my coat to the dog. As I watched the Uber driver getting into the red truck, I looked for the emergency number on the Uber app. It’s labeled HELP. I called to report that their Uber driver was probably being abducted. A recording said the helpline is out of service and will be fixed shortly. There was no other Uber in sight, but Lyft somehow popped up on my screen and offered to pick us up in 45 minutes.

Our hotel was two miles away, so we started walking.

I thought the walk would be scary but then I realized we are walking through a neighborhood of homes built in the 1700s. I pointed out architectural intricacies of the Live Free or Die colonists. I knew my kids were scared because they were genuinely interested in my proof that we were in a safe neighborhood.

Then the boys got bold.

They led the way and talked about how they will always remember how much I did to campaign for Bernie, and they will never call me a boomer again. Relief: I worried this would go down in the records as one of the times I  endangered the kids’ lives. (By the way, if Uber’s lawyers are reading this, I think actually it’s Uber endangering lives by making people think there is actually a help button on their app.)

We knew we were going in the right direction when streetlights made a median glow like an election oasis.

Our hotel was full of campaigners, presumably asleep but we knew we were in the right place.

The next morning my kids were up and ready to go faster than ever before. As I walked out the door with the dog, I noticed someone didn’t have underwear on, which I took it as a sign of excitement and we headed to Durham.

At University of New Hampshire, we found the Bernie people. My kids were nervous and excited and everything they should be when they are learning about themselves. I wanted to take a thousand pictures but I also wanted to model the importance of being useful, which is not my strong suit.  I said, “We are here from Boston. What can we do to help?”

The Bernie workers cheered and pointed the boys toward a table. I took pictures while the boys got training.

The boys listened and asked questions. And my older son said for maybe the first time in his whole life, “Mom take my picture too.”

When I was getting ready to go last night, I was so scared that I was making the wrong decision. Kids need stability. And I was telling my kids they can’t go to bed because we’re taking a road trip.

But I’ve spent decades writing about how you need to try a career to see if you’ll like it. Trying anything new is scary; I want my kids to be brave enough to try stuff to see if they will like it instead of pretending they know they will like it to put off the scary part for later.

I am actually shocked that my kids like campaigning, but to be honest I am shocked that I like blogging about campaigning: I support Bernie because the only way parents will to be able to spend time with their kids and earn money at the same time is if this country disentangles human value and economic value; we’ve been counting the wrong things, and voting for Bernie is a big step toward fixing that.



I coach lots of parents who look at scaling back work and worry about what they’ll do when their kids grow up. If you are one of those people, you are about to save the $350 coaching fee.

What you want to do for work when your kids are young is not what you want to do for work when your kids are grown. For one thing, you can’t imagine what will be available when your kid is 18. Also, you can’t imagine what you’ll be like when your kids grow up.

Shortly after I raised $500,000 for Quistic, I realized my kids needed a lot more attention than I was giving them. I tried to adjust how I spent my time, but more pressure made me feel more crazy. So, finally, at a board meeting, I explained to investors that running a startup is so intense that it’s actually as inflexible as working 9 to 5 (which is really 8-7)  in an office, and I am missing too much of my kids’ childhoods.

I assumed the investors would replace me as CEO, but they told me to just slow down the growth of the company. “Take a few years break,” they said.

We agreed that when the kids got older I’d start scaling the company again. I was relieved to not have to give up everything permanently. I could go back.

But now the kids are older, and going back to that life feels like taking a step back. Last year I forced myself to try something new and I offered a one-year writing program. I loved it. All year long I talked with people about their writing, and books we love, authors we hate. It was exciting to watch people in the course become great writers over twelve months’ time.

Earlier in my life, I taught one-day writing courses at Brown and Cornell and told everyone my real job is launching startups. I have changed. That’s how I know you will, too. You will do something you did not consider before you had kids. And you will be good at it. It’s just so hard to imagine until you give it a try.

Another industry I said I’d never be a part of is publishing. It didn’t make sense to me when there was so much more money in startups. But I’m offering the one-year writing program again this year, and I’ve added something really special: a book deal. The best writers from this year’s program will be published in an anthology. I’m excited for the book to be special and important to the writers who are published. I want the book to be nice to hold and fun to read; it should be the quirky book people leave out on the table to share with their friends.

I am so happy to have spent the last year cultivating a group of writers — many of whom had never really written before. And I am happy to offer the program for a second year to people who want to be part of my writing program. We will all grow together because I’m still growing into my new choice too. As a startup founder, I used my platform to promote other startup founders and their companies. This year I will use my platform to promote other writers and their stories.

This turn of heart is not anything I expected years ago when I admitted I had to scale down my career. At that time I was disappointed and terrified. But I didn’t need to be so scared. It turns out each of us has a new episode in our career when our kids get older.  We get a new chance to decide what we want. And we get to look
at the world in a fresh way as we enlist people to help us get what we want.

Not all of you have thought about writing before, but many of you have. And I hope you’ll consider joining me for this year’s writing program and all the potential that comes with it. For all of us.

Here’s the information about this year’s writing course. The price is $1550 now, but the price will go up February 1, 2020. Sign up now!