Everyone wants to feel passion about their job, but passion and pay do not always go hand in hand, and often they are inversely related. The trick for many of us is to figure out how to balance the love of our life with the food on our table.

Bill Hewett is the bass player for the band, the Modeles, but he does not consider himself a big risk taker when it comes to putting food on the table. So he knew he was in trouble when fire was banned from street performances on his favorite street for performing. Before that, he had been making $500 in a weekend juggling flaming rings.

“It wasn’t easy work,” he says. “I’d have to stake out my spot at 8 a.m. even though I didn’t start juggling until 6 p.m. I used to let other performers have my spot until my show began. The best juggling spot was a place a few jugglers have held for forever, and if you don’t get a big enough crowd, they hassle you for wasting their space. So my spot was at a newsstand.”

After the fire ban, his income fell and he had to supplement it by working at a grocery store. But when the juggling season ended in the fall, the salary of a bagger didn’t cut it. So he took a computer job at the New England Foundation for the Arts. Bill didn’t really have all the skills the company needed, but the company didn’t have the money to pay for the skills they needed, so it worked out well for everyone.

Barbara Reinhold, a psychologist and the head of the Career and Executive Development Program at Smith College, encounters people with the passion-pay dilemma at all levels of the workforce.

“There’s no escaping the need to do what you love as part of your paid or unpaid work,” she says. “But like so much of life, the secret is in the timing.”

And Reinhold recommends that people make money first and then follow their dreams, “as long as you’ve been careful not to grow your tastes with your income. Many people spend and spend to try to forget that the lucrative work they’re doing doesn’t really fit them. This unfortunate condition usually results in a bad case of the golden handcuffs.

“Young people who make a deal with themselves about eventually going where their hearts would lead them and live frugally can have a much easier time of it than those who forget the frugality, or those who don’t develop the skills and discipline required to make money until later in life.”

I ask Bill about the possibility of postponing his dreams of being a musician, and he says he can’t imagine not making music. “I’d do it anyway,” he says, “for myself. So I want to see where I can take it.” But it’s clear that his dream has limits.

He makes $34,000 a year as a computer guy, and I ask him if he’d leave the job if he could make $40,000 a year touring with his band. He says no. He is certain he could make a lot more money as a computer technician in the future. And he sees it as a job he could keep his whole life, and grow with it.

He sees the creativity required to solve computer problems as similar to the creativity involved in music. And he is more skeptical of life on the road: “I couldn’t live off that $40,000 a year for more than a few years. Right now, I don’t worry about food, but sometimes I worry about strings for my bass.”

It is no small feat to get band members to talk to a career columnist. A bass player explained that it would be death to her image to talk about her job to the press. And Bill himself cited a friend who has actually worked for years as a consultant to save a truckload of money and is now spending six months focusing on his band. “Don’t mention his band, though. He’d be embarrassed if people knew he owned a condo.”
Meanwhile, the Modeles continue to make headway in the hyper-competitive world of almost-breaking bands. Bill is a modest guy. When I ask him how he knows his band isn’t a dud, he says, “When we play in upstate New York, people get excited to see us.”

Of course, the music industry is not known for signing a band to a label after hearing them in Utica, but one guitar player (who said his band is gaining traction in the underground and therefore cannot be mentioned in an above-ground career column) reports that the Modeles are well-liked by people who have jobs.

Looking for happiness through financial success? Wondering what the magic number is? It's $40,000 according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. Really. So technically, most of you should be happy. And if you're working for the next big raise, forget it. You're better off working on teaching yourself how to look at your money with a different eye.

I remember when I passed the $100K mark. My boss loved my work and gave me a raise that put me at $125,000. But a competitor offered me $140,000 and my boss told me he wouldn't match it. At that point, I had no kids, no mortgage and no car payments, so I didn't need the money. But I recognized salary as a gauge of prominence in my field, and although I was making $125,000 I felt under appreciated.

Eventually, I left that job for one that paid more than $200,000 a year, and I lived the aphorism that you have to spend money to make money. I couldn't take high-end clients out to dinner in my refurbished wreck of a car, so I leased a BMW. Dressing as well as my clients cost an arm and a leg. And I hired an assistant to manage my personal life since my new position left no time for that.

You might scoff at my choices, but I was not unique among those whose salaries hit six figures: My expenses rose with my salary, and my desires expanded with my bank account. You might think, “That won't happen to me,” but how foolish you would be to assume you would be the exception to the rule.

In fact, the rule is well established in research: The first 40 thousand makes a big difference in one's level of happiness. Happiness is dependent on being able to meet basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing. After meeting those needs you need to turn to something other than consumerism. Because additional money has negligible impact on how happy you are. Your level of happiness is largely dependent on your outlook.

Maybe you're thinking there's another magic threshold beyond forty thousand. Like maybe 40 million. But you're wrong. When I ran in circles of venture capitalists, there was a common phrase, “It's not jet money.” Which was a way of saying, it was a good deal, but it won't earn enough money to pay for a private jet. No matter what size the pile of money is, there's always a way to see it as small.

So for those of you looking for more happiness, realize that a new job or a new home won't be nearly as rewarding as a new outlook. Optimism makes people happy. Raising your standing on the optimism scale will impact your happiness more than raising your worth on the pay scale.

Here's a ten-second test to figure out how optimistic you are:

Think of something really bad that has happened to you. Do you think:
1. It has made me a better person.
2. I made some mistakes, but bad things happen to everyone sometimes.
3. Nothing ever goes right for me.

Think of something really good that happened to you. Do you think:
1. I am good at creating my own success.
2. I got lucky.
3. In the end it didn't turn out to be that great a thing.

If you chose the first answer both times, then you probably already feel pretty happy regardless of your income. If you didn't answer one both times, then a shift in the way you think could dramatically improve your happiness.

The good news is that you can train yourself to think positively. Watch how happy people behave. The cliche about gaining strength through adversity might annoy you, but happy people live by those words.

If you took the test above and picked the third answer both times, you probably blame your life on external things so that you don’t have to take responsibility for your plight. Happy people take responsibility for their success and consider failure a temporary fluke. To change your thinking, start assuming responsibility for your emotions.

If you chose the number two answers, you probably tell yourself, “I’m not happy but I don’t know why.” Start believing that if you take action, good things will happen. Tell yourself good things happen because you expect good things and bad things happen to make you stronger.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Forget it. I don’t believe any of this works. And I can’t do it anyway.” But that’s part of your problem, isn’t it?

My husband recently changed careers. Well, not really recently — actually two years ago. But for those of you who have never endured a career change, two years is nothing. It still feels like the beginning because salary-wise, you *are* at the beginning.

For the most part, his switch has been going well. He went from management positions in the entertainment industry to field research in a social justice think tank. Basically, he spends his days in prisons, trying to get the government to implement new programs.

He made the change exactly the way a career advisor would recommend — not surprising since he has to eat dinner with one every night. For those of you considering a change, here is the plan he followed:

Step 1. Soul search. Consider all aspect of change including, lifestyle, pay and any education you’ll need. Be realistic about what you value in life and work.

Step 2.Downsize. Get rid of huge car payments, huge mortgage payments, and huge expectations for dinners, vacations and clothes.

Step 3. Network. Headhunters and help wanted ads are geared toward people who have skills in a certain area. People who change jobs do not have skills in the new area, so networking is the best way to get someone to give you a chance.

Step 4. Try it out. You'll never know if you fit into the career environment until you try it. A baby step, like volunteering, or taking a part-time job will allow you to go back to your originally career if need be.

After step four, there is nothing but taking the leap. So my husband did. His mentor at his new job is ten years younger than he is. His boss makes 25% less than what my husband's paycheck used to be. The people below my husband in pecking order are college interns. And this is two years after he made the switch. Not that any of this is a surprise. Of course, this is what happens when you change careers.

By all measures, my husband is flourishing in his new career. He is at a top non-profit agency, he is writing significant papers, he is working with geniuses. But he is making no money. I keep telling myself that this is what we knew would happen. That we traded money for career happiness. I assure myself that my husband will make more money later, when his is not swimming in the ranks of college interns.

But there is so much pressure to be happy. Pressure from me, that is, on my husband. Every night I check in with him — look for signs that he is elated with his new career choice. And, big surprise, with a new career and a young child, most nights he is exhausted, not elated. Which makes me say, “Why are we making all these financial sacrifices if you're not happy?!!?!”

My husband doesn't answer. It's hard when he doesn't answer. But I know it's because he feels guilty because he really, really, really, doesn't want to go back to the entertainment industry. And I can't stop thinking, “If you're unhappy in both careers, why not be unhappy in the one that pays more?”

I know you're thinking, “Gosh, Penelope, can you be a little more supportive?” But don't say that until you've had a spouse throw away a lucrative career. And anyway, I'm trying; I see there is one more step on the career change checklist that we probably should have done:

Step 5: Set spousal expectations. I should have gone through the process with my husband. I should have evaluated with him what sacrifices I can make, what lifestyle expectations I had, even how happy I expected him to be. I was so determined to let him make his own decisions that I'm finding now that I'm the one who is floundering.

You think, at some point, that you know for sure a career change was good. But that's not true for everyone. Or, maybe it's true for everyone, but not in the first few years. Yes, you can be sure that the new job is more fun or more rewarding than the old job, but how much more fun do you need to be having in order to justify the financial sacrifice?

I'm not sure. So we keep going on the career change path, hoping to find the answer buried beneath the indignities.

During the Internet’s go-go days in the late 1990s, I thought the term generalist meant “she's doing two jobs and pays herself double.” Now it seems the word generalist means “good at nothing and unemployed.” In either case, generalist is the label for a career that will die.

Think cars: You never hear an advertiser say, “Buy my car, it's good for everything!” Volvos are safe. BMWs are fun. Saturns are easy to buy. Just as successfully branded products offer specific benefits, successfully branded careerists offer specific talents. You get to the top by being the best, and you can't be the best at everything.

Ezra Zuckerman, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, agrees — and has the research to prove it. In his study of typecasting in Hollywood entitled “Robust Identities or Nonentities,” Zuckerman found that specialization leads to longer, more productive careers. Contrary to conventional Hollywood wisdom, big bucks come most often to people who become known for a certain type of role. Zuckerman finds that typecasting, as this practice is called, is also a moneymaker in the business world, where the hiring system is set up to reward those who differentiate themselves. “Headhunters are specialized,” he says, “and they look for something they can package and sell.”

Generalist is a good moniker during the first few years of your career. For example, if you're a standout college grad, you may win a place in a general-management rotational training program, such as General Electric Co. and other well-known consumer products companies offer. But the point of such training programs is to figure out what you're good at and then seek an internal role in that department.

So take a gamble. Figure out what you're best at and start making your mark. Then hope for good timing — that someone needs that particular talent when you have become expert at it.

Carly Fiorina, for example, is an outstanding marketer in the technology sector. She got to be chair and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard by being the best — and having a little luck: the company badly needed marketing expertise when it was conducting a search for a CEO. If it had needed an engineering genius, Fiorina would not have been considered. By the same token, if a food-products company needed a marketing-oriented CEO, Fiorina would not have been a candidate because her background is in technology. People who define themselves clearly are clearly wrong for certain positions, but super-achievers take that risk.

Many professionals hesitate to define themselves because it limits where you can go. But top players must have clear definition. Most have enough confidence in their abilities to risk specialization. Very simply, they believe that adequate opportunities will be available as they progress up the ladder.

To specialize, think discipline (marketing, sales, operations, etc) and sector (media, technology, fashion, etc.) Become known for your extremes. If you aren’t extremely good at something, you won’t get to the top.

Still not convinced of the benefits of typecasting? Then consider the current job market. Hundreds of applicants vie for most jobs, and many are more than qualified. This means hiring managers can demand a perfect fit — and specialists rather than generalists typically offer a perfect fit.

Figure out what your strengths are and hone them. Sure, take varied positions in the company, and learn a range of skills, but make sure people know where your talents lie. People at the top need to see you as someone who is extremely good at something, and no one is extremely good at everything, so don’t sell yourself that way to upper management.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, this is a love letter to my husband. But apparently, he is too busy to read my column, so he won’t see the letter.

The last time I complained about his disinterest, he said, “Okay, fine, read me your columns.”

So I read a column out loud to him. And in the middle of it, he fall asleep.

To test him, I said, “So, what do you think?”

He jerked his head up, like a college kid in an 8 am class, and he said, “Uh. It got slow after the first couple of paragraphs.”

Fortunately, my affection for my husband isn't based on his listening skills. I love him for other reasons, including his fearlessness when it comes to changing careers. He isn't afraid to reinvent himself professionally so that he always does something he finds interesting. His excitement about his work makes our life together more fun.

My husband's first job was as a composer. When he was ten. For most kids this wouldn't be a job, but his parents couldn't afford a private school in Los Angeles, so my husband got a scholarship to a top-tier school for his musical talents.

In college, he decided that to be a great composer you need to have something very new to say, and he did not have something that new to say about music. So he quit music.

He went to film school and earned spending money by editing soft-core porn: “The Magic Blanket Bikini.” (He says it was very, very, soft because the star announced midway through filming that she wouldn't take her clothes off.) He made video art for his master's thesis, and his work became so well known that it is part of the curricula at UCLA's film school.

But he grew tired of the film industry after one too many Magic Blankets. So when he graduated, he took a job designing video games. He learned to say Ka-pow! and Ouch! in four languages, and he got to wheel and deal with big budgets from major gaming companies.

I married a game designer with a penchant for piano and a portfolio of films that featured ex-girlfriends being constrained. (“The director,” he explained, “always dates the actress.”)

On September 11, my husband found himself looking over me, dust-covered and shaken in a hospital bed. Suddenly, he wanted to save the world. He became an unpaid volunteer for nonprofits until one hired him. Now he helps prisoners establish safe, fulfilling lives when their sentence is up. His job would stretch my patience (admittedly, thin) to its limits.

My husband drives his parents nuts: “We drove to all those music lessons and then you go to film school! We paid for five years of film school and you make video games!” He drives my parents nuts, too: “What is his job? Video is not a job! Volunteering is not a job!” But my husband’s approach to work makes me excited; Members of my family picked a career and stuck with it forever, even when they stopped being fun.

Our careers are not who we are. But what we choose to do with our days reflects our values. I picked a partner who tolerate being bored or uninspired, and his standards for life encourage me to raise my own. His career choices also reveal a bigger heart than I saw when I married him — except when it comes to reading my columns.

Maybe it's time to set aside all those “know yourself” advice books, and try lying to yourself about who you are. You are a finance wiz. You are a sales guru. You are a genius writer.

Any successful careerist needs to be these things. But most of us are not really all of these things. The skills are too diverse even for the mind of an overachiever like you. But why not try telling yourself you are all these things and see what happens? After all, the first step to being great at something is to believe that you're great at it. Then you will attack the task at hand expecting yourself to succeed.

Sales
You can say you don't like selling. You can say you're above it. But you may never get the chance to know, because people who can't sell themselves can't get jobs. So, okay, you don't have to sell cars (though you should study the people who do — the best are incredible sales people and could sell anything to anyone.) But you do have to sell yourself to get a job, and you have to sell your ideas in order to keep your job interesting. (Singles, take note: Dating is, in fact, the most important sales game of your life.)

The hardest thing about sales is taking the time to understand what the person you're selling to cares about, and under which scenario that person is a good listener. People who say, “I'm bad at sales,” are people who, for the most part, refuse to take the time to understand people. How embarrassing. So even if you are bad at understanding people, don't announce it to the world by saying you can't sell. Call yourself a salesperson and practice all the time.

Finance
I first learned the importance of faking it when I had to present financials to my angel investors. I had to pretend that I did not score in the bottom 20% of the math section of the GRE. I had to say confidently, “Oh, I have everything explained in an Excel spreadsheet.” And then I had to hire someone to teach me to use Excel.

Today, I don't run numbers as fast as a real finance wiz, but I have confidence because I told my investors I knew what I was doing thereby forcing myself to learn. Thank goodness, because each of us needs to be a finance wiz.

You need to understand broad corporate financial goals in order to place your own projects in context. You need to understand how to manage a dynamic budget without tripping on the question, “How did you get to the number on line six?” Most CEOs did not move up the ladder via financial positions, but you never hear a CEO say he's bad at finance. In an ambitious career there is no room for financial weaknesses. So don't ever say you don't do numbers.

Writing
Here's a scenario: you write an e-mail that consists one, 25-line paragraph with no breaks. No one reads it. At best it looks unintelligible because it's too long a paragraph for email. At worst, it *is* unintelligible. But still, in this case you are a writer, you are just a terrible writer.

The list of scary scenarios is endless: If you send a disorganized report to your boss, she won't understand it; If you have typos in your resume you'll lose interviews. Everyone's career is dependent on their talent for communication. And in the age of email everyone's a writer.

So take responsibility for your own communications and function like you are a top-tier writer. This means outlining first so that you are organized, writing to the point, and proofreading. A few of you will need to take a grammar class. Some of you, who have made some of my past projects miserable, will need to take ten grammar classes.

So lie to yourself. Tell yourself you are great at sales, writing and finance, and you might not be great, but you will get a lot better. And even a small improvement in each of these skills will add up to a large improvement in your career trajectory.

Feeling stuck? Uninspired? As though your New Year's resolutions have no spark? Maybe it's time to start your own business. It’s likely you intuitively know if you're actually an entrepreneur stuffed in a corporate cubicle. The entrepreneurship bug isn’t something that hits in middle age. It’s something that's inside you from day one — a part of who you are. So don't be stifled by your age or lack of experience. Just make sure you have the right personality for success and the right attitude toward failure.

Get a good idea
Starting a business is very high-risk. Most entrepreneurs fail. So minimize your risk by honestly evaluating if your concept is valid and marketable. Remember, just because you like your idea doesn't mean there’s a market full of buyers for it, so do your research. Tip: your mom’s opinion doesn’t count because she’s biased, so find a small business mentor and ask her.

Assess your personality
You also need the right personality to run your own business. You must like people and people must like you — so you can get them to do what you want. You need to be able to make fast, confident decisions, and you need to be organized so that you can give clear direction to others. If your product launch flops, you are the one who has to tell everyone why the company is still on the road to success. If you can’t rally the troops, you need a business partner.

You also need boundless energy. When you own the company, you set the pace and the standards. Remember the day at the office last month when you were upset and tired from worrying about your personal life the night before, so you surfed the Internet all day? Relaxing, wasn’t it? You can’t do this when you own the company. Most small business owners work 80-hour weeks and wish they needed less sleep.

I have these traits. And I started a business. I raised funds and hired employees, and, surprise, the company was successful and I eventually cashed out. But I paid a high price. I worked almost every waking minute. When cash flow was poor, I worried not only about my own paycheck, but about the paychecks of my employees. When cash flow was good, deal flow was heavy and my workload doubled even though I was already maxed out. While I was negotiating the sale of my shares, my hair started falling out. I didn't know this happened to women, but apparently it does, usually from intense stress.
Fortunately, most small business owners are optimistic. And I am, too. I bought some Nioxin to make my hair grow back. And once I regained my former full mane, I started another business.

It failed. And I lost a lot of the money I made from the first business. There were many reasons for the failure: Bad timing, bad economy, and maybe, in hindsight, bad idea. If you think you have the personality to succeed as a small business owner, make sure you have the right approach to failure as well.

Minimize risk to your checkbook and your career
I invested only the money I could afford to lose. I had no kids and no mortgage. I lost my loot from my first company, but I didn't lose my shirt: I kept enough to live on for a while longer.” Think of starting a business as gambling: When you go to Vegas, never bet your plane fare home. Once my company closed, I enlisted a resume-writing service to help me frame my business flop as a career hop to the next level of management.

Fail quickly and move on
Most business leaders fail once or twice before hitting it big. Think of failure as a necessary career step and move through it quickly and assuredly — recognize when things are going poorly, fail fast, learn, and get another idea.

To those of you with the right personality, I say bring it on! You will be pleased that you turned tough economic times into an opportunity for fulfillment. And even if you fail, remember that statistics indicate you are most likely to succeed when you are doing something you love.

As the labor market slowly recovers from it's paycheck-killing slump, it's natural to hope for your next big break. But remember that when opportunity knocks you should open up cautiously. Beware of career opportunities that look like quick fixes because often they are really career derailments.

Figure out now what you want for your career so when opportunities pop up, you can judge them in the context of long-term goals you believe in. Managing a career is a difficult process — full of risks, disappointments, and feelings of hopelessness. People who stay on track are people who trust themselves to know what will make them happy and trust themselves to meet their goals.

Here are some examples of opportunities that derailed careers:

The family business derailment
Danny loved computers. He was an IT consultant for ten years and then he got a pink slip. He had never had to look for a job in a bad economy, so after he sent twenty resumes and heard back from no one, frustration and fear set in; Maybe he would never get a a job.

His dad, on the other hand, wanted to retire and sell his construction business. Danny saw a golden opportunity to avoid a prolonged job hunt, and he took over the family business. But Manny never wanted to run a construction company. He says he often finds himself fixing the company's computer network instead of building the company's client network. In hindsight, Danny says he could have suffered through a difficult job hunt and to remain in the IT. But at this point, he doesn't know if he has the heart to dump his dad's business.

The grad school derailment
As a college senior, my dad knew he wanted to be a history teacher, but he took the LSAT because his father wanted him to be a lawyer. My dad got a near-perfect score. So while he was applying to Harvard's graduate program in history, he filled out the application for law school, too. Harvard accepted him, but only for law. And my dad thought to himself, “Who passes up Harvard law?” So he went there, and he won a position at a top-tier law firm. But he never liked law and, frankly, he was never very good at it.

The gold rush derailment
Harry was an economic development wiz. He turned run-down cities into hipster destinations, and he had his eye on Los Angeles for his next big job. But then he saw people making millions of dollars on the Internet, and he wanted to make millions, too. So he dumped his government-pay-scale field for a dotcom. He hated his Internet company: Manic pace, pretentious twenty-somethings, and waffling management. He suffered though months and months with the hope of making millions, but the company went bankrupt. And then the economy tanked and most cities had some form of a hiring freeze. So the man who was a rising star in a field he loved became unemployed after spending a year doing something that made him miserable.

Each of these people knew what he wanted, but at a crucial point, diverged from the path he set out for himself. An opportunity is only as good as it's long-term effects on your life. Career focus will help you tell the difference between a good opportunity and a bad opportunity.

Career risks are good, but only in the context of career plans. So make a plan and then trust yourself to set goals and meet them. That way, when opportunity knocks, you won't budge for a quick fix or a big sellout — you'll focus on the path that is right for you.

For most people, September 11 has come and gone, but the anniversary will always be important to me because I was a block away when the first building fell. The people I have met who were at the World Trade Center that day never stopped associating the event with their work, and I am no exception.

That day, I stepped outside my office to take a look at the spectacle. Before I knew what happened, I was blinded by debris and buried under a pile of people. I pulled myself out of the pile, but I couldn't see, had no idea where I was, and I couldn't breathe. I worried about my family until the lack of air became painful. Then I focused all my hopes on not having an extremely painful death.

There was complete quiet. No one could talk because no one could breathe. Then I heard cracked glass. I moved toward the noise until I saw a glow coming from a broken window. Somehow, I lifted myself into a broken window that was above my shoulders. I found air. And then I thought only of water. I found my way to a bathroom in that building and inside there were debris-covered men in ties drinking out of a toilet. I drank, too.

Days later, I went back to my software marketing job at my Wall-St based company, and though no one was really doing any work, I somehow continued to write my weekly column, furtively, from my desk. Soon, though, the company laid off almost all the employees, including me. I spent October in a daze. I spent November and December attending a group for people with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

The way to deal with post-traumatic stress is to tell your story over and over again. The theory is that when you are in the moment of trauma, you have to turn off all your emotions to get yourself through it. After the fact, in order to stop having nightmares and panic attacks, you have to experience the emotions you missed.

So I told my story over and over again. And each time, the story was a little different. (I still tell the story, although to be honest, most people are sick of it. Even my brother said, “That just took 25 minutes. Maybe you need an abridged version.”)

When I began telling my story I saw myself as an imbecile — for staying at work after the first plane hit, for standing so close to the building, for not trying to help anyone but myself. Later, my story focused on how I was a lucky person to have come out alive. And I was a lucky person to have a moment where I thought I was going to die and saw exactly what I cared about in my life.

This is the process of reframing. How we frame our stories determines how we see ourselves. It's the glass half-empty/half-full thing: The trauma of 9/11 taught me to frame my life as half-full.

Today, when I tell my World Trade Center story, my focus is on career change. Today I am the woman who nearly died at the World Trade Center. I lost my job as a marketing executive. I faced an incredibly tough job hunt, which I wrote about in my column. In the process, I became a writer; turning in a column week after week made me realize that I was a writer who was calling herself an unemployed marketer.

I used to think career changes were planned and instigated and systematic. Now I know that some changes could never be planned, and some changes do not need instigating, they just need recognizing. Positive change comes to people who can frame their world in a positive light — even a world where everything is literally falling down.

It's the Penelope Trunk Q&A column. I like to think my columns answer the questions that people don't ask but should. But today I'll answer the questions that people really ask.

Most popular question: How can I switch jobs and not take a cut in pay? Of course, the answer is that you can't. But people never ask the question like that. Instead they write six paragraphs about their situation at work, their spouse, their 401K, and then they ask me how they can avoid suffering.

Switching careers is hard. Only rarely do fifteen years in your earlier career count for anything. Usually, you start a new career on the bottom rung because your knowledge is not worth much. So you must weigh the terribleness of eight hours a day in a career you don't like vs. having to tighten your budget strings. Here's an idea, though: In your new job, where you know nothing, spend your time at home learning about the new profession so that you don't have time to go out and spend money you don't have.

Second most popular question: How do I become a freelance writer? It's a riff on the first question, really, but hey, it's a bad economy and lots of people are unemployed in their current field.

Here's how I became a writer. I started writing when I was six and wrote nonstop, about things no one cared about. Then I thought, I like to write, I should get paid for this.

So I went to graduate school for writing and the first day, the teacher said, “If any of you can imagine yourselves doing anything but writing, you should do that. Writing is hard, and lonely and full of rejection and you'll never make any money.”

I stayed in school (I had a fellowship — who can give up free money?) but after school I got a job in marketing at a Fortune 500 company. And I made a lot of money.

But I kept writing. For ten more years. I wrote after work and when my jobs were slow, I wrote at work. I used my vacation time to send writing to publishers who rejected me. But then they stopped rejecting me. And slowly, I realized that I could support my family with my writing. So I took the leap. (And, note, a huge salary cut.)

If you think you want to be a writer, first pay heed to my teacher's advice. If you still want to write, remember that most writers spend years and years writing before they get published. So keep your day job until you're sure you won't starve.

Third most popular question: How can you say that people with messy desks are ineffective at work? (This mail is in response to a column.) The answer to this question is that in the column I reported on a study that showed that co-workers perceive that people with messy desks are unorganized. The point of the column is that you can say you work fine with a messy desk, but studies show that your co-workers will never be convinced.

You'd think people would read this and clean their desks. But instead of cleaning their desks, they write to me, to tell me the study is wrong.

The defensive mail about messiness and the scared mail about career changes all reminds me of how difficult it is to be honest with ourselves. Most people get stuck (under piles of papers, under the weight of a lucrative career) because they are scared of seeing what is really best for them. It's easier to see fear of change in other people than it is to see it in ourselves. But seeing it in readers makes me more determined to face it head on in my own life. So, thanks again for all your mail. Please keep writing, even if you just want to yell at me.