This post is sponsored by the American Cancer Society.

After I realized that the most underrated skill is asking good questions, I realized that I am not very good at it. I don’t ask for help enough because I don’t know what question to ask. And also, I worry the question will be bad and then the person won’t want to help me again.

So I started forcing myself to ask for help. Like, I put myself on a schedule. And the result was not so much that I got good help (I did) but what I really got was good at asking questions. Because I thought so much about it.

Here are things I’ve been noticing about what makes a person good at asking questions:

1. Surround yourself with people who make you curious.
The first time we had a bonfire at the farm I was dating the farmer and he was winning over my boys with tree climbing and hot-dog roasting. I was concerned about fire safety, but I knew it was hopeless when I realized that the number-one rule I learned about building fires — put them out before you go to bed — does not apply on the farm. He just lets it burn out itself. Read more

Melissa and I had a fight yesterday. We have this fight once or twice a month. Someone who neither of us knows well will ask Melissa something about me just out of an odd curiosity about my life. Something stupid, like, What’s Penelope doing for Thanksgiving?

It’s stupid, yes, but I think it’s even more stupid that Melissa answers. So I tell her don’t talk to anyone about me. I don’t want her to be a source of Penelope information. I just want her to be a friend.

You will notice this is very hypocritical of me. But I don’t care. I make the rule anyway: No talking about me. Ever.

Then she thinks everything is an exception. Like, telling her co-worker what it’s like sitting across from me while I make up dialogue that she is not saying.

So I say, “I’m not talking to you anymore. You’re a terrible friend.”

She says, “I am not a terrible friend. I have really good intentions.”

“Okay. You’re a retarded friend. You don’t understand boundaries.”

“I’m trying. And you see everything black and white and it’s not.” Read more

My friend Melissa is gone. It’s been two weeks since her visit ended, but I’m still so sad. I’m not sure if I’m sad because I’m really lonely and isolated on the farm or if I’m sad because I fell in love with Melissa.

I miss her taking pictures all the time. For example this self-portrait. Which she took 500 versions of. She wore the same clothes for a week— something that feels natural to do on a farm—and even though the paint is red and her clothes are pink, she magically matches my bathroom walls.

She left me with a folder of 50 photos for my blog. That’s a good gift. And she left my kids with the feeling that they made a new friend.

I took this photo from the front seat. I told her maybe I didn’t like it. She looks sad. But she said, “We were sad. It’s a sad movie. The Dalmatians are being turned into coats!” Read more

A couple of days ago, Louise Fletcher, a professional resume writer, blogged about my ability to say whatever I want and not kill my career. That same day, Kathy Williams wrote this comment on my blog:

My son introduced me to your blog which I appreciate. I am your polar opposite. You have complete freedom to say whatever you want … for whatever reason is not important. We can all use a little more honesty.

In general, I think people can say much more than they think they can. It used to be that no one blogged about unemployment, bad bosses or screaming at their kids. Now these are all pretty common posts. This should tell you that topics that you think will change what people think about you don’t actually do that. Consider what you’re doing — if it’s within the realm of normal, people don’t care that you’re doing it—it’s not interesting.

Of course, things that I think are totally normal, like, having a miscarriage at work, turn out to be very controversial. But really, I am still not sure why. I mean, just thinking logically, hundreds of thousands of women have miscarriages every year, and most of those women have not had a kid so they are working, so hundreds of thousands of women each year have a miscarriage at work.

I think my inability to understand why this is controversial might be a blessing. Read more

Right after college, I was playing a bazillion hours a week of volleyball to get on the pro tour, and reading a book a night to make up for the fact that I was tortured for eighteen years by having to read what other people told me to read. But when people asked, “What do you do?” I said, “I work at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in arbitrage.”

It's a good answer, right? I had choices: I could admit to reading like a crazy person. I could admit to trying to be in professional sports but not quite there, or I could give an answer that impressed everyone: I work in currency arbitrage. In reality, I was so incompetent at this job that when currencies went wild after the Berlin Wall fell, I lost a few million dollars for a few violent traders. The only possible reason to keep a dyslexic, literary, arbitrage clerk around was because she was good looking. But I wasn't good looking enough. I got fired.

Immediately I focused on getting on the pro volleyball tour. At that point, “What do you do?” questions did not get “I'm getting a job in a children's book store because I worked in the family book store for ten years and I can tell you the publisher of any author–quiz me.” Instead, I said, “I'm moving to Los Angeles to play professional beach volleyball.” To me, the book store was a step back to support volleyball, which was a step forward.

Describing my move to LA over and over again to prying relatives and concerned strangers actually made me believe it. How you answer the question “What do you do?” is important because it frames your story for you in a much more visceral way than it frames it for anyone else.

Recently, I had the problem again. I was sort of working at my startup, Brazen Careerist, but not really. The company got a new CEO and was moving to Washington, DC , and I was staying in Wisconsin and marrying the farmer.

“What do you do?” came up a lot because I was redecorating the farm house and traveling back and forth between DC and Madison and NY and Darlington. People in cities asked me what I was doing because clearly, I was not full-time at Brazen Careerist. And people in Darlington asked me because clearly I did not have a life in Darlington. Read more

The party in DC was at a bar, which is a difficult environment for me, because I never go to bars. We were the first ones there because it’s our party. People started coming and I realized that the most awkward part of the party would be at the beginning, when you have to talk to whoever walks in because you can’t pretend that you need to be talking to someone else. The most claustrophobic time of a party is when only a few people are there.

This is the broom closet I hid in.

Photis saw me go in. He said, “What are you doing?”

“Taking a break,” I said. And I shut the door. Read more

This is what the farm looks like when you drive up to it.

For a while, I thought that the farm is really what I fell in love with. I felt an overwhelming sense that I belonged on this farm from the moment I got out of my car.

But also, the moment I got out of my car, I fell in love with the farmer.

And I did not fall in love with the farmer when I went to check him out at the farmer's market before I agreed to drive out to his farm. Which tells me that love at first sight is a combination of things: the right setting and right person. Read more

I think it's time for me to address the fact that I have 56,000 followers on Twitter but I have tweeted only 500 times. If I were an aging rock star or philandering basketball player, this might not be remarkable. But I'm basically a normal person.

So I'm going to give you four twitter tips that no one else will tell you.

1. Focus on quality over quantity
First, let's talk about purpose. Why are you on twitter anyway? There are tons of really valid goals for twitter, but most of them require influence. I mean, you need twitter influence in order to reach almost any goal on twitter. Because twitter is about sharing information with people who matter to you.

If you want to publicize stuff on twitter you definitely need influence. But at the other end of the spectrum (where I am) if you just want to write well, you also need influence because if you are writing and no one is listening then you are not really communicating.

The biggest reason for you to focus on influence, though, is that money doesn't make us happy, but influence does. I spent two hours trying to find this article in the New York Times. I can't find it because as soon as you put influence and happiness in a search string you get stuff that influences happiness but you can't search influence influence happiness. Anyway, trust me that if you have influence, you feel happier. Read more

I am going to be a better person at self-promotion because I don't brag enough. Ryan Paugh, who was basically my intern when I met him, and now he’s almost my boss and definitely my social-skills mentor, tells me that I am popular because I’m interesting but that I suck at self-promotion. (He uses, as an example, the day I promoted an event on my blog a few hours after it actually happened.)

I do not tell Ryan to shut up because he has taught me a ton about myself since the day I started working with him. And in fact, he makes me feel qualified to tell you how you can fire up your career by paying close attention to the people with the least work experience.

1. Recognize interns are gatekeepers to the good stuff.

When it was time to promote my second book, I went to Keith Ferrazzi, author of one of my favorite career advice books. I needed a quotation from Keith that said something like, “I am The Great Keith Ferazzi and I can tell you for sure that your career will be crap and you will die drowning in the blood of a rabid coyote if you do not buy Penelope Trunk's book.”

Just so you don't get confused, I'm going to start calling my first book my first book and my second book my second book. At this point, I have written enough about oral sex and family atrocities that you will not be shocked to hear that my first book is really a memoir that my publisher – out of the University of Colorado — decided was too disturbing to be sold as a memoir, so it was published as a novel. Read more

The vast majority of electronic communication today is via social media, according to Paul Greenberg, a relationship management consultant. At first I didn't believe it. But then I thought about the viral nature of communication via social networks, and the statistic started to make sense.

So, I have been thinking for a while that I need to stop using email, but I was never sure my hunch was right. Finally, through the process of deciding to put photos of my kids on my blog, I realized that email is now old-fashioned. Here's why:

1. Email is inefficient.

Email is one-to-one communication and social networks one-to-many communication. (Here’s a good link about that.) If you have something meaningful or thoughtful to say, why not say it to many people? It would mean that more people share ideas and more people understand your way of thinking. Also, there are so many pieces of our life that we tell at different times to different people. Why not just say it once? We all have email overload: we parse our messages into 40 one-to-one messages instead of just a single one-to-many message.

Email is also an inefficient way to hone your writing skills. A Stanford study shows that people develop better writing in social media than in the classroom. In the classroom you write for a single reader, the teacher, who is a captive audience—it's her job to read your writing. But in social media, you have to persuade a group of readers to accept your way of thinking, and you have to be interesting. So you will get better and better at your job—which is, for all of us on some level, communicating—if you use social media instead of email. Read more