The flair with which you grow and prune your reading pile directly affects your career trajectory. Sure, you can learn from enlisting mentors and taking on new projects, but you can learn with the most focus and speed by reading on your own.

But don't be swayed by the business book bestseller list. Instead, devise a reading plan for yourself that encourages major shifts in thinking; Leaps in your thinking encourage leaps in your career. Here are some guidelines for your summer reading:

Make summer a time for big questions.
All-day beach trips are great for long books. Blow up rafts promote uninterrupted thinking. Don't waste these precious chunks of time on John Grisham.

Instead, think of a big question, the kind that has no right answer but lots of angles, and dive into the relevant reading. One summer, when I was looking for the meaning of my nine-to-five life, I asked the question: “What makes a career feel satisfying?” Another question that has ruled my summer reading is, “What sort of human-computer interaction is fun?”

Sometimes, the answer to the question isn't nearly as revealing as just discovering what question really piques your interest.

Think like you're studying for a mid-term.
For most of us, rigorous thinking ended in college. But the organized, complex, thinking that gets you through upper-level philosophy courses also makes you sharp at the office. So keep on your toes by reading about Supreme Court decisions: They twist and turn the Constitution in ways that will give anyone an intellectual workout; they're not as dry as Kant and not as brain numbing as Martha Stewart's lawsuit.

(Bonus: reality TV can't hold a flame to some of those cases. For example, a guy kills a cop, and gets shot back — blind in one eye and paralyzed from the neck down. Another cop follows the guy to the hospital, and interrogates him. The injured man screams, “I'm about to die! Leave me alone!” Then he spews self-incriminating information. Legal gathering of evidence, yes or no?)

Read to understand people.
Your career is dependent as much on people skills as it is on how well you do your work. So I recommend An Na's novel, “A Step from Heaven” (Front Street, 2001), which I love. It's a kids book. (For those of you who don't read kids books, you should. They'll remind you of that terrible time of life that is junior high school, and then you'll appreciate where you are in life now, no matter where you are.)

“A Step from Heaven” is about a Korean immigrants, and it does a great job of showing the barriers to success that people of American-born parents do not face. Think of these barriers when you manage someone who didn't have all the advantages in life that you had. Remember that topics like patience and compassion are as important to your reading pile as leadership and finance.

Don't read to stroke your ego.
Just because you have already accumulated a summer reading pile tall enough to last fifteen summers doesn't mean that you have to read those books.

Our tendency is to be attracted to topics we already know a lot about. For a while, I was reading too many books about time management. I am a good time manager, so each book's recommendations would allow me to say, “Great, I'm already doing that. I'm great.” When I forced myself read about sales, because I was uncomfortable in that area, my reading became much more productive.

Force yourself to read in areas that are unfamiliar to you. Read about your weaknesses. Read about people who annoy you and topics that bore you. The best antidote to disdain is a deeper understanding.

You can keep your career on track by going to the gym; The same attributes that drive someone to succeed at the gym are the attributes that drive someone to succeed at the office. In fact, going to the gym will even help you develop personal tools for coping with unemployment. Here are some places to start:

People who work out at the gym regularly earn more money than couch potatoes. One reason this is true is that the gym is training ground for ladder climbing in corporate America. The skills required to get oneself to the gym on a regular basis are the same skills required to impress upper management on a regular basis. In fact, going to the gym will even help you develop personal tools for coping with unemployment.

You can keep your career on track by going to the gym. The same attributes that drive someone to succeed at the gym are the attributes that drive someone to succeed at the office. In fact, going to the gym will even help you develop personal tools for coping with unemployment. Here are some examples to inspire your gym dedication:

Self-discipline
The hardest part about starting a workout regimen is getting yourself to the health club. It's always easier to go home after work and eat pizza in front of the TV. Even the unemployed, with seemingly endless days, find a way to make it difficult to make time for the gym.

By the same token, if you can't get your work done at the office, you'll never be able to move up the chain of command. And the same nagging voice that says, “I'll never find energy for the health club” nags at work, “I'll never write the report as well as my boss wants me to.” Self-discipline is what forces you to overcome the negative voices and take action.

Setting goals
If you go to the gym without a plan, you'll accomplish nothing and then stop going. People who workout regularly set goals. Some people aim to lose weight, some people train for a marathon. Whatever your goal is, it will keep you focused so that each day you go to the gym you know exactly what you're there to do.

You need goals for your career, too. If your goal is to become a managing director, then you can map out the steps you need to get there, and you have focus for each of your days. Whereas gym goals may look like number of laps or amount of weight, work goals will look like projects finished or skills learned.

Bouncing back
Everyone skips a day at the gym sometimes. Even Andre took time off tennis training to see Steffi give birth to their son. The important thing is not to get discouraged. People who workout regularly think of themselves as people who workout even when they are ditching the gym and eating ice cream.

The career-equivalent is losing a job. People who get laid off can still see themselves as successful, innovative employees. Maintaining this vision of yourself will make you much more effective in your job hunt. You can practice seeing yourself as a person who bounces back by forcing yourself to go to the gym even when you had ten beers the night before.

Doing something that's fun
If swimming doesn't rock your world, don't bother trying to convince yourself to do it three times a week. Find something you like — it'll make for much easier motivation when the pizza beckons. The more fun you have in your chosen activity, the more likely you will be to keep a regular workout schedule. In fact, if you really love what you're doing, you might workout more passionately than you ever expected.

The same goes for your chosen career. Pick something you love, and you'll do it with passion. You know that complete energy drain you feel when its time to go to an aerobics class but you hate aerobics? That's the same energy drain you feel when your alarm goes off and you hate your work. Find a career you love and you're likely to love the money that follows.

So get yourself to the gym today. For those of you lucky enough to have a job in this economy, you probably won't see a huge raise after two weeks of the Stairmaster, but you will notice, over the course of months, that people treat you differently when you run your life differently. For those of you who are unemployed, the gym will make your days feel more productive; When people say, “How's your career going?” you can say, “I'm taking steps to improve my earning power.”

Don’t wait until you bottom out. The worst thing about big change is not that it's so hard to adjust. The worst thing is that we usually have to bottom out before we make a big change; we wait until there is no other choice before we give in.

I bottomed out in the car, during my commute between San Diego and Los Angeles. When I took a position near San Diego, I was so excited to have a paycheck that a two-hour commute back to LA seemed fine. And for about three weeks, the commute was interesting. Then I got bored. I tried listening to books on tape, which only served to ruin the experience of reading. I tried talking on the phone, which caused me to miss exits constantly and nearly double my driving time.

But the job was so good that I persisted with the commute. I started leaving my apartment in LA at 4am. No traffic meant an abridged commute, but also an abridged social life because I had to be in bed at 8pm. After a few weeks, I fell asleep at the wheel and woke up to the blaring horn of a large trucker saving my life before I crashed.

So I went back to my two hours each way. But on rainy days it was 3 hours each way. And finally, on a day of torrential downpour, just a few miles away from Disneyland, I lost it. I pulled to the side of the road and threw pieces of the inside of my car into a ditch. Then I went to Denny's and ate three pieces of pie. Then I called each of my friends to tell them I was quitting.

“Finally!” was what they all said. That's the thing about big change. By the time we are ready to do it, the need for change has been apparent to everyone else for months. Maybe years. It's easy for everyone else to see someone else's need for change — they don't have to make it.

Later, reading the want ads at my kitchen table, I was excited to find another job, and I lamented all the hours I wasted in the car. In my apartment it was clear that the job was not worth the commute. But that's how it always is: I always wish I had made the change sooner.

So here’s what to do with that information: Cut yourself some slack if you’re in a bad situation and not getting out. But get out. Sure, research shows that people have a proclivity to stay in a bad situation, but you can be an overachiever. Get out before you have your own version of tears in front of the Magic Kingdom. Force yourself to change before things get ugly.

It's impossible to see your own life as clearly as others do, but it's a good goal to aim for. As soon as you hear other people say, “Why don't you do [insert change here]?” give the question serious thought. Put that thought on your to do list, so it's right there in front of you.

Still not moving? Close your eyes and imagine what life would be like if you made the big change: Maybe it's giving up some responsibility at work, or quitting, or switching careers. These are the sorts of changes we put off and put off, but once we do them we feel huge relief. These days I try to focus on that relief; I still wait too long to instigate change, but I'm hoping my days of being on the bottom are behind me.

When you lose your job, or even if you’re worried about it, the most important thing you can do for your career is aggressively save your money. And if you want to put that money to work, set some aside to invest with an innovative brokerage company like Glanmore Investments.

The average job hunt takes six months. If your salary is above average, then so is the estimated length of your job hunt. Money in the bank will afford you the time you need to hunt.   The more time you have to hunt, the less likely you are to have to settle for a job you don’t like.

Even in the face of this knowledge, many people start their job hunt with a level of optimism (or denial) that allows them to continue their I-have-a-job spending patterns. Losing a job is like death — even if you saw it coming, you are sad. Most people cope with sadness by spending money: on clothes, on bars, on baseball tickets and all-day spa deals. The best way to convince yourself to immediately start saving is to envision what will happen to your career opportunities if you keep spending.

Maybe you are one of those really optimistic people. Optimism is good. But optimism with money in the bank is better. For you, it might take a few months of job-hunting for you to cut your spending. You might send out resumes for jobs that are better than the job you just lost. Given the current market you would be being very, very optimistic, but hey, sending out a resume is free. It only takes time and when you’re unemployed, you have a lot of that.

If you don’t get a job in a couple of months, you need to admit that you are just like everyone else, and your hunt will take half a year. At this point, you probably have had no interviews, or if you have had interviews, the hiring manager has said casually, “We culled your resume from a pile of 300 qualified applicants.”

But there’s still time to adjust your budget so you can last longer. Cut your budget as much as you can without losing your housing, your friends or your sanity. If it’s too late, and you don’t have enough money to last six months, then cut your job expectations, too, so that you can land a job more quickly. Having a little money to spare allows you to be a little bit picky about the job you take. When you’re broke you have to take the first job that comes along.

Still not scared enough to save? If you don’t cut back at this point, you’ll want to cut back later, but it’ll be too late. Early on, you can cut back on things that don’t matter that much, like movies, facials, and extra toppings on your pizza. Later, you have to also cut back on things that matter a lot, like your cell phone (you turn it off even though you put that number on resumes you sent out) and your health insurance (you figure you’re healthy, so you stop paying insanely high COBRA fees.)

Then you realize you have erred. Like, you hear about someone in your position who got sick and had to go to a scary hospital because they were uninsured and they got even sicker while they were there. So you take a job at Starbucks, or the Starbucks equivalent in your neighborhood — one of those big retail chains that offer bad jobs and good health insurance. You find yourself living off your Starbucks salary and you are miserable, and you are drowning your sorrows in free lattes.

This scenario is grim, think about it at the beginning of your hunt, when you are figuring out how long your money has to last. That way you are less likely to end up in job hunt hell. A key to a successful job hunt is giving yourself enough time to succeed, and in this case, time is money.

Three weeks ago I wrote a column about dealing with war anxiety. I interviewed my family (what else is new?) and then wrote about my brother Mike's worries about life insurance.

Then this guy, Paul, started sending emails to me: “Who is your source on that insurance stuff in your column?”

Paul's emails kept coming. He called four insurance companies and then sent another email to me. He told me my brother gave me bad information.

So I forwarded the email to my brother. And he said, “Paul is right. You misquoted me.”

I am not a detail person. I associate details with perfectionism and I think perfectionism is a disease that undermines everyone who has it. Mike thinks I am being extreme. So when he gave me the bad news, he didn't say it like, “You misquoted me, I'm sorry for you that you made an error.” He said it like, “You misquoted me, and finally you got in trouble for not paying attention to the details. Hooray, hooray, justice has been served.”

My disdain for details started when I looked around at all the people who are disappointed with their lives. For the most part, these are people who wish they had done something that they did not do for fear of failure. In the worst cases, people have lists and lists of things they did not do because of fear of failure. Then I saw a bumper sticker that said, “What would you do if failure were not an option?”

When I went through my own list of what I would do, I decided that if I stopped worrying about failure, I'd be able to do a lot more. So I started focusing on just getting stuff done, instead of getting it done perfectly. Details fell to the wayside.

I also noticed that once I stopped worrying about doing something perfectly, I didn't have nearly as much reason for procrastination. It's easy to start something if you tell yourself that getting it done 70% perfect (as opposed to 100%) is okay. Believe it or not, in most cases, 70% perfect is okay for what we do.

Getting rid of perfectionism and procrastination has served me well. I have explored all sorts of ways that I can find success. I have flourished in many types of businesses because I have not put off trying. And I can jump fearlessly from project to project finding those that spark my career.

But in the process, I think I lost too much respect for details. At some level, I know these attributes are important. For example, if you can't keep track of schedules, you can't get anything in on time. And if you can't keep track of expenditures, you can't stay within budget.

A happy career path requires a balance of fearlessness and attention to detail. And thanks to Paul's attention to detail (and patience with my snippy emails) I am going to recalibrate myself.

Don't get me wrong; I still despise perfectionism. At the end of life, people do not wish they had been more obsessive about perfectionism. They wish they had tried more things, taken more opportunities. But I don't want to limit my opportunities by being unreliable. So here's hoping that Paul never catches me being careless again, and that Mike will still let me quote him.

Current college fad: racking up double, triple, and even quadruple majors in order to impress future employers. This strategy is wrought with irony because, in effect, someone who has a triple major screams, “Don't hire me. I'll be a management disaster!”

My advice to all you triple majors is to dump the excessive course load and get a life. If you want to impress employers, use college as a time to demonstrate creativity, curiosity, quick learning and good social skills. Here's why:

A triple major exhibits no creativity. The most creative act is to choose a path for your life. College is an early opportunity to decide what you want to do with yourself, one course at a time. Cramming your schedule full of required courses for two or three majors is a rejection of creativity; in effect, you allow someone else to dictate your path for four years. Business visionaries set paths to goals that other people could never have thought of. Practice being a visionary in college by choosing a path no one else could choose.

A triple major is not for the intellectually curious. If you love learning then you will take whatever classes you want and you don't worry if they add up to another major. People who need their courses to add up to another major are people who are conditioned to learn only for an external reward. Employers need people who will be curious even after the grading system is over. In college learn for learning's sake, not for the department head's approval.

A triple major is for the timid. A broad education teaches you to learn diverse topics quickly. Practice learning something totally new by taking courses in each of the departments in your college rather than cowering in the safety of topics you're majoring in. Business requires a wide breadth of knowledge — writing, finance, technology, psychology, sociology. You can't learn every idea in school, but you can learn to pick up new ideas quickly.

Once you're committed to choosing just one major, stay away from business. In college you need to learn how to think broadly and critically. How you think is much more important than if you know how to map a brand strategy. You have your whole life to study business; college is your time for Shakespeare, Schopenhauer, and science experiments. In this new era of downtrodden, low-key CEOs, one CEO stands out for her star power: Carly Fiorina. And guess what her major was? English.

Finally, take some blow-off courses. You need time to develop social skills, because when it comes to business they cannot be stressed enough. Go to parties and make conversation with someone you didn't think you liked. Figure out how to like something about that person, because that's an important part of management— figuring out how to like even the most unlikable people. And stop by your professor's office hours. Don't have something to say? Make something up. Because that's what life will be like with your boss. Face time will be everything and you'll have to be savvy and strategic about how to get yourself in front of him and make him enjoy talking to you.

Learn how to make people like you. The smartest are not promoted. The most likeable are promoted. Dump the extra majors and use college as a time to learn about yourself. The more you understand yourself the better you will be able to relate to other people. That's what will really help you to succeed in business.

You can make sure next year is a good year for your career by taking charge of the areas you can control. Here are ten things you should plan to do in 2007 to help you meet your goals.

1. Make a ten-year plan
Then break it down. What ten things need to happen for your ten-year plan? Do the first thing this year. The ten-year plan takes more than ten minutes to make. It might even require a few sessions with a career coach. But if you don't form a path for the next ten years, you will go exactly where you plan to go: nowhere.

2. Find a mentor
You can get to the top a lot faster if someone is helping you. Lucky for you, people love to help, as long as you take their advice. So find a mentor. Explain your goals, and ask her for advice on how to get there. Take her out to lunch at nice restaurants — it's a tax deduction. (Doh! A boss is not a mentor. A boss is the person your mentor helps you to impress.)

3. Get seven hours of sleep a night
Studies show that sleep deprivation has the same effect on your brain as alcohol. If you're getting four hours of sleep a night you are no better than an alcoholic at work. Your thinking is slow, your patience is low, and your co-workers know you have no control over your life. A good manager can manage everything well. Start with yourself.

4. Hire someone you'd never hang out with
Diversity is a proven factor in corporate success. If you want your team to stand out in terms of productivity, you need to hire a diverse team. Diversity isn't five guys from five different fraternities. Diversity is hiring someone who scares you because she sees things so differently than you do and she will challenge you.

5. Take a public speaking lesson
You might say, “I don't have to give speeches.”

My friend Liz just got an offer to be director of a groundbreaking, high profile, psychology program. It's a lucrative, five-year contract. Liz is 35 and single and has tons of time to devote to her career. But she's not sure if she wants to take this offer because what she really wants is children.

Like many women in this age group, Liz spent her 20's and early 30's building her career. She has lots of experience meeting men she can manage and very little experience meeting a man she can date. (Conversation we had when the last guy stopped talking to her at dinner: Me, “Dump him.” Liz, “But you said talk isn't constant when you've been together a while.” Me, “Three weeks is not a while.”)

Her current job would be great if she had a guy lined up for kids because she could work part time, which would allow her to stay on her career path and spend a lot of time at home. But alas, there is no guy lined up. Her current job is good for online dating, too, because she can work from almost anywhere so she can conduct a broad search across county lines, (and because she can peruse Match.com from her office unnoticed.)

But Liz is antsy to have a child and even with the Internet, dating is not a fast process. So she is thinking of taking things into her own hands. She has contemplated telling a boyfriend that she is using birth control when she is not, and getting pregnant that way. But she can't get past the conversation she'd have with her teenage kid:

“Mom, why didn't my dad stick around?”

“Because I tricked him into having a kid.”

Liz has two, non-boyfriend options: buying sperm from a bank or buying a baby from Asia. Both options cost about $30,000, which is a good argument for taking the new, high paying job. The ongoing cost of childcare – which, for a single mom in her neighborhood, would be about $400 a week — is another good reason to have a high paying job. Her current job would not provide enough income to fund this baby venture.

But once she's the director of the program, she couldn't work part time, she couldn't move, and she probably couldn't even find the time to date. So for Liz, this job decision is loaded. It's the decision between holding onto the dream of a spouse and kids and a part-time job, or giving up the dream for more practical measures and going the child route alone.

Liz calls me every day to discuss her life, which has become somewhat like a horse race. She tells me that this month's boyfriend might be in love. “He took me to his parent's house for dinner.” She thinks it'll be a really good sign if he takes allergy pills so he can sleep over in her cat-infested bed. “Then marriage is a real possibility.” Last week, she got herself another month to make the decision about the directorship. “By then, maybe I'll know.” But she sighs a deep sigh, and we both know that when it comes to giving up a career for a family (or vice versa) really you never know.

Usually, politics is off-limits when chatting at work. But Election Day is different. Tuesday it's okay to say, “Did you vote?” And it's a good question to ask. It's not a lightening rod like, “Do you support late-term abortion?” but you can learn a lot about your co-workers by whether or not they vote, even if you don't know how they vote.

One of my earliest memories is of my mom taking me into the voting booth with her. (I have never actually seen parents do this in other places — maybe it's a special treat for us rural Illinois kids.) She made voting seem like a very important treat, and I remember being shocked as a teenager to discover that there were nonvoters in my neighborhood.

Now I understand that there are three steps to the process of voting: Convince yourself that your vote matters, figure out who to vote for, and make time to vote. The first two steps, you'll have to do on your own, but I can help with the third. For those of you thinking that you can't take time out of your workday to vote, I've got news for you: You will look better at work if you vote, so you may as well take the time off.

The best people to work with are the people who vote, even if they vote for politicians you hate. People who vote think what they do matters, and they feel the power to effect change: two key attributes of someone who will take charge in business. Also, people who vote are thoughtful. They have 1. taken the time to decide that voting is an important aspect of democracy and they want to participate and 2. done their homework to figure out which levers to pull. Voters are people who take responsibility for themselves and the greater good.

It is not a coincidence that voters make better co-workers, because companies depend on many of the ideas that democracies depend on. For example, both believe strongly in the concept that each person matters, but both will continue even if each individual does not participate whole-heartedly. Both thrive on the idea that individuals can effect change and that people are responsible for their own fate.

I have voted in four states, and in each state, I received an “I voted” sticker when I left the polling place. I love wearing the sticker to work because on Election Day, voters form a club. These people know that even if they did not vote the same way, on some level, they have shared values because they made the decision to vote. There have been people at the office whom I despised, but when I saw them wearing that sticker, I thought, “Okay. Maybe he's not that bad.”

So for those of you who are having trouble making time in your busy work schedule to vote, remember that voting actually makes you more respected in the workplace. People make time for what's important to them. If you have decided that voting is important, but you do not make time to vote, you look like you are out of control at work — unable to manage your time. You make the world a better place by telling people that voting is so important that you have to leave work early to get to the polls before they close. And if you're a manager, you can't force your employees to vote, but you can close the office a few hours early. And I recommend that. Because good voters make good employees.

My husband and I always thought he'd be the stay-at-home parent, so I am shocked that I am the one changing diapers all day.

When we were dating, I was making a solid, six-figure salary in the software industry. I had already founded two companies and cashed out of one. He was a video artist and traveled to festivals all over the world showing arcane art on activist topics. He planned off-beat things to do on our dates; I would pay for them.

I was rising so fast in my corporate career that a business magazine paid me to write about my ascent. I ended up making as much money writing as my husband made at his day job. People asked me if I resented having two jobs and subsidizing my husband's career as an artist. Actually, I didn't mind at all; I loved to work, and he agreed to stay home when we had kids. I thought I was one of the lucky women who could blast through the glass ceiling and have kids because I had a husband who would take care of our home life.

We planned to get pregnant at a time when I would not disrupt my career, but in September 2001, our designated family start-date, both my husband and I got laid off. I got pregnant anyway. As my belly grew, I continued my freelance writing career while he volunteered in non-profits, and we lead a bohemian life with corporate savings. But by the seventh month, I missed the structured, team-oriented atmosphere of work. I was editing my resume the morning I went into labor.

When the baby arrived, I planned to get a full-time, office job right away, but after only a few weeks of sleepless nights, my husband got a job offer. He wasn't even looking, really,— he was doing things like soothing diaper rash and assembling the breast pump. But one of the people he met through volunteering got him an interview at a top-notch human rights organization. The job offer was for his dream job, so we decided he should try it.

Now I would be home with the baby, alone. For those of you who haven't had a baby, let's just say that going to an office is about a thousand times easier than dealing with a newborn. With a newborn there is no schedule, no break, and no performance review to let you know if you're screwing up. So naturally, I wanted to be the one with the job. I tried to be happy for my husband. I tried not to hope that he would hate his job and quit.

During my first week as a stay-at-home mom, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't write and I couldn't figure out how any adult can stay home all day with a baby who can't talk. So I hired a babysitter for a few days a week and I went to an office to write and look for a full-time job. But I never got around to the job hunt because I missed the baby while I was away — I missed his smile and the way he stares at his hands like he's not sure if they're his.

People often describe their family life in terms of earning power: The spouse who has the higher earning power is the one who works. This is logical, but it doesn't always work out that way.