Here is my current list of things I hate. It's an on-going project that simmers week after week until it reaches boiling point and I have to spend a column venting.

1. People who are not coachable. They get good advice and don't take it because they think they know better. Everyone has blind spots that a little advice can shed light on. If you don't know how to take advice, people will stop giving it to you. And then you will stagnate. And the people who tried to help you will think to themselves, “Good. I was pissed that he wasted my time.”

2. Three-page resumes. Two pages are okay. Sometimes. Like, if you've been in the workforce twenty years, or if you don't know how to enlarge the margins in your word processor. But anything more than two pages is someone who has lost all perspective. There is not enough that is important about your career to fill three pages. You give away to all potential employers that you are mired in detail.

3. The high and mighty. The people who say, “I'd never work for someone I don't respect,” or, “I'd never play office politics to get ahead.” Get real. If you want to be able to put food on your table you will need to learn to work for someone else, to do things a way you don't agree with, to do some work that doesn't matter to you. If you can afford to lose your job constantly in order to stay on moral high ground, then you didn't need a job to begin with.

4. The 8pm meeting. I don't care if you don't have kids. I don't care if no one in your whole company has kids. Each of you still needs to get a life. Just because you have no one sitting in bed waiting for a kiss goodnight doesn't mean you should be at work. Go to the gym. Go to a movie. Participate in aspects of life that do not have a P&L. Well roundedness will make you a more interesting person, and even if you don't care if you're interesting, your co-workers will, so you will do better at work if you leave work.

5. The economically alienated. Don't blow off the company party because you have season tickets to the Opera that night. Don't complain about your butler to people who don't even know what a butler does. It's one thing to have a pay scale as if you are god and the people who work for you are morons. It's another thing to shove that in peoples' faces on a daily basis. Act like you're part of the team or you won't have a team to act for.

6. The people who won't change. Each week I get letters from people who say they hate their job but they can't change it because they have so much seniority. Or they want to stay home with their kids but they don't have enough money. Look, unless you are totally impoverished (and almost no one writes to me from this category except maybe recently divorced moms who have never worked) then you can do it. Sell your house. Move to Kansas. Stop sending kids to camp. If you want something enough, you will figure out how to live on less money. If you don't make the change then admit to yourself that you want money more than – a job you love/full days with your kids/you fill in the blank — and stop complaining.

7. People who don't make lists. Usually these are people who can't face everything they want to do. Or they don't know what they want to do. Either way, making lists can change your life. Start small: Distributing a list of items to cover in a meeting makes you look like a leader. Then get big: Maintaining a list of career goals keeps you focused at work. If you love to make lists, try branching out. Like, make a list of lists you could write. Or make a list of things you hate. It's such a big relief.

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.

Most of us have personal problems we hide from our business associates. In fact, most of us have been hiding problems since we were kids. Often, though, these guarded secrets provide a hidden stash of strength at the workplace.

My problems started at tap dance lessons. As an eight-year-old, I didn't know what to do when the teacher said, “Turn left,” but I pretended to know what I was doing. The teacher said to my mom, “Penelope's always a beat behind.”

In high school, I was in advanced English, advanced history, and advanced French. I waited until no one was looking to slip into my remedial math class. My teacher told me, “When you grow up, don't go into business.”

In college, I took a car trip from Chicago to Detroit and went up the wrong side of Lake Michigan. It's a big lake. And Michigan's a big state. So I shocked even myself when I missed the state completely and ended up in Wisconsin. It was around that time that I realized I was dyslexic.

Once I understood my problem, I was able to keep track of recurring problem situations and find ways to avoid them: For example, I became an ace with Excel so I didn't have to do math in my head. And I quit tap dance and took up swing dancing because the lack of structure in swing means that turning the wrong direction looks creative, not brain-dead.

Contrary to many predictions, I flourished in corporate America. Today I don't worry that the dyslexia will hold me back professionally. Now the dyslexia is just sort of interesting to me. I like watching how my brain works, and I like having a better understanding of why I did what I did when I was younger.

But I hide the dyslexia when it comes up at work. It's easy: Frequently someone says, “The bathroom is at the end of the hall on the right,” and then the person sees me turn left. The person doesn't say, “What the hell is wrong with you?” The person just says, “No, turn right.” And I know what to do. It never occurs to anyone that an adult doesn't know her left and right. So dyslexia is a secret I can keep.

In the perfect world, we would all list our secret disabilities on our resumes. These are the pieces of our lives that make us able to overcome adversity at work. Mental illness, physical limitations, family disasters, these are also secrets people keep from co-workers. Of course, if you bring this stuff up in interviews the hiring manager will think you are insanely needy (or just insane) and you won't get the job.

But keep an active stock of your secret difficulties, because these are what make you strong. In the face of these secrets, a screaming client, incompetent boss, or plummeting stock price all seem manageable.

Admittedly, dyslexia is not as earth shattering a secret as it could be; today dyslexia is fashionable among businesspeople and was the cover story of a recent issue of Fortune magazine. Heck, John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, is dyslexic. Everyone should be so lucky to have a brain so similar to his.

But as CEO secrets start to slip out, take a look at your own secrets. Recognize them for what they are: Huge difficulties that you have overcome to get where you are. And maybe, one day, we will add them to our resumes — in the education section.

In the early 1990s, when the job market was very bad, I had a college degree that was getting me nowhere. So my friend got me a job signing Esther Williams' autograph for fans.

Esther who? That's what I said. Esther Williams was an Olympic swimmer in the 1940s when the Olympics were cancelled, and she took her bathing-suit-clad body to MGM where she was the star of water musicals. If you've never seen a water musical think Ginger Rodgers with nose plugs. Esther was hot in her day, and believe it or not, she's still hot among nostalgic old people, young girls who like swimming, and gay men who like kitsch.

I worried that the job was illegal, but the person who hired me assured me this is a very common job in Los Angeles. After all, no one would squander life as a movie star by sitting around all day writing autographs for the millions of people who request signed photos.

At the time, I was very upset that the only job I could get wasn't even significant enough to have a title. (Question: “Uh, what do you call this kind of job?” Answer: “I don't know.”) But now I realize that even though I hated the job, I'd have to say that Esther Williams was my first marketing mentor, and I built my own marketing career around rules I learned from her:

Quality control is important.
During my first week, Esther gave me three copies of her signature (different pens, different sizes) and told me to practice. I submitted my best shot to Esther and she said, “Make the E's loopier.” I looped and resubmitted and then she gave me the go-ahead.

Give the customer what they want.
When I started working for Esther, she was well past 60, so when someone requested an autographed picture, you just knew they weren't asking for one she took the week before. So we had a stack of copies of old MGM promotional photos: Esther as Olympic swimmer, Esther as showgirl, there was even one of Esther in a sort of kiddie porn motif. But for the die-hard fans who requested it, I also had a photo of Esther when she was about 50 years old: A head shot.

Cut costs.
We had 8x10s, but I only sent those if the person enclosed postage. Otherwise, Esther instructed me to send a 5×7. Sometimes people would request an 8×10, and even if they didn't send postage, I'd send a big photo. I figured it would make a happy customer and it wouldn't break her bank — after all, she still received residual checks from Million Dollar Mermaid.

Stay out of court.
One guy sent three, pristine Life magazines with Esther on the cover. He wanted each cover signed, and he wrote a note that said, “The last time I asked for an autographed photo I am sure it was not you who signed it. You better not let anyone mess up these magazine covers or I'll sue you.” Esther had warned me to send professional requests to her, so she signed the covers.

As soon as I found another job, I quit working for Esther. But working for Esther Williams taught me that any job can help your career if you let it. Each person, no matter how weird, has something to teach you. And each business has a gem of genius because, hey, they're making enough money to pay you, aren't they? So don't be so upset about the crummy job market; you are about to start your own Esther Williams experience.

The current business climate encourages rule breakers. Not the kind at Enron — those are law breakers. Rule breakers break with convention. Sallie Krawcheck, for example, was a top stock analyst in the 90s. She could have gone to a big investment firm where the heavy-hitters gave stock advice that, in hindsight, seems to have been garbage. Instead, she stayed at a boutique research company, which she made famous for quality. Last year Krawcheck took an enormous career leap to become the CEO of Smith Barney precisely because she had broken with convention years earlier.

All great business people have had to break some rules on their path to huge success. But be careful: people who break all the rules all the time are not innovators or a breath of fresh air, they are sociopaths. Rules create order and process, and no company can operate in a state of anarchy. The key to breaking rules is to know which rules to break.

Break rules that matter.
You always take a risk when you do things differently, so make sure there's big payoff. Does your company have a dress code? Adhere to it. No one ever made corporate history by wearing torn jeans on casual Friday. If you follow most of the rules, then when you break a rule people will be more willing to let you go with it.

Weigh the risks.
There are a lot of rules that deserve to be ignored, but sometimes breaking rules is more trouble than it's worth. As a marketing executive in a software firm, I was required to have engineering signoff on every word on the front of the box. The process became an opportunity for code-heads to make illiterate proofreading comments. But I still got signoff every time, because while breaking that rule would save me a day in the box production schedule, it would cost me weeks of assuaging engineers' egos.

Know the reason for the rule before you break it.
The best example of this is the renegade barrista at Starbucks (if she has not been fired yet). She keeps changing the composition of standardized drinks. Lattes have a little less milk, Frappuchinos have a little more foam. I overheard her declaring that she gives customers what they want even though they don't know to ask for it. This would be a great idea in another company, but the charm of Starbucks is that wherever you go — Seattle or Milan — the drinks are consistent.

Break rules so that you can be more effective.
Andy Grove broke rules of convention by pioneering the idea of management by walking around. He didn't necessarily set out to break a rule, he just wanted to manage in a way that felt comfortable to him, and walking around talking to people suited him well.

Break rules that other people would be scared to break.
In 2000, when everyone was still running on Internet adrenaline, stock analyst Jon Joseph announced that the chip sector was in for a big fall. At the time, he received so many death threats that his company hired a bodyguard for him. Recently he was rewarded for going against the grain by receiving a top post at Smith Barney.

Good rule breakers spent part of their life as good rule followers. Jeff Bezos is renown for bucking the conventional wisdom that CEOs shouldn't micromanage. He does, and it works well for him. But before he was a rule breaker he spent the beginning of his career in consulting and finance positions where he followed the rules for entry-level employees and did what he was told to do.

If you think you've got a situation where you should definitely break a rule, remember that good rule breakers are good salespeople. You can't just break a rule and think it'll stick. You have to explain to people why your way is better. Get people behind your new way of doing things so that your new direction can have the large impact you hope for. Break a rule and people will gossip; lead down a new path and people will follow.

There came a point in my career when my company went bankrupt, the economy was in the dumps, and my network of friends and acquaintances was getting me nowhere. Like all job hunters, I had good days and bad days. On good days, I brewed coffee for that caffeinated, I-can-overcome-anything feeling. On bad days, I never got out of bed.

Finally, after a string of bad days, I called the phone number in a small ad I had come across in a bunch of business publications. The number was for WSA Resumes.

I told my contact at WSA that I needed a job. I told him I attribute my career success in part to the fact that I have always been able to write a very effective resume, but I have hit a wall.

WSA sold me the executive pack, which was $1000 for someone to rewrite my resume in three days. (They have less expensive packages, but I was in a moment of panic.) I talked to someone for a couple of hours, and she rewrote the resume in a way that smacks of a piece of direct mail: headlines, bullets, italics, and bold lines. The resume did not look like one I had ever seen. My friends said it looked cheesy. They said, “Don't send it.”

But I started to trust the writers at WSA because they noticed patterns and accomplishments in my career that I had not noticed. They phrased achievements in ways that I would not have thought of. They were able to frame my work life in a way that could open new fields to me. But most of all, I wanted to take a risk. I realized that I was getting nowhere and I needed to try something new and this was the only new thing I could think of.

To my surprise, my executive package came with a cover letter. It began, “If you can use my skills on your management team then I'd like to talk to you.” I cringed. I told WSA the letter is not my style.

There are actually a few more things I told WSA. You know how when you're spending a lot of money you get uppity? That's how I was. I argued about file formatting, I argued about hyphens and semi-colons. I'm sure I argued about more, I just can't remember.

Finally, I ran out of things to argue about, and, armed with my new resume, I started my job search again. I found no openings.

So I called WSA, and I was hoping they would not remember me — the person who argued about everything — but they remembered. “Yes, we can help,” my contact said.

They send out resumes cold. Which is, of course, in keeping with their direct mail perspective. So I signed up. It costs $1.50 a resume. My contact recommended sending out 8000 resumes. I wanted 500. He said direct mail is an odds game. I picked 500 companies. Then I changed my mind. Then I picked a new 500. Then I asked for some more lists. I was nervous. The cost worried me, but I took to heart the saying, you have to spend money to make money.

Finally WSA printed all 500 cover letters, stuffed envelopes, and slapped on address labels. Everything was ready to go. Then I sent an email to WSA with the subject head: EMERGENCY. I told them that I have a lot of direct mail experience and they should send the letter out on Tuesday, not Friday.

WSA dumped me. They tore up my letters and my check. They said I should find someone else to help me. So I took WSA's cover letter and the resume they wrote for me, and I spent a week finding email addresses for CEOs and I sent my resume myself – cold – to 500 CEOs. And guess what? I got fifteen responses and two job offers.

So I recommend that you hire a company like WSA. You will get a standout resume, and you will see yourself differently, so you will summarize your career differently, and you have a new chance at landing a job. And this is the other thing: unless your network is coming up roses for you, job hunting is, really, an exercise in direct mail. Once I admitted that I was not above a direct mail campaign for myself, things started happening.

I think WSA hates me, but luckily, I am not proud, so check out their web site: www.wsacorp.com.

(Update: WSA no longer exists. But the woman who oversaw my resume overhaul is Elaine Basham, and she’s still in the resume business today. Send her an email: elaine@theresumegroup.com.)

Each month my husband selects a concert for us to go to. I used to pick, but I would select music I knew, like Beethoven or Mozart, and my husband, the over-educated music student, would scoff at my pedestrian tastes. Now I am at his mercy, and I endure the type of music that requires a specially tuned piano, or a specially trained ear.

So I was thrilled to hear we were going to a Bach concert. Finally, a composer I had heard of. What I didn't realize was that it was a lecture. I grumbled, “Who goes to a Bach lecture without getting course credit?”

I brought a magazine to the lecture, but after five minutes, I put the magazine away. The guy who gave the lecture, Robert Kapilow, was amazing. I learned as much about public speaking that night as I did about Bach. Here are some things Kapilow did that we should all do when we speak:

Know your audience
He said, “I will use Bach as a basis for introducing the fugal procedure.” (This meant nothing to me.) He said, “How many people have listened to the Art of the Fugue.” (Everyone raised their hand.) He said, “How many people have studied it?” (My husband a couple of others raised their hands.) Kapilow pitched himself toward the majority. (Thank god.)

Pick a good support team
The Brentano quartet played. For those of you who have never heard of them, they are very good. Not your standard quartet. Surely playing a lecture is a more maddening gig than playing a wedding, and tickets were cheap so the musicians couldn't be getting paid a lot. Kapilow must have worked hard to get these musicians to play, but it was worth his effort — everything he described was more interesting with the Brentano Quartet as exhibit A

Perfect your body movement
Even though the topic was dry, Kapilaw moved around the stage like it was a Las Vegas show. When he described the “radiant glorious major version” he reached his arms out. When he said, “Then we go back in minor and it's dark” his arms tucked up close to his side. He made arcane music look exciting through his gestures, and his excitement was catching.

Be conscious of audience limitations
By the fourth fugue, he said, “Listen for the bing-bing or the down-up. If you're a really good listener you can listen for all four things, and we'll discuss after this lecture if that is humanly possible.”

Then, at one point he decided we needed a confidence boost. He said, “Stretofugue is very similar to Row, row, row your boat.”

By the end of the lecture I loved Bach. I even loved the stretofugue. And really, what is the job of a public speaker but to get you to love his topic? Many people give themselves permission to be sub-par speakers because of an unwilling audience, or an untenable topic. But Kapilow proves to me that anyone can captivate an audience if they have the right skills.

For those of you who have an opportunity to speak to a group, remember to aim as high as Kapilow. For those of you who want an opportunity to see Kapilow in action, look for his “What Makes it Great” series.

Next up: Bach managing the brand of Bach. Did you know that the subject of Bach's last fugue are the notes B, A, C, H?

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.

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.