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.

Last week Catherine Zeta-Jones performed at the Oscars when she was eight months pregnant. What a surprise that behind her Hollywood glitz is a working mom who challenges workplace stereotypes.

Image is so important at the workplace, and the image of a pregnant woman does not scream workplace success. In fact, the image of a pregnant woman usually induces quiet musings about whether she'll ever work again after the baby comes.

Hollywood is the extreme of this problem, because in Hollywood, one's job is to look good. But Hollywood is also the crowd that sets the tone for what is socially acceptable, so it's a big deal that Catherine stood in front of the most important audience of her career and did her job: She sang a song.

Working through one's pregnancy is difficult enough, but Catherine's job is to look sexy and confident. Whether or not she did look sexy is up for discussion (the ranks were divided at the Oscar party I attended). But Catherine did make serious progress toward making people comfortable around working women who are pregnant. And her presence on stage should make the world a little more comfortable with pregnant women wielding power.

My own version of fat Hollywood happened one week before my baby was due. An editor called me to say the magazine (not Bankrate) needed a photo of me. They wanted to set up a photo shoot that week. I went ballistic. I said no way. I reminded the editor that I was forty-five pounds overweight. I vowed to never answer the phone again until the baby came.

But I did answer the phone again. And again. Because the editor called relentlessly. When I could feel myself starting to cry (it happened all the time during the pregnancy), I agreed to a photo session a week after my baby's due date.

The baby came, and in the biggest rip-off of my life, I lost only five pounds during delivery.

The day of the shoot was day three of no sleep, and day four of no shower. The stylist called to ask me to bring shirts in three different colors. I said, “I have one shirt that fits, and it's dirty, and I'll be wearing it.”

Ever since then, I have admonished myself for going to the photo shoot before I lost the pregnancy weight. But now I'm thinking maybe I wasn't so stupid — in the ideal world all women would feel comfortable being their fat, pregnant selves at work.

Take note, though: Catherine made a point of mentioning her hormonal imbalance during her acceptance speech. She mentioned hormones to make sure everyone knows she is not JUST fat, but fat because she's pregnant. Surely a publicist advised this tactic, and I think it's a good one. For better or worse, people perceive fat and pregnant as much more acceptable than just fat.

Recently, I told my editor I lost all my pregnancy weight, and I asked if we could take new photos.

He said; “I think you look like a babe in your photo.”

When he told me that I thought to myself, “He is full of crap.” But that was before the Oscars. I thought Catherine looked good. Fat. But confident. So maybe I exude confidence, too. If only I could write a caption below my photo that mentions something about hormones”

Email is one of the most convenient ways to be impetuously stupid, so if you are writing an email you wouldn't want your boss to read — or the SEC, or your grandma — then don't send it.

Assume that everything you write via email will appear in the business section of the newspaper. Compose your messages with care and pause before you send; ask yourself, “Does this email make me look good?” Obviously, if you are about to lie or cheat, do not send an email to document your lack of ethics. But there are some other, less obvious types of email which won't make you a felon, but they won't make you look good, either, so don't send them.

1. The you're-a-screw-up email
If you need to tell someone they did a bad job, do it in person so you can gauge their reaction. For example, if you open with “Your negligence on this project cost the department $2 million,” and then the employee starts crying, you probably shouldn't continue in an extremely angry tone — at least not until he composes himself. Another reason not to reprimand via email: people will leave this type of email in their in-box for weeks and weeks and reread it every time they want to resurrect their hate for you. Talking in person helps everyone to move past the conflict without sour residue.

2. The I'm-a-screw-up email
Do not document your weaknesses. If you must apologize for botching a project, do it in person so there is no email record of your mistake for people to forward around the office. The more documentation you leave, the more your mistake festers in peoples' minds. And for God's sake, do not send a mass email to apologize. You will invariably announce your screw-up to people who would never have heard of it otherwise.

3. The bcc email
This email function is for people who are insecure, manipulative, and undermining of their co-workers. Even if you are this type of person, do not announce it to everyone by using the bcc function. Sure, only the people in the bcc line realize you're using it. But all those people will understand that you are not strong enough to let everyone know who's reading the email. If you feel compelled to use the bcc function, ask yourself why. Then get up off your chair, go deal with the problem face-to-face, and then go back to your desk to send a more honest email.

4. The joke email
Even if it's the funniest joke of all time (which I am sure it isn't) do not send it to your co-workers. Why make the announcement that you read spam during work hours? You should be working. You might think that telling a joke is a good way to establish rapport, but a spam joke is unoriginal, and impersonal and does nothing to make you closer to co-workers who matter. Besides, if someone thinks the joke is stupid, she will think you are stupid for sending it.

5. The Dear John email
I am amazed at how many people break up via email, from the office. I realize that some people are such dirt bags that they don't deserve a nice breakup. I also realize that if you handle a breakup from your office then the pressures of work can distract you from the drama of your personal life. But I am sure that there will be a web site — maybe a new section on — for people to publish breakup emails received. And your name will be mud in the dating world if you are known for sending breakup emails from work.

The bottom line is that sending an email is like getting dressed in the morning — both are ways to manage the way people perceive you. The only difference is that if you have a terrible outfit, you can take it off and never wear it again. A terrible email propagates in cyberspace and will seem, to the original sender, to last forever.

Weaknesses are hard to beat, so if you’re really serious about making a personal change, I recommend a career coach. But be careful, because a good coach is hard to find. I learned to find good coaches by enduring bad ones. I also learned that when you find a good one, you can change in ways that will surprise you.

The first career coach I ever hired was someone who my boss recommended. He gave me the guy’s phone number and I called.

The coach’s voicemail message closed with, “Have a wonderful and life-changing day!”

I told my boss I could not work with someone who was so positive about change that he was a psycho.

My boss said, “This guy is renowned for working with famous business women.” (My boss dropped the name of a woman who worked with this coach. I am not going to tell you this woman’s name because you know her, and to this day I still question her judgment.) But the name-dropping worked. I wanted to be famous. So I agreed to meet with the guy.

He told me that most women he worked with needed to learn to be more assertive. He said, “I can tell you would be responsive to that sort of training, because you’re wearing a skirt.” Then he winked at me. So for my first lesson in assertiveness, I fired him.

My second coach was someone my boss read about in a newsletter. This coach told me I needed to appear grounded and stable as a leader. Her vision hit a nerve: I had catapulted up the corporate ladder, and some days I wondered what I was doing there. I thought I was wondering privately, but the coach showed me how my demeanor gave it away. “You walk like you’re on air,” she told me. “Your bounce belies giddiness and your swinging arms look impetuous.” She showed me how to walk so that I looked grounded and stable. The most interesting thing she taught me was that if I could change how I walk I would change how I felt. I wouldn’t have believed that until someone forced me to try it.

Later I saw a coach speaking at an entrepreneur’s conference. I hired her to help me handle board meetings. I learned not to smile so much. She pointed out that women smile a lot and men don’t and it makes men nervous. To soften the blow, she smiled at me. She told me my sweater was cut a little low, which made me happy since I never thought I myself as a woman with cleavage. But for the most part, her thing was public speaking, and I am definitely better at keeping an audience’s attention because of her coaching.

So here’s my advice on choosing a coach: Interview a few, because each coach has a different approach, and not all will be right for you. To get a sense of the coach, ask, “What are you best at doing with your clients?” If you like the answer, do a short trial session. If you ask someone what he or she is best at and they won’t give you an answer, it’s because they’re not good at anything, so hang up.

Recommendations from a respected friend or co-worker are a good bet. But, as you can see from my experience, a recommendation isn’t foolproof. I have had good luck going to a bookstore and perusing the careers section for books by coaches. If you like a book, you will probably like the coach who wrote it. Many coaches speak at conferences, so go to listen to a few if you’re on the prowl. One career coach I know routinely recommends my columns to her clients, so how bad can she be? If you absolutely cannot get up off your sofa, then get a recommendation from the career coach hotline: (239) 415-1777.

Enlisting the help of a coach may seem like a high-risk move — after all, a bad coach is really bad. But you also take a risk by not getting help to address your weaknesses.


Did you get Barney's spring catalogue? Neither did I, but I noticed my neighbor's pile of mail had the catalogue on top, so I stole it, because Barney's is a bellwether of how to dress for success.

Barney's, usually a snot-fest of nose-in-the-air overachievers dressed in black, is now whimsical and carefree as an antidote to the anxiety of terrorism and pressure of unemployment. The guys in suits jump, dance and play: Corporate fun sells.

If you are unemployed, you need to be up-to-date on what sells because you have a full-time sales job — selling yourself. This doesn't mean that you should act like a used car salesman in interviews, but you do need to be conscious of what product you offer to prospective employers. You need to differentiate yourself in a market where unemployment is so high human resource hotlines jam with overqualified candidates.

Think of the situation this way: You are looking for a job, sending your resume to the paltry selection of open jobs you unearth. The hiring manager receives 500 resumes for each opening. (This is no exaggeration.) More than 50 of these resumes are from people who are extremely qualified for the job, but no one is going to interview 50 people. Someone would interview 10 people, at most. By some miracle, your resume makes the cut and you get an interview. How are you going to outshine the other nine extremely qualified people in the interview?

The answer is by being fun. You are going to be the Barney's catalogue of the interview process. It makes sense that people would hire the person who is the most fun to work with. After all, office workers spend more time with co-workers than friends. So co-workers end up being weekday stand-ins for real-life friends.

My cousin just interviewed with a large company and she prepared for all the standard questions. But she got a new one: “How do you maintain optimism in these rough economic times?” You need an answer to this question in case someone asks or even if no one asks. Because people want to know if you're fun even if they don't know to ask; no one wants to work with a doomsayer, and no one wants to work with someone who starts out feeling defeated.

When you interview, talk about the fun in your life. (Do you play racquetball on Tuesdays? Do you go camping in the snow?) And be fun in the interview (Tell a joke if you are funny, otherwise, be a good audience.) When someone says, “Can you give me an example of a way you were a leader?” (How many times have you heard that question? 300?) give an example that includes a way you were fun.

Slip the fun stuff in wherever you can, but don't be a fake. Fake is not fun. Well, it is fun for the people who will make fun of you, but it will not be fun for you. The Barney's catalogue includes men in suits playing basketball. Check out the guy on p. 14. I don't think he had touched a ball in his life before this photo shoot. He holds the ball like it might bite, and he does not look like he is having fun. He looks like he is anxious about trying to look like he is having fun. Bad. Very bad. Surely his linen shirt will not sell.

If you are unemployed, definitely do not spend your money at Barney's, but if you can, steal a catalogue from your neighbor. And then do a little networking with your neighbor, because anyone who can still afford Barney's must have a really good job.

Being a whistleblower is fashionable right now. It's appealing to be the person who rights the wrongs of the workplace. And many people dream of busting their boss publicly for smarmy acts done privately.

Discrimination, kickbacks, broken promises — these are illegal and immoral acts that happen every day in the workplace. But be careful. Because the most common result of whistle blowing is not reform. The most common result is that whistleblowers lose their job.

Of course, it is illegal to fire a whistleblower for being a whistleblower per se. But the odds are that you will be fired: First your boss lets you know he hates you. Then you get no new projects. Then you stop having anything to do at work and your career stagnates. If you're lucky, you will be able to go to another company. If you're unlucky, your name will be mud throughout your industry.

This is not to say that we shouldn't have whistleblowers. I am as impressed as anyone else with the three whistleblowers on the cover of Time magazine as “persons of the year.” Cynthia Cooper (WorldComm), Sherron Watkins (Enron) and Coleen Rowley (the FBI), showed enormous courage and integrity when they blew the whistle.

But an important thing about these women is that they were all very advanced in their careers. They were at a point where they were trusted widely for their expertise. And part of their expertise was knowing what really mattered in the moral fabric of corporate America. Surely, they had all been harassed at work, and they had all heard someone cutting corners on commissions. These women probably spent decades reporting nothing. They chose their battle carefully.

If one of these women had made a stink the first time she was harassed, if she had brought that case to court, she probably would have received some sort of financial settlement, but her career would be over. She would not have climbed high enough on the corporate ladder to make the huge difference in corporate ethics that she did.

In order to make a huge difference in corporate ethics that is significant enough to be worth losing your career, you should aim to make a difference at the top. Most people who are at the beginning of their careers will not have the ability to make that difference. All you potential whistleblowers in the whippersnapper ranks, think twice about sacrificing your career in the name of corporate ethics.

You can't be a whistlblower each time your morality is offended: You'd never be able to hold down a job. So wait until the moral aberration is huge. And huge is relative, so know what sort of aberrations are out there so you can compare. (Reading assignment: Tales from the Boom Boom Room for extreme examples of sexual harassment and discrimination.) For the most part, our experiences are not extreme, and they should be dealt with through normal, company means — no need for whistleblowing.

Some times you will report questionable behavior to human resources and nothing will change. Stay focused. You will need to put up with a lot of morally questionable behavior at work in order to climb the ladder to a high enough point where you can make a difference. If you don't make it up the ladder, you will squander your power to make change by making small stinks about small issues that will get no attention from people in power.

For some of you, there will come a time when you do have a case against your company. You should call the Government Accountability Project. This nonprofit group counsels whistleblowers before they toot, and represents them after they get fired.

Until then, hunker down. Report abuse to someone within your chain of command. And don't piss people off so much that you undermine your ability to get real power to make change. Save your moral high ground until you get to high ranks.

More people and companies declare bankruptcy in January than in any other month, and certainly this year will be no exception. Many more people will not technically declare bankruptcy, but they will feel financially battered.

There is hope, though. There are tricks to being in a financial hole. I know because I've been there. In fact, you could say I fell off a financial cliff.

My stampede toward that cliff began when I got funding for an Internet company and cashed out of that company in the span of about five months. I started another company, and feeling like I was the most brilliant businessperson on earth, I invested my own money. I got a round of funding and paid myself (and my friends) extremely well.

Then the Internet bubble exploded, and my company was one at the epicenter. The first thing I did was tried to protect the people at my company. I gave as much notice as possible, so they could save money, and I helped everyone update their resumes as a last, hopeful act.

Then I was on my own. No more cushy, jet-set salary. No more juicy stack of stock options. I lost the pile of money I made, and I was lucky to get away with a portion of my savings intact.

I spent a lot of time getting out of financial commitments: the personal assistant, the BMW, the trips to Europe. And no more investing in friends' companies.

But financial ruin is like death, and I spent a good amount of time in the denial stage. So I didn't cut all the obvious expenses right away. It was gradual. As in, I gradually ruined myself even more, and then I cut down my expenses to a sustainable level.

I spent a lot of time with lawyers, which was a stupid idea because they did nothing for me except listen to me bitch about bankruptcy law. One lawyer could see that, more than legal advice, I needed life advice. He said, “Almost all business owners fail once or twice. The people who make it big are the people who can bounce back and do something new.”

But I was not in a position to be a good listener. I was thinking about if he would charge me for the time he was giving unsolicited advice.

I spent a lot of time with friends — eating cheap sandwiches. Some of my friends dumped me when my company went bankrupt. Okay, they weren't really my friends if they dumped me for that, but still, I felt embarrassed and isolated. My remaining friends were sympathetic for a while, but soon they said, “Okay, it's over. You failed. But you can start something new.”

This is when the lawyer's advice came back to me — suddenly sounding like it was worth $200 an hour. I thought a lot about what sort of life I wanted to lead. How much money I really needed. And it turned out that I didn't need as much as I had thought. So I cut down my expenses drastically while I thought about what I really wanted to do.

I took swing-dancing lessons. I danced every night for a year while I thought about what to do next. Friends would call and I'd say, “Sorry, I can't talk. The band goes on in a half-hour.” My friends thought I was crazy, but you need to do something a little crazy in order to gain distance from your failure. If you go right back to the life you were leading, it's hard to find perspective.

When I went back to corporate life, I tried a few things at once: I accepted a job in a new industry, I investigated starting a new company, and I did freelance writing. As it turns out, the freelance writing is what was best for my next step. But this is a step I would never have taken if my company had not gone belly-up.

The saying that failure breeds opportunity is true. First you have to sulk. Then you have to explore. But you will find something that excites you, and you will try again. And maybe you will fall off a financial cliff again in your life. But the next time, you'll be an expert.

Even though it's not cool to complain about your job in a recession, people do. And one of the most common complaints I hear is that the job “isn't creative enough.” But most of the lack of creativity people pin on their jobs really comes from inside themselves.

Creative thinkers approach whatever they do – painting, sculpture or business — with innovative ideas. Are you really as creative as you say you are? Here's a quick checklist: creative people have high standards, inherent intensity, and an obsession with coming up with something new. If you are a creative person who complains about being stifled in the business world, unleash your creativity on business problems, and you are likely to be happier in your job and promoted more often.

Business building is inherently creative, and people who get to the top are people who consistently think of creative solutions for business problems. Think of your favorite strategy games — they all involve creative thinking. Business is just like those games; if you approach a problem in a different way from your competitors, you are more likely to pull ahead. Think about Bill Gates — he realized that he could take other peoples' products and market the products more creatively than the original producer. Or how about David Neeleman at Jet Blue? He approached customer satisfaction differently than all the other airlines, and surprise: People want leather seats more than they want bad airline food.

But don't forget to be practical in your creative thinking. If you don't want to be practical, you should be a visual artist. But let me tell you something — you get paid a hell of a lot more for creativity in the business world than you do in the art world. The good thing is that the two are very closely linked.

The current exhibit at the Plus Ultra gallery in New York is a great example of this link. The economy is bad, and the art world is hit hard because when there's recession you focus on your mortgage not your art dealer. So this gallery is showing works by the Jani Leinonen. He has developed his own business model for the art world: Pay per view. Each painting is covered with a specially treated frosted glass. You put your money in the vending machine slot next to the painting and then the frost dissipates and you see the art.

If Leinonen were in corporate America, his boss would praise him for using technology to develop a new business model for a stale market. Think of yourself as an artist at the office; notice that each business problem begs for creativity. And be happy that you have health benefits and vacation days, which you wouldn't if you showed your solutions in galleries instead of conference rooms.

Some people will say, “My boss doesn't want any creativity.” Before you say that, consider that maybe what your boss doesn't like is outlandish, shoot-from-the-hip suggestions for difficult problems — or worse yet, risky solutions to unimportant problems. But maybe it is true, that your boss does not appreciate creativity. It's probably because he is scared of risk and change. And that fear is the first problem you must solve with your new, creative approach to your job.

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.”

Beware of Thanksgiving. It is the holiday of disaster. It is the only national holiday when everyone in the whole country gets in a car or plane at the same time. It is the only national holiday where family members meet from far away places and do not placate each other with presents. And it is the only holiday that makes people a wreck at the workplace.

All other work holidays are a treat because order starts to disintegrate a little before the holiday, providing a sort of bonus holiday. For example, when July 4th is on a Wednesday, forget Monday and Tuesday. Those are beach days. And you can't expect United States workers to show up the week before Labor Day when all of Europe got the whole month off.

But Thanksgiving, that's something else. Unless you are in customer service, your job takes a hiatus between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is not an official hiatus — everyone shows up for work as if they care. In fact, some people do care, but not enough people care about work during the time to accomplish anything. This makes for a completely frantic three days before Thanksgiving. The real cause of Thanksgiving disaster is a short fuse from a long week.

You can solve a lot of problems by not bringing work stress to the turkey table. This is not something you can will. You must take action. Do yoga, get a massage, read a book. Thanksgiving is vacation time; use Wednesday night to create a break between work time and vacation time. Thanksgiving is short, so if you are a person who takes four days to unwind you will miss the whole thing. Which is lame, because when you have to answer, “Why do I work?” surely part of the answer is so that you can enjoy your family and friends. So here you are. This is it. If you can't calm down from the stress of your job in order to enjoy this workweek break, then what is the point of working?

As an overworked worker contributing the Thanksgiving improvement plan, the only thing you have to do well at Thanksgiving is contribute to good dinner table conversation. Fortunately, you have practiced being a good listener at work. You can't talk over your boss without getting fired, so somewhere, somehow, you have trained yourself to not interrupt people. Use that skill at the dinner table. Surprise your little brother by letting him finish a sentence. He might be so touched that he'll say something nice about you. Besides, if you don't practice good listening in all aspects of your life then you're likely to be lazy about it at work, too.

And one more thing about conversation – Don't ask the unemployed people at the table how their job-hunt is. Because here's the answer: it sucks. If you have to talk jobs, don't make suggestions on how to get one. Really, the unemployed person has tried everything. And even if he hasn't tried everything, he doesn't want to have to talk about it at Thanksgiving, in front of aunts and uncles who lived through the depression and are like, “Why can't you just be a tailor?”

So do your best, but don't despair when things go poorly. Everyone needs a good “My Thanksgiving was so bad that” story to tell at work on Monday. After all, that’s the day work stops and the month-long conversation-at-the-cooler begins.