Quit, write, clean up: Penelope answers readers' questions

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 actually do ask.

Most popular question: How can I switch careers and not take a cut in pay?

The answer is that you can't. But people never ask the question like that. Switching fields is hard. Only rarely do 15 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 misery of eight hours a day in a career you don't like vs. having to tighten your budget. Here's an idea: 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.)

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. 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, 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 10 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 a huge salary cut).

If you think you want to be a writer, first heed 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?

The answer to this question is that a study has shown that co-workers perceive that people with messy desks are disorganized. 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 remind 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’re scared of seeing what’s 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.
Penelope Trunk has worked for many businesses and even started a few, and now she's too busy to write her column, so this advice is reprinted from an earlier edition of the Hook.