It’s been five years since Sheryl Sandberg published “Lean In,” which launched a movement that became the talk of kaffeeklatsches everywhere. There were lovers and haters of “Lean In.” For some it spoke absolute truth and inspired a deeper commitment to their careers. For others, “Lean In” didn’t quite fit their choices or way of looking at the world.
For me, it seemed as if “Lean In”-disciples were driving full speed on the autobahn, while I was driving leisurely on a winding road that offered twists, turns and even rest stops. My journey included dog walks, tennis matches, my writing hobby, and spending prime time with my kids, all the while building a business career.
Because I couldn’t find a book that explored “the winding road” option, I decided to self-publish a collection of stories by women who had rejected the autobahn in favor of some alternative. While I wasn’t sure what I would learn, I felt certain we could add dimension and depth to the lean-in conversation. “At My Pace: Ordinary Women Tell Their Extraordinary Stories” tells the many ways that women chose a less hard-charging path, complete with personal change-ups and roads not taken.
On the five-year anniversary of “Lean In,” I have paused to consider what we have learned, aided by what I have learned in “At My Pace.”
Reality Orientation Still Rules
My kids’ now-retired pediatrician, Dr. Barbara, and I had the opportunity to talk — woman to woman, not pediatrician to parent — when I began my project. As a young woman, she attended college in Ohio during the Kent State Massacre and was an activist marching against the war. As a young bride, she walked down the aisle three months’ pregnant, much to the chagrin of her parents. In short, she defied her “proper” upbringing with spirit and spunk. Then, at the ripe age of 35, with three children and a devoted husband in tow, she entered medical school. Our worlds converged when she became our pediatrician.
What wisdom did she offer from her personal trajectory and also after caring for patients and their families? “Reality Orientation,” she exclaimed. She described seeing new parents come into her office for the first time, and she would invariably give them a reality pep talk. Dr. Barbara says, “There they would sit, exhausted, exhilarated with overwhelming love, determined not to make any parenting mistakes. I’ve been there. I tell them, ‘You are not going to raise the first perfect human. Give up now.’”
“Reality orientation” is really about letting go of the burden of perfection we too often impose. Dr. Barbara is talking about how we raise children, but it could just as easily apply to our career, or our fitness level, or keeping our home orderly. Even though perfect is not an option, we still yearn for it, sometimes at personal expense. Dr. Barbara’s advice? Take a deep breath and relax: “Love, laugh, be bold, and don’t think too hard.”
On the Need to Dig
But what if you are built to be a digger — that person who needs to pursue something deep and meaningful? That can be as hard as the search for perfect. Diggers turn over every rock in order to see underneath.
My friend Suzanne is a digger who pursued becoming an ordained rabbi mid-life while she and her husband raised three sons. Her digging meant that her home was transformed from being kid-central to a rabbinical-student hangout where colleagues sat around dissecting Talmud.
Her mornings had a new rhythm, squeezing in morning prayer before whisking her kids off to school. A perpetual-motion machine, Suzanne did not easily tire, energized by her new pursuits.
The magnet on her refrigerator, which quotes Anais Nin, explains her: “I must be a mermaid, I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living.”
The effect on her family was significant and meaningful. They realized they were no less important to Suzanne as they embarked on their own personal search. Her need to dig precipitated a sense of purpose throughout her family. She leaned in spiritually, and along the way, she writes, “I found a way to take my family with me.”
Worm in an Apple
I’ve enjoyed many conversations with high-ranking women who have successfully climbed the corporate ladder. By and large, they have gotten to their perch through some mix of hard work, significant sacrifice, demonstrated results and relationship-building. They accept traveling at a moment’s notice, navigating the endless stream of 24/7 email, brokering complex relationships within and outside their organization, while looking like the duck who gracefully glides through the water with the feet paddling fast underneath.
One colleague decided, for a moment in time, to take a breather. When she got off the autobahn, she discovered that she had been “a worm inside an apple.” There was a whole world out there that she had not experienced. With her foot off the gas pedal, she found community and pleasure in different places: exercise classes; coffee with friends on their time; making dinner with her husband. There was a whole orchard for her to explore.
The likelihood is that she’ll be back to being a worm sometime soon because like the digger, that is how she is built. But her perspective has changed, and for the time being, her leanings are in many directions.
The “Lean In” discussion has captivated us, and prompted some very useful soul searching. I believe we know now that there is no perfect solution and individual needs necessitate individual choices. We can learn from others’ experiences as we figure out what works for ourselves. For me, I have committed to not falling prey to the burden of perfection.
For the diggers out there, be prepared to work hard in order that your loved ones are part of your process of discovery. Finally, realize that whatever choices we make bring their own blessings. Whether you are inside the apple or enjoying the orchard, find your peace and appreciate.