Why Sheryl Sandberg is beside the point

Sheryl SandbergThe official publication date for Lean In is still a day off, but as the Sheryl Sandberg tsunami approaches landfall, its historic scope and impact are readily apparent.

Like any self-respecting treatise in the Internet age, Sandberg’s opus—currently  #1 on Amazon.com—has spawned wave upon wave of impassioned commentary, crashing ashore in predictable stages. First comes the announcement, then the critique, then the backlash against the critique, then the meta conversation about the conversation. (For the record—and likely due to time constraints and a problematic Facebook habit–my own contributions tend to come towards the end of this cycle.)

My initial plan to track Superstorm Sheryl quickly fell by the wayside—there was simply too much coming in too fast for me to absorb (at least absent a decision to lean out of my full-time job). That said, I’ve been paying attention and reading quite a bit. And more and more, I find myself stuck on a single question: Why aren’t we just taking what we can use and forgetting about the rest?

A somewhat baffled Paul Krugman seemed to say as much this morning on ABC’s This Week: Of course, Sandberg’s prescription is not for everyone. It seems to be quite helpful for some. What is the big deal?

So what is the big deal? (Because, clearly, there is one.)

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that some of the debate’s ferocity stems from an atavistic faith in the myth of the Right Answer. Many of us, me included, grew up in an era where female ambition often found its outlet in efforts to be the Good Girl, to fulfill goals set by others, not to define our own. The successful Good Girl’s stock in trade was her ready store of right answers. Not right for her, but right period. She cultivated excellent listening skills and became a world-class mimic.  In return, she got gold stars and As. She did not get raped or killed.

Put differently, perhaps one of the reasons we care so desperately about what Sandberg thinks is because we are aren’t entirely clear what we think ourselves. We latch on to her ideas—or, alternately, lash out against them—because we don’t see (or aren’t comfortable with) other more nuanced options. This shouldn’t be surprising. We live in an age when the competing voices are loud and many—and often far outstrip our capacity to choose among them or shape our own course. (Intriguingly, even Sandberg herself sounds familiar with the dilemma: “Every woman I know feels guilty about the choices they’ve made,” she told 60 Minutes this evening.) We are, in the words of Harvard’s Robert Kegan–who put forth this theory in a book of the same name–“in over our heads.” (N.B. This is a problem not just for women but for pretty much everyone.  Another place it’s especially visible–and anxiety-provoking–is, as I wrote here, around career choices in the aftermath of the Great Recession.)

But there’s another reason that it’s a big deal, and it’s an important one: The danger that a vision intended to inspire could become an oppressive cudgel. The danger that women already struggling–and they are infinitely more numerous than Sandberg and her black swan peers–will be told that, if they’d just lean in more, Presto!, problems solved. Not that anyone’s likely to say this in so many words, or that it’s what Sandberg intended. But these things have a way of seeping in. The process is gradual. That Sandberg and other uber achievers have become the most visible faces of women’s workplace issues is, as Carolyn Edgar compellingly writes, both absurd and disturbing.

Late last month, the ever-thoughtful Kate Gace Walton, who runs the blog Work Stew, mused that Sandberg’s choices would never be her own. “For me personally, a book that would resonate more might be called ‘Lean In, Gasp with Horror, and Run the Other Way,'” she quipped. At the same time, she took the opportunity to take the conversation deeper—to ask friends and readers how they’d responded, what was true for them: “What path makes sense for you, and what changes (in yourself, and in society) need to happen to make that possible?” she wrote on Facebook.

This is another kind of leaning in that I think we could use more of—a leaning into our own lives, to our own values and needs. How do we decide whose advice to follow? Where do we look for guidance? Here, Sheryl Sandberg is beside the point. We can only look to ourselves.

The why is the how

So yes, I am grateful to be so busy: I am grateful for my job (or rather, jobs), grateful for my many friends, grateful for the opportunities of this vibrant and enticing city.

But I am also frustrated.

In recent weeks, I’ve struggled to get back to a regular writing schedule. One or two posts to this blog each week seems like a reasonable goal. But reasonable though it may be, it hasn’t been happening. Two weeks ago, I forced myself to the keyboard in the chilly darkness of Monday at 4 am. (No time for writing over the weekend? See how you like this!)  And, yes, I did get the post done, but I was semi-conscious at work.

The fact is, most writers also have other jobs. It’s the nature of the beast. So how do people do it? Where do they find the time?

For answers, I turned to friends who have impressed me with their balancing acts.

First to come to mind was Carolyn Edgar, a law school classmate who seems to do the impossible on pretty much a daily basis. The 2012 recipient of the Corporate Counsel of the Year Award from New York City’s Black Bar Association, she serves as VP of a Fortune 500 company—not exactly your typical low-key slacker day job. Outside of work, she’s a single mom and also manages to put in regular time on the yoga mat. And then, there’s the writing: Along with her own very active blog, she writes about relationships, politics, and parenting for sites including Huffington Post and CNN.com. Oh, and last month—just for fun—she completed the marathon NaNoWriMo, a challenge that I’d find daunting even with no job at all.

So how do you do it? I asked her. I really wanted to know. She got back to me the following day, bringing to mind the old adage that, if you really want something done, you should ask the busiest person.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to your question. I ask myself all the time, why do I do this—especially when I’ve stayed up until 3 am editing and formatting a blog post, dragging into the office the next day, and seeing only 3 comments on the post or 4 retweets of the link on Twitter. And then I remember—I do this because I love writing. I blog, even though I have two kids and a demanding, full-time career—because I am a writer. I feel more complete when I write than I do when I don’t.The writing fits into the tiny interstitial spaces in my life, between the conference calls and the drafting, between supervising homework and getting the kids off to bed. It often supplants sleep, but seeing people engage with the thoughts and ideas I share energizes me in lieu of sleep (that is, until my body says enough and shuts down, as it has this weekend). 

Interesting, I thought. All of that resonates. But while I understand the why, I still don’t get the how.

Meanwhile, I heard back from Kate Gace Walton, another mother of two. Along with  full-time employment, Kate launched and edits Work Stew, a fascinating blog about the hows and whys of all things work-related. Who better to ask about juggling writing with a demanding job? Here’s what she had to say:

Being an insomniac really helps! I’m at work from about 8 to 5 Monday through Friday and my evenings are spent wrangling the kids, ages 5 and 3. (My husband has a long commute and travels a lot, so unfortunately he’s not around to do much evening wrangling.) But sometime between 8 and 9 the house finally falls quiet, and from then until the wee hours, I focus on Work Stew—writing, posting, reviewing essays from contributors, and editing podcasts. Also, and this is huge for me: every Tuesday night, the kids stay at my parents’ house. That gives me a free evening to record interviews without any shrieking in the background—and to catch up on various other tasks. I do a little bit on Work Stew over the weekends, but for the most part I try to unplug from it—partly so that my family can have a break from seeing me attached to a screen and also so that I can think about where it should go next . . . and by “next” I mean in the next week or so.

And then, like Carolyn, she headed straight for the whys:

Two reasons: 1) I love it and 2) it helps me. To elaborate on point one: the three things I want from life are Connection, Flow, and Wonder. Work Stew allows me to connect with wonderful people in meaningful ways. Writing and editing are very reliable sources of Flow for me. And the chance to learn how all these different people are grappling with arguably the most fundamental and universal of questions—What should I do with my life?—well that’s  this heathen’s version of church! Truly, I’m filled with a deep sense of wonder when I think through the 100+ stories the contributors have told in essays or interviews. 

And on point two: I find other people’s stories not only wondrous, but helpful. On a very practical level, Work Stew has helped me to think more creatively about my own (decades-old) work conundrums. I still stew, of course, but more productively and pleasantly than ever before. 

As I read this, something clicked into place. We can talk about time management and priorities and hours of sleep, but in the end, the bottom line: There isn’t really a “how.” There isn’t enough time, but you do it anyway.  You write because not writing simply isn’t a viable option.

By far, the hardest time during my long stretch of unemployment was early on when there wasn’t a single solitary thing that I really wanted to do. Nothing called to me. I didn’t have a why. In retrospect, I can see that this was just part of my transition, but at the time, I felt myself veering towards hopelessness.

There needs to be a why. There always needs to be a why. And when the why is strong enough, it propels us into the how.

Plan B Nation: The Podcast (now on Work Stew)

Perhaps the best thing about starting this blog has been the opportunity to meet really cool people who are thinking and writing about the very things that most interest me.

This fact hit home again earlier this week, when Work Stew founding editor Kate Gace Walton contacted me about doing a podcast for her site.

Like me, Kate is something of a culture straddler—a Harvard grad who spent time in the corporate world (she has an MBA from Wharton)—before engineering a life more in line with her values and interests, a transition she eloquently describes in the essay Random Acts of Business.  A mother of two, she now works in recruiting near her Bainbridge Island, Washington home.

In the year since launching Work Stew, Kate has gathered dozens of stories reflecting a vast assortment of work experiences, with the goal of creating a forum that both informs and inspires. The essays and podcasts are as fascinating as they are diverse. Hollywood screenwriter, particle physicist, minister, ex-spy, restaurant cook, and flight-attendant-turned-gorilla-caretaker are just a sampling of the paths represented.

My own recent conversation with Kate about life in Plan B Nation covered a lot of ground, ranging from what my career has in common with a traditional marriage plot to what comes next for all of us in the New Economy. Want to listen in? Click here.