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.