Lean In (A Book Review)

I finally read Lean In.

Lean In

After refraining from commenting on the book until I had read it, I’m ready.

After reading the book, I jotted down the first four things that had stood out to me. They were:

  • Lice
  • The concept of “bringing our whole selves to work”
  • How I’d rather stand straight up than lean in or out
  • The necessity of having a global perspective

Lice

Let’s just get the lice issue out of the way. In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg discusses the time she was traveling to a conference with other corporate executives, and the chairman of eBay offered for her and her young children to fly with him on the corporate jet. After enduring a 2 hour wait while some mechanical issue was handled (and keeping the kids shushed during the wait), they boarded the plane. Within minutes of boarding the plane, Ms. Sandberg’s daughter pronounced, “mom, my head really itches” while furiously scratching her head. Ms. Sandberg was mortified, somehow managed to conceal the issue of her daughter’s newly diagnosed lice infestation, and made a hasty detour to a pharmacy for the proper lice treatment rather than joining the others on the way to the hotel after the plane landed. I have been there and done that (the lice issue, not the private jet). Years after dealing with a lice outbreak at our house, I still remember crying in my car when for the third day in a row the school nurse thought she “still saw something.” Our county has a “no nit” policy and calling my boss to advise that I wouldn’t be coming in (again) was a call I hated making. (Wayne was in the middle of legislative session and couldn’t help at the time.) This little scenario made me feel like Ms. Sandberg may be able to relate to some of my working parent stresses.

The concept of bringing our whole selves to work

Ms. Sandberg says in Lean In:

It has been an evolution, but I am now a true believer in bringing our whole selves to work. I no longer think people have a professional self for Mondays through Fridays and a real self for the rest of the time. That type of separation probably never existed, and in today’s era of individual expression … it makes even less sense.

I wholeheartedly believe that our workplaces will be more humane and more productive when we recognize that the men and women who walk through the workplace doors (or log in to the workplace remote system) bring the joys and stresses of their personal lives to their desks. And while some people may manage to leave the work joys and stresses behind, speaking only for myself I can say my work is with me (emotionally) on Saturday afternoon and in the amalgam of things that parade through my mind as I fall asleep. I am concerned about the messages my children have gotten about “what work is” through the things I have said, the “vibes” I have given, the “frame” I have put around “what work is.” Perhaps more universal acknowledgement of “the whole self” will change the image we portray of work to our children (for those of us who have kids).

I’d rather stand straight up than lean in or out

I understood how the admonition to “lean in” made sense in the context of Ms. Sandberg’s book. Female executives should take advantage of an empty seat at the main table instead of settling for a seat against the outer wall. If an opportunity comes their way, they should assume themselves worthy and chase it. I really, really loved her description of the decision to go to work for Google. She talked about how it was a small, disorganized organization with unimaginable potential. Although the position she was offered wasn’t a perfect match for her skills, “When you get a chance to ride on a rocket you don’t ask your seat assignment, you get on the rocket.”

The thing that kept reverberating through my head listening to the audiobook of Lean In was “why does there have to be ‘leaning’?” For me, it’s often more a matter of standing up straight, for myself at times; for coworkers at times; for ideas that matter that do not have champions yet.

When faced with an executive director who proposed to me, “I just am not sure you aren’t more committed to your family than to your job,” the challenge wasn’t whether to lean in or out, it was to stand up straight, look him in the eye, and say, “my family will always be my primary commitment. Can you show me in a measurable way how that commitment has detracted from my performance? Because if my performance is not an issue, then bringing the topic of my commitment to my family into the discussion wastes valuable time when we could be planning how to make our organization its most effective.”

The necessity of having a global perspective

Of all the people I know who have read Lean In, the demographics are somewhat homogenous: well educated people, working people, Americans and Canadians (for the most part). While I don’t expect Sheryl Sandberg to solve global women’s issues in one book, I can’t forget the woman in Guatemala who met with our group when we visited in July 2011, who had no shoes. The child we sponsor in Guatemala who is trying to learn Spanish to augment her indigenous language, who will be way ahead of the game if she makes it past 3rd grade. The question my teenager asked about the women in Guatemala (“why do they keep having babies if they can’t afford them?”) and my fumbling attempts to explain cultural pressure to procreate. The men in Guatemala who struggle to feed their growing families in a “work a day eat a day” society that is getting more and more complicated as large corporate interests make the environment harder for the lesser educated. These people have an issue different than “will my employer create close parking spaces for pregnant women?”. Until girls around the world can literally survive and be educated, our “first world problems” remain exactly that.

My daughter Tenley meets our sponsored child Estela and her mother in Guatemala.

My daughter Tenley meets our sponsored child Estela and her mother in Guatemala.

I am glad I read “Lean In.” I believe that, like people who commented about Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother without reading it, we owe each other the effort to read before ascending any pulpits. Except for the “get on the rocket and then figure out your seat assignment” line, nothing in the book made a light bulb go off over my head. I did feel a little bit of “I can relate to that” (with the lice, with some of the work/life balance scenarios) and a lot of “wow we have a long way to go still.” Kudos to Sheryl Sandberg for her professional achievements, for being a wife and mom to a family she treasures, and for championing the idea that we all bring a “whole self” to work.

In closing, I’ll leave you with one of Sandberg’s concepts that proves itself to be truer and truer as our world hurtles toward its next configuration:

“Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.”

I’ve already written almost 1300 words without really getting into how I wanted to be a stay at home mom OR the “fun” of responding to emails one-handed while keeping a breast pump suction cup firmly affixed to the correct body part. For a great discussion of the jungle gym analogy, I encourage you to visit Gini Dietrich’s post about Lean In.

jungle gym

 *Note: I read the book on audio, so it’s challenging to go back and obtain direct quotes. If I have paraphrased anything incorrectly, I apologize!

6 thoughts on “Lean In (A Book Review)

  1. Good to have your perspective. I’ve been trying to decide if I want to read this or not. But I think my next read will be “A House in the Sky,” about a freelance journalist kidnapped in Somalia. I heard her story on Dateline the other night. Thanks for you thoughts on Lean In!

  2. I read Annie’s post and now yours about “Lean In”…..Both your posts have convinced me that this book is not for me. This is just another way for women to feel more pressure.

    I read the comment above by Word Ninja. I think the next book I read will be the one she is planning to “A House in the Sky”

  3. Velva, I understand your reaction (and I need to find Annie’s post!). I have read a lot of posts about this book and heard a lot of interviews. I think it does have good parts, but I can see why you can walk away feeling even more pressure than you did when you cracked the thing open. Let me know your thoughts on A House in the Sky if you end up reading it.

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