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I Leaned In and Fell Over

I haven’t exactly read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, but I did read excerpts of it online, and I have heard it discussed ad nauseam. Despite my skepticism, the parts I read were well researched and written. I get her point. After all, I’ve been a “leaner” my whole life. In the first grade I “leaned  in” and got what I considered a plum assignment from the teacher. I got to perch on her desk and read to the class, while she went out for a cigarette. In the seventh grade, I “leaned in” and ran for student council. I was the only girl running, and rose to office with the support of the preteen sisterhood. It felt great and launched me on a solid trajectory of class leadership positions, until I was ignominiously defeated by a new boy in school who was really cute and played football.

My first job out of college was working for a U.S. Senator. I was so excited to have this opportunity that when an important policy issue was raised at the staff meeting that I happened to know something about, I raced to the Legislative Director’s office to offer to take on all kinds of assignments. He looked askance at me, and said, “You know, no one will ever marry you if you keep acting like this.” I didn’t get the assignment and I didn’t get married until I was 40.

I moved on to other jobs, and I kept right on leaning because I didn’t know there was any other way to be.  But there is. I watch young women every day who know how to come in at 9 and leave at 5; call in sick when they are sick (instead of powering through like I was taught to do); refuse to do work that is “outside their job description” or “beneath them,” and they do just fine. They get promoted and even rewarded for having boundaries.  I didn’t learn what a boundary was until I was well past my 30s, and even now I am terrible at setting them.

I am dumbfounded when a young person refuses to take on extra work. Don’t they want to be rewarded and promoted? But that’s not the way the world really works. When you take on more work, you usually just get even more work. Maybe it’s sour grapes on my part that they figured it out and I didn’t.  Take, for example, the recent Washington Post article about dozens of federal workers who have spent the past four years getting promotions and bonuses and literally doing no work.

Another thing that leaves me puzzled is when Sandberg says to women, “Don’t leave before you leave.”  What does that even mean? In my world, leaving has never been an option. I obviously didn’t get that memo.  The memo I did get was, “You can never leave. Why? Because you don’t have enough money to retire—ever.”

All this advice has just left me confused. Brene Brown, who is now one of Oprah’s life class faculty tells us to “be vulnerable.”  That’s all well and good but it certainly doesn’t help you get promoted. Deepak Chopra tells us that “By doing nothing, we are doing everything.”  Hmmm . . . I like how he thinks. As  George Gershwin wrote, “Nice work if you can get it. And if you get it won’t you tell me how?”

“What is your experience with “Leaning in?” Is it getting you closer to your goals? Do you see it working for others? Or does it only work for certain socioeconomic groups? I worked with a 25 year old who “leaned in” like mad. She volunteered for extra work, did a great job, and ended up leaving because she was given no opportunity to advance. I wonder how often that happens?

About Deborah Brody Hamilton

Guest Blogger Deborah Brody Hamilton is a writer and communications professional with almost 30 years of work experience in Washington, D.C. Her peak moments were (1) in 1972, when she won an award from the Yonkers Public Library for most books read in a summer, and (2) in 1997, when she was a mediator at Congress’s first Bipartisan Retreat for Civility.