“Should I lean in or should I lean back?” My 25 year old daughter had just heard two talks about how women succeed in the business world. “I’m confused,” she confessed.
On the one hand, she had listened to an inspiring talk about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, and thought that the speaker made a convincing case that women should push themselves to participate more, join the men at the table, and speak up. If women could do that, they would accelerate their own careers and professional development, help businesses to be more successful, and discover that their contributions and their voices are valued and valuable. The audience was excited and clapped appreciatively at these stirring words of empowerment. Excellent advice!
But then she heard another talk with a different speaker who had a different perspective. This speaker said she had taken Sheryl Sandberg’s advice. She had jumped in and joined professional organizations and taken a leadership role, participated at work, gotten engaged and contributed, and the result was that she went crazy trying to keep up with all of the commitments. Soon she felt like a gerbil in a cage running on an exercise wheel, racing to keep up as the wheel turned round and round. “Is this what I want for my life?” she asked. “No! Life is too short! Don’t lean in, lean back!” The audience laughed and clapped in appreciation. Excellent advice!
If it is a good idea to lean in and a good idea to lean back, what should you do to both succeed in the work world and also have a life filled with the good times that come from down time – time doing nothing much at all, time with friends and family, time to recover from the stressful world of work?
Are these two postures mutually exclusive?
The answer is both simple and complex. The straightforward answer is this: “Know yourself.” If you do understand yourself well you should be able to create an equation of leaning in and leaning back that is a compromise, it’s true, but workable and uniquely yours. To implement it, you have to push yourself in at times and step back at times because it is your uniquely personal goals that are your compass and your road map.
How do you figure out this right-sized equation? You think about your priorities and goals. Write down what you have to have in your work life and what you need to avoid. Some people really do want to lean in. Often they have a strong desire to take control and they aspire to be leaders. They want to contribute at the highest levels of the enterprise. They want to affect outcomes and create change. They were the students who sat at the front of the lecture hall and raised their hands to answer the professor’s questions. For them success needs to include being a player and being heard. But not everyone wants that. Some people, men and women both, do not have that drive or passion. For them, their highest value may well be a deep desire for time away from work, doing “nothing,” not being insanely productive, reading a book, taking a walk, talking with friends and family. If you understand who you are, you can right-size your level of engagement.
Although the simple answer is to understand yourself, changing circumstances add to the complexity of the equation and might call for a shift in your personal equation. If you take that new job that offers greater challenge, a higher salary, and an opportunity to excel in your industry but requires travel every week, will that career move disrupt the equilibrium of your equation? Should you ask for a part-time work option and possibly damage your hard-won image as a leaning in, fully committed team player now that you have a newborn?
Changes in your circumstances can make once-clear answers less certain. Priorities can and do shift over time in most careers, and when they do, it is good to rework and adjust your lean in/lean back equation based on new needs and altered values, priorities, and goals.
There is no right answer and no wrong answer, just your unique answer – the one you forge based on your evolving knowledge of yourself and the changing circumstances of your life.