To Lean Or Not To Lean?

images-1Last week I received my pre-ordered copy of Sheryl Sandberg's controversial new book Lean In, and I gobbled it down in just a few days.  I'd been reading a lot of the reviews and hearing a lot of press (including, annoyingly, discussions on shows like Bill Maher where it was obvious none of the panelists had read the book), and I was very curious to read it for myself and make up my own mind.

I could write many posts just on this one book (and I may eventually do so), but what's on my mind today is the notion of when to lean in and when to lean back.  Sandberg points out, I think accurately, that men are generally more likely to be confident and to “sit at the table,” faking it till they make it.  I've certainly witnessed this phenomenon amongst friends and colleagues.  But what I think is also true is that men are more comfortable saying no to certain opportunities or responsibilities — in other words, leaning back — when they don't feel that it will serve their present needs or schedule.  Sandberg talks about burnout, and I think saying no is a key aspect of preventing burnout:  the ability to trim the fat and avoid those activities that are unnecessary or unproductive.

I have almost always “leaned in” at work.  But because I have an extremely hard time saying no (guilt isn't new to me as a mother after all), I find myself sometimes just trying valiantly to keep my head above water.  I'm not talking about things that are part and parcel of the job: as a lawyer (and a relatively junior lawyer at that), I obviously work on any cases to which I am assigned and try to provide the best possible service to the clients.  I'm talking about all the extras: committees at work, charitable organizations, networking groups.  Some of these things energize and excite me, and allow me to meet interesting people and support worthy causes.  But some of these things, admittedly, become just another item on an overlong “to-do” list.

Recently an article has been circulating about never saying “yes,” only ever saying “hell yeah!” or “no.”  Critics of this philosophy point out that some people don't have the option to say no — for example, if you need to work three jobs to make ends meet, you are hardly going to turn down opportunities.  But for a discussion about trimming the “extras,” I think this philosophy is basically a good one.

When I was growing up, my mother was always very committed to her work, whether she was teaching elementary school, later being a professor, or doing consulting and workshops in schools.  Before retiring last year, she was also often overcommitted.  Some of the things she did so clearly brought her immense joy and satisfaction, and so she didn't mind her plate being so full.  But with others, I knew they were more of a burden than a pleasure.  I often lectured her about scaling back and learning to say no to people.

It's only recently that I've realized how similar I am in that respect.  But whereas before my daughter was born, I was resigned to continuing with all these various activities, I am now forcing myself to take a hard look to see if there is any fat I can trim.  Once I go back to work, I will have very little time to spend with her, and I know I will be resentful if too much of that time is spent on additional meetings or conference calls.  The difficult part is trying to figure out which things may be helpful to my career advancement (even if not terribly exciting in the short term) and which are not.  I previously operated under the premise that if someone offers me an opportunity of any kind, I should grasp it, because it will wind up being helpful in some fashion at some point down the line.  That may be true in the long term, but I know I need to think more critically about what I want my life to look like in the present.

Among professionals and new mothers alike, there seems to be a cult of sleeplessness, of bragging about how much can be accomplished on minimal sleep.  But I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm exhausted, and that I don't want to be indefinitely.  For that reason, I'm committed to getting my head permanently above water so that I can really swim.

About the Blogger:

Rachel Wilkes Barchie is a lawyer and new mama living with her husband and their daughter Lucy in Los Angeles.  Ms. Barchie blogs at www.lovingmylucy.com.