Sheryl Sandberg’s advice that we should “lean in” is garbage. All leaning in does is make you perform more work which most likely will not be recognized.
Her advice is similar to austerity plans that urge poor people to stretch a dollar longer. The logic follows is why should the poor get more if they can survive on less? Similarly, why should we pay an employee more or promote her if she’s already doing all this work?
Leaning in makes it seems as though any problems with career progress lies solely with the individual. Simply not true. While I do believe in the agency of the individual, there are also major inequalities within our society which allow some people to start higher and rise faster than others.
When Sandberg’s book first came out, I tried leaning in. I worked at a nonprofit, and like all nonprofits, it was perpetually understaffed.
I found when you volunteer yourself, people assume that you will continue to and that they no longer ask other people for help. I found myself working events all the time. When I couldn’t attend events, I was perceived as being difficult because it was now accepted that I would do it.
I remember this exchange:
Colleague: Margot, can you be Henry Kissinger’s handler during our event?
Me: Um, no.
Colleague: Why not?
Me: Because he’s a WAR CRIMINAL!
(The cruel irony is that the event celebrated preservation work in Cambodia, which Kissinger decimated with secret bombings, leading to the rise in power of the Khmer Rouge... Why were we honoring him, again? Suffice it to say, I got out of that assignment!)
I remember once being asked to video record interviews at sites around the city as a favor to someone else. I leaned in and figured out how to work the video camera that night. I traipsed all around the city to record interviews the rest of the week. I was called into my supervisor’s office when I was done and berated because I didn’t get particular sites (which were never expressed to me). The footage was never used! What a waste.
Alas, I didn’t learn! I kept on leaning in, thinking that if I did, I’d get some recognition, some appreciation, some love. I got as much as my employer was willing to give me--which was very little. Most of the people who I was trying to impress were too busy with much more important issues, like lawsuits, mounting debt, and personal infighting to recognize that I was leaning in. Who could blame them, really? Unless you are lucky enough to have a wonderful boss, most people are too busy building their little fiefdoms to care about your extra effort. This is okay, just as long as we recognize that leaning in will do nothing but make you exhausted.
I stopped leaning in when I realized I was going to get laid off. It was a slow, painful wait. During that time, I switched to leaning into myself. No more events or late nights; I left at 5 pm sharp for SoulCycle classes to burn off my stress. I finished my second book. I worked on my application to Archives Leadership Institute. I wrote book reviews and presentations on my personal projects. I got certified as a Records Manager. Everything I did benefitted me personally and was portable. My efforts came with me when I left my position.
Women are constantly asked to do more for less and we have to stop. Part of it is trying to be likable. Men can say no (or not even be asked) with little repercussions, but women can’t. Have you ever seen a frazzled male executive? I haven’t. But many female ones are in a constant state of frenzy.
Women need to learn the audacity of nope. We need to push back, set boundaries, and ask for more. We need to say "Hell, no." We need to stop doing office housework, staying late, working weekends, and letting other people determine our worth.
A job can be great but it won’t comfort you, make you laugh, or make sweet love to you. It doesn’t give your life meaning. It’s a means to get the life you want.
Lean in where it counts—your personal and professional life. Lean in for education, networking, professional development, writing, side hustles, and hobbies. Lean in for friends, family members, and lovers. Lean in for your community, your spiritual life, and your health. Lean in when you own your own business.
Do your job—and only your job—superbly. That’s it.